Saturday was everything you could have hoped it would be: the greatest Yates Cup ever and Queen's won.
The Golden Gaels' 43-39 win over those hated Western Mustangs was hard to capture in the short turnaround time afforded a broadcaster or reporter. It keeps coming back to the sentence above, adapted from some late-late-night MSNing about 12 hours after Dan Brannagan kneeled down to run the last six seconds off the Mustangs' invincibility.
For seven days — the coast seems to be clear; are you sure Michael Faulds isn't going to limp in from the sideline again? — there there were five words scrolling through many a Golden Gaels fan's mind: This is what you wanted ... this is what you wanted.
Brannagan outduels Faulds. Pat Sheahan finally gets his first conference title at Queen's over his nemesis Greg Marshall, and it comes in a game no one in Ontario will be to stop talking about any time soon (pending the result of the Mitchell Bowl). That's as close to dead solid perfect as it gets in this life.
For Queen's, it had to come over Western. You couldn't say that beforehand because it might cheese off the football gods, who have a wicked sense of humour. The OUA is a fairly deep league and Western will be Western so long as Marshall coaches Western. It just looks so clear after the fact. Time has that trick of making everything seem neat and tidy.
"Tidy" is the last word to describe how it actually unfolded in front of 7,253 at Richardson Stadium, where a football game is scheduled on Nov. 21 (only Queen's '92 Vanier Cup team has played that late in the year). It was the first CIS playoff game where both quarterbacks passed for more than 500 yards, 515 for Brannagan and 509 for Faulds. (In touchdown passes, Brannagan, had a 5-1 edge, also his record vs. Faulds over the past four seasons). Every time one started to think, "OK, score here, get the ball back, score again and end this madness," there was another parry-and-thrust. The lead changed hands seven times, the last on Scott Valberg's TD catch with 2:49 remaining. Two stops and one Faulds limp-off and one limp-back-in later, it was theirs.
All told, there was only 19 seconds out of 120 minutes of Queen's-Western football this fall where the outcome was not in doubt. The Score's Tim Micallef nailed it at game's end when he said, "I'm not sure anybody lost." The difference is the grey areas reside with Western fans. What if Faulds doesn't get hurt during the final minute? What about the blown no-touchdown call earlier in the fourth quarter on a goal-line catch by the smooth receiver Nick Trevail, which ultimately led them kicking a field goal?
With no bile intended, wearing that ambiguity looks good on the purple ponies. It's their turn, for a change. Queen's fans have known it far too many times across the past 17 seasons, since the Gaels last carried off a championship trophy in 1992. (Anyone looking for an omen during the lead-up to Saturday might have found one six days earlier when the quarterback of the '92 Vanier Cup team, Tim Pendergast, coached Holy Cross in Kingston to its first senior football title.)
Those questions and more hang off a game where Queen's put to rest so many knocks on it. Brannagan cast off any stigma of being a QB who put up great stats but couldn't win the big one. Queen's set the tone throughout, from the time it answered an early Western TD with a three-play drive. Later on, after the defence stuffed Nathan Riva on a third-and-1 gamble at midfield and defensive-line lodestar Shomari Williams planted Faulds in the end zone for a safety a few series later (Faulds is going to hate that south end zone for the rest of his days), it seemed like the roles had reversed.
Meantime, the end was great for Queen's, but the journey was better. It might veer toward fanbole, but it's hard to imagine a better OUA football game (one can only imagine it was much the same with Calgary's 39-38 win over Saskatchewan in the Canada West final; as for best game, Saskatchewan's '05 Mitchell Bowl win over Laval still comes to mind). Someone else can fill this in, but if isn't the best Yates Cup game, then what is?
Granted, a defensive guru coordinator might answer differently. For three hours, save for some great work against the run by Queen's and some wicked hits by Western in pass coverage (Craig Butler in particular), Queen's and Western filled the Eastern Ontario sky with footballs and gave the stats crew carpal-tunnel. Some purists might have howled about putting out APBs for both defences, but a truth is both fifth-year quarterbacks were just that prolific.
There were times when it looked like Faulds wasn't even bothering to look for a receiver anywhere less than 20 yards downfield. Brannagan, in his cooler-than-freon, deceptively flat-footed way, just keep slinging one clothesline throw after another to Valberg, Devan Sheahan and Chris Ioannides (the latter of whom has made more big little catches this season than anyone will know). It really did make football resemble basketball on grass.
Meantime, the crowd was into it like rarely before at Richardson Stadium. Queen's crowds often consist of 3,000 armchair quarterbacks on the alumni side, all pensive and placid, opposite the mostly empty student side. Saturday they were a true 13th man. Did you hear them?
Western, bless them, even with Faulds and Riva limited than were tougher to get rid of than Rasputin. Every time they seemed to be sliding down the river, they would come back. Queen's had a chance to stretch the lead to 28-17 in the first half and Butler jarred the ball loose from Ioannides inside the 10, where it popped into the air for an interception. In typical fashion, the Mustangs came out and scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to re-take the lead 30-29, including a sweet 59-yarder on a double pass (Faulds faked to Riva, pitched to Nick Pasic, who threw it back to Faulds, who heaved it downtown to Jesse Bellamy). That might have staggered a lesser Queen's team. However, it was the last time Western got in the end zone, at least officially.
No one could get away, like it was almost foreordained that it was going to have to come down to the final minutes. Believe you me, as tough a job as all involved down in Kingston had, following it from Ottawa was hell (first at the SSN studio and then the Ottawa Sun newsroom).
The beauty of doing this site is it does allow for having a bit of a "fan side" (to quote Doug Smith) along with being semi-halfway gainfully employed in the media. It always seem prudent not to talk too much about Queen's, although the reality is if I hadn't become a Queen's fan in 1989, you're probably not reading this.
All along, the hope is just to have Queen's receive its due. The Golden Gaels have actually fared pretty well vs. Western during the Sheahan era. Saturday upped their record to 9-3 vs. Western since 2000, including a 2-1 playoff mark, but there are people in southern Ontario who wouldn't believe this even if they were hit over the head repeatedly with the record book.
So, it was a constant swing from Will you handle it if the Gaels lose? and What will you say if they win? It made one wish it could be like The Simpsons where Bart and Todd Flanders decide to call their mini-golf match a draw after several nerve-shredding playoff holes.
The way Western took it down to the wire honestly makes them seem more endearing. That's one irony with any great rivalry. You realize a plot needs a good villain. You have at least be an appreciator of Western. Faulds should have no shortage of fans in Kingston, now that he's done.
Western didn't know it, but it was playing a role in Queen's drama. Love or hate the idea, for most people it doesn't mean a thing without the championship ring in sports. Queen's never denied that, but this season Sheahan's team put it into action, finally. We just couldn't talk about it too much before (football gods).
Ours is not to question why it happened for this team and not the 2008 edition which had Mike Giffin running like an angry young man, or to the 2002-03 Tommy Denison teams. This team has a bit more of that Bertolt Brecht black-addiction-of-the-brain thing happening than ones before. Whether that will be enough vs. mighty Laval is in doubt, but hey, they have a game next week and Western doesn't. They (we) will take that.
(This is for those with Queen's and/or Kingston in them.)