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Gaels get long-awaited victory over McMaster
Posted: September 2nd, 2013 @ 9:59pm
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
It was an odd kind of a football game.
On a ridiculously humid day, there were penalties galore and players were dropping to injury and dehydration like apples off a tree on a windy autumn day. Neither team could rush the football. In the entire first quarter two teams that are supposed to be among the best in the land combined for three first downs.
And yet, in the second half Queen's corner Yann Dika-Bilotoken made a couple of sparkling interceptions, two of the nicest football plays you'd ever want to see, returning them as he did 99 and 70 yards for touchdowns.
Around those two plays the Gaels patched, improvised and ultimately played well enough to defeat the two-time defending conference champion McMaster Marauders 31-24, and, if you're in the Queen's camp, today that's all that matters.
"Listen," Gaels coach Pat Sheahan said. "I don't think too many people were betting on us to win this one today and we won it, so we have to be happy about that."
In the grander scheme of Ontario university football, in the last decade or so the outcome of the Queen's-McMaster game has been a litmus test. Every year since 2001 the winner of this game has gone on to finish higher in the standings than the other - and in this case Monday's result could very well have determined who will get home game for this year's Yates Cup.
Playing before a Labour Day crowd of 7,600 at Richardson Stadium, the Gaels gained their first win over McMaster in four years as they improved 2-0 on the young season heading into a game just five days hence against the Windsor Lancers. No. 6 McMaster slipped to 1-1 with its first loss to an Ontario opponent in 21 games, a streak dating to the second week of the 2011 season.
"I'm happy to get (a win) but I would have liked to have done it more convincingly," Sheahan said. "Hey, it didn't unravel but you just sort of felt our guys were hanging on."
Indeed, the Gaels led 31-10 after Dika-Bilotoken's second touchdown early in the fourth quarter but the Queen's offence spun its wheels from that point and McMaster rallied for a pair of touchdowns.
The Marauders closed to within seven points with 1:50 to play and the Gaels, in two attempts, couldn't kill the clock. Had Matt Webster not intercepted a pass on the first play of the McMaster possession in between, the ending would have been much more interesting than the Gaels would have preferred.
"Our ball control offence left quite a bit to be desired," Sheahan said of a group that managed just one first down that didn't come via penalty in the final 19 minutes of the game. "We had breakdowns in protection. That's two weeks in a row we didn't run the football very well and we've got kids who can run it, too.
Which meant that without the two interception-return touchdowns, the Queen's offence wouldn't have scored enough points for a victory.
"It was critical, absolutely critical," said Gaels linebacker Justin Baronaitis of Dika-Bilotoken's heroics. "Yann's a really explosive player and his ability to use that in a return situation - really swung momentum in our favour. It put points on the board at a point when our offence looked like it was struggling a little bit."
McMaster coach Stefan Ptaszek acknowledged the devastating impact of those plays.
"It seemed when we got out of our core offence and we were ad-libbing, disaster struck," he said. "When they did it, it seemed like they made some plays."
The first interception came deep in Queen's territory, when Joshua Vanderweerd dove for a low pass from quarterback Marshall Ferguson. He got a hand on the ball but it popped up into the air and Dika-Balotoken nabbed it inside his own 10-yard line and took off down the right sideline.
"Josh made a great play on a low ball and it happened to pop up," Ptaszek said. "It's a good high percentage play and a great throw by Marsh but that's football. The second one the kid made a great play and broke on the ball."
Dika-Balotoken stepped in front of a receiver and jumped for the ball and took off in the opposite direction, down the same sideline in front of delighted student fans.
They were the marquee plays of a defensive performance that looked more effective than the 495 yards of total offence McMaster had by the end of the game.
"We knew it was going to be a bit of a dogfight, a bit of a chippy affair," Baronaitis said. "We were focused on stopping the run" - the Marauders gained just 47 yards on the ground - "and credit goes to Mac's offence for finding the holes. They took what they could get from us."
Sheahan said his team's defence was full value - "every time we needed a stop, they got one" - but he added there's no question it was a tough day offensively. The Gaels managed just 217 yards of total offence.
"We all know we've got to get better on offence," the coach said. "I thought we had a very good third quarter. I thought we played great defence in the fourth. Not so good on offence.
