KINGSTON, Ont. — Not a bad return home for Marshall Ferguson. The guy following The Guy at McMaster threw five touchdowns through the air on Monday. The slightly problematic part for McMaster was that two went to Yellow Guy Yann Dika-Balotoken, whose pair of pick-sixes helped the No. 2 Queen's Golden Gaels eke by 31-24 to snap the Marauders' 19-game OUA win streak.
The result makes determining who rules the OUA problematic, but that judgement isn't due for another 10 weeks. Queen's scarcely resembled a second-ranked team, as it nearly gave up a 21-point lead in a flashback to last November's Meltdown at Moo U vs. Guelph in the semifinal. Matt Webster came up with Queen's sixth takeaway by picking off a deep ball to end McMaster's penultimate drive with 60 seconds left.
"Gritty and amazing are probably the two words that just come to my mind," Queen's defensive tackle John Miniaci said moments after Mac's last-ditch bid to re-enact the River City Relay fell about 30 yards short. "It wasn't pretty but we'll definitely take it. It was a sweet feeling, finally coming out on top against these guys. That being said, we have to take it with a grain of salt. We have a lot of work to do. The defence came to play. Yann scored two touchdowns. He put the game on his back right there."
The result was right in line with critical Week 2 games each team played during their Vanier Cup years. The Marauders' most recent regular-season loss was in Week 2 of 2011 at Western before they ran the table. In '09, Queen's defence also had to singlehandedly pull out an 8-7 win over the Marauders.
"It's been a while since we've beat them and that was actually our mindset going in," said Dika-Balotoken. "We can't let those guys control the OUA any more. We have to take a stand and that's exactly what we did. We were able to capitalize on those two plays."
McMaster outgained Queen's 495-217 for the day and had 33:11 in possession time, with Ferguson going 36-of-57 for 446 with three TDs and three picks. Sensational rookie receiver Daniel Vandervoort (172 yards on seven catches, including a 73-yard TD) nearly outgained the entire Gaels offence. Thirteen penalties for 140 yards to seven flags for 35 against Queen's helped paint a picture of a game that Mac probably lost more than Queen's won. It took itself out of field-goal range with three consecutive flags in the final minute of the first half. In the fourth, following a sack and forced fumble on Queen's QB Billy McPhee (14-of-29, 114 yards), it took a penalty for interference on a loose ball.
"Odd game," said McMaster coach Stefan Ptaszek, whose team hung in despite losing fifth-year left tackle Matt Sewell to a left knee injury on his team's fifth offensive snap. "Our kids, I thought, played their hearts out from start to finish. I was happy with the energy. We got beat. We got to be better.
"We went offside and we pushed off on a receiver that we had an interception on [extending a Queen's drive in the first half]. We made mistakes while we were making great plays. The [McPhee] fumble, we pushed the guy while we were chasing the ball and that's an automatic first down. That's kind of the afternoon the Marauders were having. It was a little uphill and against the wind at times.
"This is a team that hasn't had to deal with a lot of adversity lately," Ptaszek added. "Certainly, down 21 in the fourth, they did well to bring it back. If Benny O'Connor breaks one more tackle [on the last play of the game], it could be a circus."
For Mac, it might not have been a bad game in the long run. Speaking of long runs, how about Dika-Balotoken's two interception-return touchdowns. Down 14-7 early in the third, Mac was in the red zone when Josh Vandeweerd's attempt at a diving catch led to the ball hopping up like the family cat to Dika-Balotoken, who took it 99 yards to open a two-TD spread. The second came when Mac was backed up into second-and-long by a holding penalty early in the fourth. Ferguson, under a heavy rush, scrambled right and tried to channel Kyle Quinlan. Dika-Balotoken, with deep coverage duty, high-pointed the ball and flew down the sideline to put Queen's up 31-10.
"The first one was a surprise, but easy to catch," Dika-Balotoken said. "It was bouncing around and I was there. I owe the second one to the D-line. They had extreme pressure."
"First one was fluky," said Ferguson, a Kingston native, said. "Second one was just trying to make a safe play while out of the pocket, trying to make a safe throw high and way [toward the sideline]. I didn't see that high safety flying down and he made a great play. Third one [Webster's with 1:00 left] was me trying to make a play. It was crunch time and we were letting it fly. I don't feel bad about it."
So what to make of it? Queen's survived to get to 2-0 despite a foundering offence. It was rather kismet that its only offensive touchdown came when Doug Corby fell on Jesse Andrews' goal-line fumble in the second, capping an 88-yard drive rather awkwardly. Queen's, which is going backfield by committee with Andrews, former 1,000-yard man Ryan Granberg and Savannah State transfer Daniel Heslop, couldn't chew clock in the fourth quarter. It did take four minutes off in the fourth quarter, but it needed Corby's 51-yard kickoff return as a stake.
At the same time, it was a Week 2 game in muggy conditions.
"I was happy to get it, but I have to be honest, I would have liked to have done it more convincingly," Queen's coach Pat Sheahan said. "It didn't unravel but it felt like our guys were hanging on. I think the last two series, [slotback] Justin Chapdelaine went out and played corner. That's something he hasn't done since W.J. Mouat high school in Abbotsford, B.C., but he didn't bat an eye to do it. We had guys who were tired. [Defensive all-stars Sam] Sabourin and [Andrew] Lue had to come out of the game.
Queen's did beat a team who is still quality. It also got a leg up for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but it will need more offence to get by Austin Kennedy and Windsor on Saturday. Meantime, Mac showed it might not have dropped that far.
"Mac still has their key pieces in place," Miniaci said. "Kyle Quinlan was a major X factor for them. But they have a phenomenal coaching staff and even though they have new guys in, particularly on their offensive line, those are still third-year guys. It's still an older team, not true freshmen and rookies.
"As for us, what it comes down is you can still play like you're last in the league, At times we didn't play true to our ranking and it showed. Against a good team like this they will make you pay for it, as they did in certain situations today."
If nothing else, it could be a very good prologue for a rematch in November. Ptaszek said it was "real special" that Marshall Ferguson, a great understudy to Quinlan in 2011-12, authored a near comeback.
"A good character effort is what I'll take away from this," Ferguson said after his teammates got a warm round of applause from McMaster supporters as they left the field. "Queen's is super talented across the board. Any team at the top of the OUA is going to be like that. To see our guys fight back, that will mean something down to road.
"Nobody expects to go undefeated. You don't work to go 8-0. You work to go 1-0 every week."