Something one learns in therapy is that people are pattern beings, and seldom truly change as much as they speak of needing to do so. What that has to with the price of grain, or standings in OUA football ("The parity in this conference right now is probably as good as it’s ever been," Carleton coach Steve Sumarah said after losing a one-pointer against Laurier) might seem unclear. However, last Saturday pointed up that one unstated reason for why the games are tauter than in seasons past is that most, if not all of the league, is favouring a very controlled style of offence.
The parity line, not without some justification, is that capping in-season rosters at 90 players is freeing up players who might have enrolled at a powerhouse, got buried on a depth chart and faded out of the game entirely. What might not being getting as much play is the feeling that there is a strain of close-to-the-vest strategizing in the league, which is also understandable.
The age cap, AKA the seven-year window, has worked well for OUA at the national level. It has brought the conference level with Canada West and Quebec nationally. There have been unintended consequences of two changes at the league level.
- Carleton's return created an 11-team league, requiring an earlier start to the season in order to accommodate a bye week and a three-week championship.
- The roster cap is probably giving more student-athletes pause about where they have the best opportunity to get on the field once they are ready. The basis for that move came from observing similar practices in RSEQ. To wit, there has been an influx of Quebecers coming into the conference. Ottawa started five Quebecers on D on Saturday.
The earlier start, and having younger players, might lend itself to a more deliberate game plan. Moreover, Canadian football basically should be called Quarterback. Having a good one enables a team to use all the space in the 65 yards between the boundaries -- really explore the space.
Having a cluster of top-end, well-seasoned QBs goes in cycles. When a conference is top-heavy with three- or four-year starters, then it is cooking with gas.
Otherwise, teams revert more to game management, especially if rain begins falling in sheets. For a myriad of reasons, in some way that is admittedly ineffable, it seems like a lot of OUA teams have a conservative inclination.
Western rushed on 54 of 69 plays against Queen's. Laurier, under Michael Faulds (who played at Western), rushed on 37 of 54 against Carleton. The Ravens were balanced (33 rushes, 36 passes) but part of their M.O. has involved going to a behemoth power set with seven offensive linemen, like something from between the world wars. Guelph rushed 40 times, tried to pass 41 times, and lost against Ottawa.
Meantime, while it's tempting fate to heap praise on a team that's triumphal at the moment, Ottawa's Jamie Barresi and his coaching staff didn't stray from their best-case scenario amid bad weather. Derek Wendel threw 50 passes, even though Ottawa was ahead for nearly the entire second half.
That is a convenience sample on a couple counts, since it was only one game and it happened to be the one that the author of this post watched. However, it illustrates that while having competitive games and unexpected results early in the season is a welcome development, it can also be a function of teams shying from the higher-risk, higher-reward approach.
As far as a more balanced conference is concerned, there are always surprises in the early season. The real test comes once the mercury drops and the physical maladies accumulate.
With OUA at their midpoint, four weeks down in a nine-week schedule, it's best to start guesstimating where everyone will finish.
1. Laurier (3-0). Remaining: Waterloo, @Western, @Toronto, Guelph, @Windsor
Four winnables, and a very tough road game against the 'Stangs on the first Saturday in October. Ron VanMoerkerke's D has allowed the fewest yards while also having 31 disruptions, the loose term for the combined total of interceptions, fumble recoveries, sacks and defensive TDs. (Yes, sometimes two of those events come on the same play, so you get double credit.) Between DE Kwaku Boateng, DB Godfrey Onyeka, and LB Nakas Onyeka, Laurier is loaded with playmakers.
2. Ottawa (3-0). Remaining: @Windsor, @Carleton, York, Western, @Queen's
The rubber is meeting the road, figuratively and literally, with a long trip to Windsor prior to the Panda Game. Nothing is assured, and those Carleton and Western games will be very challenging.
Ottawa has had a windfall in the coaching with Carl Tolmie, late of Guelph, overseeing the offensive line and Jean-Vincent Posy-Audette directing the defence. Ottawa was also so decimated by injury last October that a lot of role players wound up at the forefront. The long-term benefit was that it helped them become a legit two-deep throughout most of the front seven .
