There's a common refrain in football. You're bound to hear it if you stay tuned to a broadcast for any longer than a half.
"This team needs to make a play."
It's usually uttered by a colour commentator when the momentum pendulum has swung decidedly to one side. Today, Sportsnet's Mike Morreale used it in just such a way. The Queen's Golden Gaels were on the proverbial ropes after a first half of missed opportunities, and — the logic followed — they needed a defining moment to turn the tide in their favour.
Well, the Gaels enjoyed several such plays in the second half of Saturday's marquee game against the Western Mustangs. What Queen's ultimately couldn't find in London were the other plays, the smaller ones, the ones that turn shifts of momentum into points, and points into results.
Will Zed could block a punt and shuttle the loose ball 45 yards for a touchdown, but the Gaels could not consistently pin the Mustangs deep on either kickoff or punt cover. Justin Baronaitis could penetrate and force a fumble from Will Finch to open the third quarter, but the Gaels could not claim the line of scrimmage. Dan Heslop could rip off an 87-yard play -- aided by a rare moment of atrocious Western tackling -- but Scott Macdonell couldn't keep his footing as he made his break in the end zone on third and goal.
It was that sort of game for the Gaels, whose unblemished record was hit with a typically-upsized result at the hands of the Mustangs.
Don't let the big numbers deceive you. This was a closer game than it appears in the boxscore. Queen's trailed Western by 16 points at the end of the first half, but certainly would have been better positioned had Jesse Andrews not fumbled on the Mustangs' five-yard line to erase the gains of a nearly six-minute opening drive. A miscue from the usually sure-handed Ryan Granberg gifted Western an interception which Preston Huggins dutifully turned into a touchdown with a 54-yard return in the second quarter.
But that theme — Western's efficiency in putting together two varied scoring drives versus Queen's' inability to play consistent football — carried into the second half, which the Mustangs more decidedly won.
The Gaels' defence made the adjustment it needed to as the teams opened the third quarter. Where Queen's had played a fairly conservative, zone-heavy style in the first half and been repeatedly burned by the precision of Will Finch and the recognition of his receivers, they moved to bring more pressure in the second.
Flooding the box paid immediate dividends, when Baronaitis broke protection and forced the fumble from Finch inside Western territory. McPhee and his offence were promptly stuffed on their ensuing drive, but salvaged three points when Dylan Walmsley produced one of his best field goal attempts of the season to hit from 46 yards. More importantly, the Queen's defence appeared to be onto something.
Greg Marshall, however, refused to be cornered. He answered the Gaels' pressure with an expertly-blocked hitch pass from Finch to Matt McDougall that picked up 14 yards and backed off the Queen's defenders. From there, it was back to the lethal mixture of standard rushing with Yannick Harou, option runs from Finch and a coverage-busting 31-yard reception by George Johnson. When Finch scampered for the touchdown on the goal-line, it was 30-10.
The Gaels brought themselves within 15 points of the Mustangs when Zed blocked Liram Hajrullahu's attempted punt and returned it 45 yards for the touchdown. They appeared set to close the gap even further on their final drive of the third quarter, when Heslop's 87-yard catch and run set them up on Western's five-yard line.
But after two inconsequential runs brought up third and goal, and Pat Sheahan elected to gamble, Scott Macdonell slipped in the end zone and McPhee's pass fell harmlessly to the turf. It was a gutsy call -- and the right one -- that ultimately failed in its execution.
From there, and with only a quarter with which to claw back, the deficit proved insurmountable for the Gaels. Harou and James Sifakis added touchdowns, as Western kept the foot on the gas pedal in true Marshall style to secure the 50-31 win and keep the perfect season alive.