Many people around the CIS felt that this was the year someone else in Quebec had a chance to knock off Laval.
Many felt it was going to be Montreal. Many also felt there was going to be a changing of the guard this weekend, from the Rouge et Or to the Carabins.
At least that’s what people were saying.
I was one of them, but after this weekend’s result, I can confidently confirm that the reports of Laval’s demise this season have been grossly exaggerated.
What other teams in the CIS can be regressing despite being perfect on the season? Answer: No one. And yes, for the first time in a long time, the Rouge et Or were faced with growing pains early on, and managed to make the appropriate adjustments to right the ship, but even so this weekend had been circled for months. CIS fans had been anticipating this matchup all season, and especially since Laval got off to a slow start, the importance of this home-and-home series seemed even greater.
Laval showed why they still are the class of the league and why it is never smart to bet against them, winning 30-11. Typically, it seems Laval only shows up when they feel they have to; a game against their biggest rival, in which they give up only one point in non-garbage time and 11 overall, is one of those times.
The game itself was not what I had been anticipating. I had heard about the Montreal firepower and the veterans they had on offence, and expected them to come out and try to shoot out the lights.
That did not happen. Despite Laval’s offensive struggles, their defence has lived up to the hype, which is amazing in itself considering the attention they were getting.
The beauty of what Laval does on defence is they play the most technically-sound football in the country. Some would call it vanilla; I would call it confidence. On first and 10, Laval runs a 4-3 front, usually running mostly cut or hold coverage (cut is having cornerbacks in the flats and halfbacks deep; hold is the opposite). They didn’t blitz often and forced Montreal into long passing situations.
Laval does and did what every team in the CIS tries to do: make the opposition one-dimensional. Montreal was unable to sustain any drives until the fourth quarter largely because they could not move the ball on first down. Montreal’s longest drive was 14 plays with many being two and out. When they were able to start moving the ball, they would take penalties, which is not characteristic of a veteran ball club but is something CIS observers have certainly seen out of U de M in the past.
What I took away from this game was how Laval could get home rushing only four. Their defensive line is extremely athletic, and it allows their coaches to put offences in a bind.
This ability of theirs could be seen on Samuel Hébert’s 43-yard touchdown off a sack fumble (play starts at 1:35:10 of the video here, from where the screenshots below are taken).
The defensive tackles appeared to both be lined up in the B-gap, between the guard and tackle, at the snap of the ball (above; click for larger version), and they crashed down inside on the A-gap, each aiming for the centre’s hip and trying to turn their guards inside and clog up the interior (below). You can also see the strongside linebacker stemming up at the line of scrimmage.
Really, this is just a run stunt as it a) makes the two D-tackles cancel out the two interior gaps and b) prevents the two guards from getting to the second level. The end on the boot side shuffles up field. What you may think is that someone missed a block here but what Montreal is anticipating is that the defensive end will bend (run down the line attacking the ball carrier on the play action); however, he stays home waiting for the quarterback forcing him to shorten his boot.
Below, you can see the two defensive tackles now clogging up the interior so if this was a run play the zone would have been stalled by the two tackles. We can also see how the defensive tackles get past their blockers and it is now three free tackles against the Carabins' quarterback, Alexandre Nadeau-Piuze, who is trying to hit a deep pass.
In this situation, Montreal was trying to pass on first down, losing 18-1, and they were unable to stop the stunt. This forced Nadeau-Piuze to get out of his route reads. While he is scrambling to look for his wideouts, he gets sacked, fumbles and Laval returns it for six.
On the back end, meanwhile, Laval is only playing cover-3. The strength of the Rouge et Or is the defence, and with that much talent they do not need to be fancy.
The fallout from this game now is that Laval has a 19-point cushion on Montreal as they head into the second leg of this home and home (feels like the UEFA Champions League, right?). Montreal did not necessarily need to win on Sunday, but they needed to keep it close. They failed to do that, and now they are tasked with having to not only score 20 (or more) points against arguably the nation’s best defense, but also win by 20. (This will be a difficult task. As Donnovan Bennett of The Score said to me on Rouge Radio this week about Montreal's offence, “Even on their best days, their formula is not to throw the ball all around the park and be explosive.”)
If the Dunsmore Cup challenger has to go through Quebec City, I do not see Montreal standing much of a chance.