3. McMaster (3-1). Remaining: bye, Guelph, Queen's, @York, @Western
Since they have yet to be in a close game, don't even try to figure out McMaster. They cannot be figured! They are solid on each side of the ball, though, plus they have that Danny Vandervoort fellow. A 6-2 finish is well within the realm.
4. Western (3-1). Remaining: @Guelph, Laurier, bye, @Ottawa, McMaster
The Mustangs could revenge hard on Guelph this week in their Yates Cup rematch. Or at least that's a way to lead into nationally televised contest. Quarterback Chris Merchant, the FBS transfer, has yet to really open the throttle.
5. Guelph (2-2). Remaining: Western, @McMaster, bye, @Laurier, York
If you want to concern troll Guelph that they could finish 3-5 and miss the playoffs one season after capturing the Yates Cup, go right ahead. That will likely not happen, but the postmortem on their loss against Ottawa should be that they played just well enough to get their hearts broken. The game plan was clearly to try and wear out Ottawa by feeding Johnny Augustin over and over whilst running at a high tempo. It didn't really work, and Guelph went two-and-out in each mini-game.
6. Carleton (2-2). Remaining: @York, Ottawa, Windsor, bye, @Waterloo
The Panda Game is the only toughie left for the Ravens, so 6-2 is well within the realm. Small joke: they finish the regular season with a double bye, just like the one you might as well give to Ravens men's basketball every March.
Carleton D-back Jay Dearborne should be a much bigger name within the realm of OUA.
7. York (2-2). Remaining: Carleton, @Ottawa, vs. McMaster, @Guelph
Remember the Seinfeld when Jerry started feeling emotion, prompting George to bare his soul and Jerry to regress to his normal self? "Good luck ... with all that." It pretty much sums up York's first half, and what waits after the turn.
8. Toronto (1-3). Remaining: @Queen's, @Windsor, Laurier, Waterloo, bye
Two games that U of T has circled as winnables remain, and they no doubt believe they're not that far below Queen's, who won the 2015 matchup at Varsity Centre by 19 points.
The 45-18 final in U of T's win against York belies that it was a six-point game early in the fourth quarter. York derailed with a procedure penalty and settled for a field goal when it absolutely needed seven points. The Lions defence was overextended on the next drive by an unnecessary roughness penalty after a second-down sack, and the Varsity Blues capitalized with some add-on touchdowns.
Nice win, and Alex Malone is a good back, but Toronto will need some run-pass balance to play big boy football.
9. Windsor (1-2). Remaining: Ottawa, Toronto, @Carleton, @Queen's, Laurier
With averages of 54.3 points and 614.7 yards allowed, Windsor comes off their bye to face the conference's best QB, Wendel. Some succor should come from the week off and home field. Or not.
The Gee-Gees lost at Windsor in 2014, and again back in 2008. So there is that.
Windsor probably falls in the range of 2-6 to 4-4. Prove that wrong, Lancers. Prove that wrong.
10. Queen's (0-3). Remaining: Toronto, @Waterloo, @McMaster, Windsor, Ottawa
Queen's has led Laurier for 3½ quarters, led Guelph for 2½ quarters and out-field goaled Western 4-3 last Saturday. Cha Gheill? More like Close Enough.
There is talent on the Tricolour, who surely are going to straighten up in the passing phase after QB Nate Hobbs had another multiple-interception passing TD. Queen's has 12 lost fumbles and interceptions after three weeks, to only six takeaways.
There is a unique phenomena when Queen's is down and U of T pops up on the schedule.
In 1999 the quondam Old Four rivals each came into an interlocking game at old Varsity Stadium with identical 1-5 records. The Gaels won 55-3.
In 2010, a 3-2 Varsity Blues team (one win was a forfeit against Laurier) ventured to the end of the earth, a whole two hours east of the GTA, to face Queen's, which was 1-4 amid a post-Vanier Cup hangover season. So every surface-level observer who only looked at the standings played it up as a close game, and Queen's won 66-1. Toronto broke the donut on the final play by calling timeout to try a field goal, which sailed wide through the end zone for a single.
That does not mean the score is going to look like that this week. Nothing should be assumed.