Last week, I bemoaned how many of us in the media often transform quarterbacks from a story into the story of a game. Yet, if you were to pick a game where quarterbacks were the story, Saturday’s Yates Cup clash between the Western Mustangs and the Queen’s Golden Gaels would be a pretty good one. With the head-to-head matchup of Michael Faulds and Danny Brannagan, two 10,000 yard passers and the top two guys on the CIS career passing list, many expected a passing shootout, and they were not disappointed. Faulds completed 25 of 38 passes for 509 yards and one touchdown in a losing cause, while Brannagan completed 27 of 47 for 515 yards and five touchdowns in Queen’s 43-39 victory and was named Yates Cup MVP.
Both passers threw for over 500 yards, which is an incredible feat. There are only nine 500-yard passing games in the history of the NFL, and perhaps a few more in the CFL; I wasn’t able to find those records. The NFL has never seen two 500+ yard performances in the same game, though, and even the USFL’s greatest quarterback duel didn’t meet the criteria; Jim Kelly threw for 574 yards and five touchdowns to lead an improbable comeback by the Houston Gamblers, but Los Angeles Express quarterback Steve Young put up less than 300 yards in that game. 500-yard-plus duels have happened a couple times in the NCAA, including the clash of Houston’s David Klingler and Texas Christian’s Matt Vogler on November 3, 1990, but they’re very rare.
Saturday’s game still does illustrate my point about the game being about more than just quarterbacks, though. Faulds and Brannagan both turned in great performances, but Brannagan got much more help from his team. His experienced offensive line, led by the interior core of fifth-year veterans Dan Bederman, Jon Koidis and Vince DeCivita, gave Brannagan all day to pick apart the Western defence. In the stands, myself and Arden Zwelling of the Western Gazette were discussing how Brannagan barely had to move in the pocket thanks to the superior protection provided by his line. The linemen also helped establish Marty Gordon as a threat in the running game; he recorded 81 yards on 11 carries, which took pressure off Brannagan and kept the Mustangs honest. It helped that Western was missing several key figures on their defensive line, but Queen’s victory in the offensive trenches was a crucial part of their success yesterday.
The Gaels also dominated in the defensive trenches. In the earlier regular-season clash between these teams, Western focused their efforts on slowing down Queen’s star defensive ends Shomari Williams and Osie Ukwuoma, often double-teaming them. This left holes for interior linemen like Kyle MacDonald, who often made them pay. Western went with a more conventional scheme yesterday, and Ukwuoma and Williams took full advantage, getting into the backfield on many plays and pressuring Faulds. Gaels’ defensive coordinator Pat Tracey also dialed up plenty of successful blitzes by linebackers Chris Smith and T.J. Leeper, as well as cornerback Jimmy Allin. The combination of the defensive line winning key battles up front and the backfield penetration achieved on blitzes hurried Faulds into bad throws on several occasions, but he was able to overcome that and turn in an outstanding performance despite an injured knee and a lack of mobility. More importantly, though, Queen’s backfield penetration contained Western’s running game; Nathan Riva is an outstanding running back, but it took him 29 carries to pick up 100 yards because he was getting no blocking and was often hit before getting to the line of scrimmage.
What perhaps proved most crucial were the special teams. The wind made a huge difference, as both Queen’s Dan Village and Western’s Darryl Wheeler struggled kicking into it but excelled with it at their back. However, Wheeler was dealing with a hip injury, and he missed a short-range field goal (nullified thanks to a Queen’s penalty for rough play after a hit on holder Donnie Marshall, which gave Western a first down and let them drive in for a touchdown) and an extra point. The field goal didn’t matter in the end, but the extra point did. With little time on the clock, Faulds pulled off one last great drive and got Western near field goal range, but they needed four points to tie thanks to Wheeler’s missed convert and weren’t quite able to get into the end zone. A field goal would not have been a sure thing, as it would have been from at least 40 yards out and into the wind, but it might have proved a viable option at the end if not for that missed extra point; it also would have allowed Western to try short runs and passes late instead of long bombs. However, there are always ifs; Village also hit the upright on a long field goal earlier in the game, so if that had been a few inches to the left, Western would have needed a touchdown regardless of Wheeler’s missed convert.
Despite being on the losing end of this one, Faulds deserves a ton of credit, as good friend of the blog Norman James points out in this excellent piece. Faulds played the last few weeks with a damaged knee, and was obviously struggling with it as the game went on. On the final drive, he took a hit and had to leave the field, being replaced by backup Donnie Marshall. With the Mustangs facing third and 20 with only a few seconds left on the clock, Faulds begged head coach Greg Marshall to go back in, and hobbled back on to the field. That was one of the most inspiring sights I’ve seen in CIS football; he could barely walk, but you’d need an army to keep him off the field. Queen’s brought tons of pressure again, but Faulds somehow evaded it and launched a bomb downfield. Unfortunately for Western, it landed just inches away from the fingertips of a diving receiver, so the storybook ending didn’t come to pass. Faulds did everything he could, though, and he went out in an appropriate blaze of glory.
Faulds was sanguine in an interview afterwards, even though he could barely stand.
“It’s upsetting that that’s the end of my career, but I knew it was going to come this year anyway,” he said. “Whether it was two weeks ago against Guelph or last week against Laurier, or this week or two weeks down the road, I knew it was going to come to an end. It happened against a good team like Queen’s, and they fought hard.”
The Yates Cup victory was huge for Queen’s players like Leeper, a fifth-year linebacker who had been through the ups and downs of the program over his time.
“I can’t even find words to describe it,” he said after the game. “It’s like 23 years of birthdays, 23 Christmases and a couple of parties all rolled into one.”
Leeper said the team took new lessons and new motivation from their loss to 4-4 Ottawa in their first playoff game last year after a stellar 8-0 regular season.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Coming in, we knew what we had to do a little bit more. It’s a coming of age; there are a lot of fifth-years and fourth-years on this team, so when it came down to that experience, we knew what we had to do. We didn’t have to play perfect; we just had to play good enough.”
Leeper said he was concerned during the final drive, but it was a great way to end it.
“It was pretty scary,” he said. “But that’s the way I want to win, with the defence on the field making plays.”
In the end, this was one of the best football games I’ve seen at any level. It had a tremendous quarterback duel between Faulds and Brannagan, with both making many exceptional throws. It had some huge defensive plays and even a stellar trick play, where Faulds faked a handoff to Riva, gave the ball to Nick Pasic, received a lateral from him and found an open receiver downfield for a touchdown. It also had one of the oldest rivalries in the CIS and a great atmosphere. There are still two weeks of playoffs left, but this one’s going to be tough to top.
However, next week’s game could still be classic, as the Gaels face top-ranked Laval (1 p.m. Eastern, will be live-blogged here). The Rouge et Or have dominated CIS football for so long that many believe this may turn into a blowout, but Leeper thinks the Gaels have a shot. He even took a quote from Terrell Owens’ playbook to make his point.
“Get your popcorn ready.”
[Cross-posted to Sporting Madness]