Even the biggest Golden Gaels partisans know it's a privilege just to have Laval coming to Richardson Stadium, but like the one-time namesake of the national semifinal game, "The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
The Big Red Machine is the gold standard for CIS football. Most buzz puts the Rouge et Or at somewhere around a 14- to 20-point favourite. They have the coaching, size, speed and swagger. The history of college football, on both sides of the border, is strewn with teams which had long winning streaks and took on the air of seeming unbeatable — think of USC vs. Texas in 2005, Miami vs. Ohio State in 2002, Nebraska-Miami in Orange Bowl. Eventually, someone comes along and realizes they're mortal, reputations forged in previous seasons count for nothing, and that these guys can be had.
Is Queen's that team? Here's 5 keys for the Gaels:
- Survive the first quarter: Laval has a way of making opponents crumble inch by inch, play by play.
Queen's has the crowd behind it. If it's a zero- to three-point margin after the first 15 minutes, we might be in for a game. The Golden Gaels have had slow starts, but last week they gave up an early TD to Western and came back with a three-play scoring drive. It's their 12th game of the season and third week in a row at home; it should not take time for this group to expel the butterflies.
- Force the R&O out of their routine: Laval will have filled its boots with everything it needs to know about Queen's passing game, which has been borderline unstoppable (their five TD drives against Western covered all of 17 plays). They won't get fooled like some of the OUA defences, who have left receivers wide open on seam patterns (three of the five TDs were on seam routes vs. Western).
Laval's used to stuffing a first-down run, then playing straight D and getting a second-down hold, then coming out with a favourable exchange on the punt and giving the offence a short field.
Queen's will have to run when Laval's expecting pass, pass when a run is expected. They'll probably need to complete a few underneath routes where the receiver to run for the first down (this is where running back Marty Gordon and tight end Chris Ioannides come in), and perhaps be willing to go for broke on a few first-and-10 and second-and-medium situations.
The big question is how well the offensive line, which barely let Western get a fingernail on Dan Brannagan (47 pass attempts, zero sacks), can hold up against Laval.
- Turnovers and field position: It's blatantly obvious, but Benoit Groulx is going to have put together 70- and 80-yard drives, not 35 to 40. Queen's Dan Village has been punting well and the Gaels cover and return teams are pretty tight.
- Get off those blocks: What makes Laval's running game is so dangerous is that on top of having speedy Sébastian Lévesque, the Rouge et Or seem to clone 6-foot-1, 6-2, 200-plus lb. receivers who are very good at holding their blocks downfield. That's why you see those long, weaving rushes on The Score's recaps every week.
Queen's held Western's running backs to 35 rushes for 105 yards last week (3.0 per carry), with DBs Jimmy Allin, Josh Sultana, Ben D'Andrea, Dave Rooney and Matt Vickers made a lot of plays in run support vs. Western. They'll have to come up and cut down Lévesque or string him out. A lot of teams have also had trouble accounting for their outside 'backers, Chris Smith and Alex Daprato.
- Pressure the passer without overblitzing: Laval QBs have been sacked a surprisingly high 25 times this season. Queen's D-line, led by future CFLers Shomari Williams and Osie Ukwuoma, can get a rush off the edge, plus the Rouge et Or O-line has had bumps and bruises. They'll have to avoid going to the well too often, since the Rouge et Or receivers are good at catching short passes in stride and running for a while.
David Grossman has a feature on Williams in the Toronto Star, by the way.