"We'll have to examine that. Did we get conservative? There were a couple of miscues, a couple of guys go out. (Giovanni) Aprile went out so there's some feature plays maybe you're not going to use with substitute personnel (but) we were ahead by 31-10. You've got to take care of your business in the fourth quarter. We started to lose on the exchanges (of possession), we got into some bad field (position) -Â and good teams keep playing. That's what (McMaster) did."
"Our kids played their hearts out, start to finish," he said. "I was happy with energy and effort. We got beat. We've got to get better."
The Marauders were assessed 140 yards in penalties, including one painful one midway through the fourth quarter. With Queen's leading 31-17 Gaels quarterback Billy McPhee was sacked and stripped of the football. As it bounced around on the ground, a McMaster player pushed a Queen's player trying to recover it.
As the remaining fans in the student bleachers pointed out, you can't do that.
"We sacked the quarterback and recovered the fumble," Ptaszek lamented, "and we pushed a guy in the back so it's an automatic first down (for Queen's). That's the kind of afternoon the Marauders were having."
As he hoisted his young son into his arms on the field, the McMaster coach was philosphical.
"This is a team that hasn't had to deal with a lot of adversity in the last couple of years," he said. "I think they've had some adversity (today) and we'll see how they respond. Certainly down 21 in the fourth they played pretty good to bring it back.
"Marsh played great. The one ball I think he would like back but he's definitely evolving into the leader of this football team and to bring us back from down 21 and get us close is really special."
While for one day it might be enough to have beaten McMaster, Sheahan knows that as of Tuesday there will be a lot of issues for his team to address.
"I'm sure (the Marauders) are going to look at this tape and they're going to think they can play us a little bit better," Sheahan said, "and there's no question that we can play better than we did today but you know what? Our guys needed to learn that this is what play is going to be like at the highest level - every series counts; every time you blow field position, every time you make a play and have a penalty, every turnover, there's going to be consequences for it.
"When you go back and map this one out I think you're going to see that it was a game of mistakes and the team that made more of them lost."
The teams played a scoreless first quarter and the Gaels, who failed to capitalize on a McMaster fumble at midfield on the Marauders' first possession, missed another opportunity early in the second quarter when the visitors fumbled a punt at their own 26-yard line. This time the Gaels came away with just a single point off a missed 31-yard field-goal attempt. A 63-yard Queen's drive ended with a 33-yard Dillon Wamsley field goal but two plays later Ferguson and Daniel Vandervoort connected for a 73-yard touchdown pass that put the Marauders in front 7-4.
The Gaels answered on their next possession with a strange touchdown. On a drive that began at their own 22-yard line, Jesse Andrews was handed the ball at the McMaster 29. He appeared to be on his way into the end zone when he fumbled at the two. The ball bounced into the end zone, however, where Doug Corby alertly fell on it for a touchdown that sent Queen's into the intermission with an 11-7 lead.
A 45-yard field goal by Wamsley on Queen's first possession of the second half, Dika-Bilotoken's first interception return TD and a 31-yard field goal by Wamsley in the span of about 10 minutes gave the Gaels a 24-7 lead. Tyler Crapigna booted a 15-yard field goal for McMaster on the final play of the third quarter but Dika-Bilotoken's second major in the third minute of the final period appeared to render it moot.
McMaster fought back, however, with Ferguson throwing touchdown passes of five yards to Michael DiCroce and 13 yards to Vanderweerd to bring the Marauders back within sight. Despite an unsuccessful short kickoff after that touchdown McMaster got the ball back twice in the final two minutes but one possession ended with an interception and the other, with just eight seconds left, ended after a rubgy-type play that had a forward pass and two laterals of the football went out of bounds near midfield as time expired.
Ferguson, the McMaster quarterback from Kingston, completed 36 of 57 passes for 446 yards, with three touchdowns but he also had three interceptions. Billy McPhee, the Queen's quarterback from Burlington, was 14-for-29 for 114 yards.
For Ferguson, that ties him for the third most passes attempted in a single game in OUA history with Michael Faulds (Western, 2008) and Bill Kubas (Laurier, 1993). Only Dan Feraday (65, Toronto, 1981) and Kevin McDonald (74, Laurier, in a 1996 playoff game) ever threw the ball more often in a single contest.
Only twice since he became the starter in 2011 has McPhee thrown for fewer yards in a game and this was just the third time in his career he failed to complete at least 50 per cent of his passes.
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