Football: For the Rouge et Or, it's back to the usual

It's hard to cover an 11.5 point spread when you give away the equivalent of 12 points on special teams.

Okay, so maybe the spread we had published here was way off, with Laval's 37-14 Vanier Cup win decidedly not a Mac-covers-the-spread result. Actually, no "maybe" about it. It was wrong, and I was wrong. There's a very good reason for my being wrong: our crude point-spread method looks only at this year's games to evaluate relative strength, and there were no real games between OUA and RSEQ teams this year. (We couldn't even build a chain with an OUA-AUS bowl game and AUS-RSEQ interlock, as we could last year, when Mac was a 6-point favourite and won by 3.)

But aside from that, what's all this about giving away 12 points, you ask?

On punts and kickoffs tonight, Laval netted 44.5 yards on average, counting the returns (about 48 net yards on four kicks, and 43 on eight punts). McMaster was at just 29.7 (33 on three kicks, 29 on 10 punts). Each team had at least 12 kicking plays, and the 14.8-yard average difference in field position on each one corresponds to almost exactly one point. Therefore, even ignoring the plays that happened after the good field position for Laval (or the worse position for Mac), the winners tonight spotted themselves almost a two-touchdown lead just on special teams alone.

We can't discuss this topic any further without some credit to Rouge et Or botteur Boris Bede (previously with D-2 Tiffin three years ago). He had himself quite the night, averaging almost 45 yards per punt (which would have led CIS this year), 72 yards per kickoff, and almost as many points himself on field goals alone (12) as the entire Mac team. His name came up in CFL discussions during the game, and while there are probably a few kickers in this league who could outperform some from the CFL lower tier, Bede's big night on a big stage will not hurt his chances by any means.

Special-teams play was one of three obvious trends in this game that went Laval's way. The second was simply the existence of Maxime Boutin, whose 253 yards on the ground (275 overall) while replacing Pascal Lochard were not just part of one of the best running performances in any Vanier Cup, but also more than half of his season total of 434. Our Kevin Garbuio watched Acadia fail to stop Boutin a week ago at the Uteck in Quebec, and during the Vanier he didn't seem so surprised at Boutin's dominance. (This is more than can be said for Rod Black.) Boutin's 84-yard touchdown run was obviously not representative of his day, in the strict sense of the term (as he averaged 10.5 on 24 carries), but it had a slight air of symbolism to it nonetheless.

And then we have trend number three, which for close RSEQ followers is no surprise: Laval's tendency to, magically, develop cramps and other mysterious minor injuries that seem to go away once the player leaves the field—yet nonetheless slow the game down as much as the Rouge et Or can possibly manage. I said near the end of our live blog that the third and fourth quarters felt like Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, and if you don't remember that, then two words will suffice: anticlimactic and torpid.

(This is to take nothing away from Laval, who are still clearly the class of CIS football, and who now have a 13-4 record on the national stage in 10 years, losing just once by more than a field goal.)

Put these three things all together and you get what it felt like to watch this game: Laval outplayed and outcoached McMaster on specials; Mac gave up 15 yards per rush to Boutin before the garbage-time fourth quarter, and that's not counting his big TD run, either; and the Rouge et Or's sportsmanship sometimes gave way to their gamesmanship.


Postscript: a rejected headline for this piece was "Jim Mullin Come Again" after he became the only one to get all seven games right in our playoff picks, making him our competition expert winner.
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