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Gaels eager to revive ground game against Windsor
Posted: September 5th, 2013 @ 7:45pm
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
People shouldn't dwell too much on what the Queen's Golden Gaels haven't been able to do in the young Ontario University Athletics football season, coach Pat Sheahan says.
"When you don't beat a team for three years and you finally beat them," Sheahan said of the Gaels' win Monday over McMaster, "it's not a time for everybody to wear black the next day, but everybody realizes we have to play a lot better."
Coaches, however, are paid to dwell on what their teams aren't doing well and it's not much of a secret that what Sheahan and his staff have busied themselves with first and foremost in a hyper-short week of practice is improving the team's running game, something he describes as having been "mediocre" in two season-opening wins.
He's hopeful that in Saturday afternoon's game at Richardson Stadium against the Windsor Lancers, the Gaels will indeed gain more than the 120 yards rushing they've averaged in their first two contests.
"Victory brings confidence," Sheahan said. "What was noticable in (Wednesday) night's practice is it looks to me like the offence recognizes the fact that their contribution could have been greater and it certainly looked like they were trying to fix that."
Queen's managed just 110 yards rushing in its first game, 26 yards of it on one end-around play to wide receiver Giovanni Aprile. Then came 130 yards against McMaster, a more formidable opponent to be sure but a detail that can't hide the fact that 31 of those yards came from quarterback Billy McPhee, running for his life to avoid being sacked.
The Gaels have talent, depth and an intercollegiate pedigree at running back that is perhaps unrivaled in Canada. Anyone predicting the Gaels would be struggling with their run offence with 25 per cent of the season gone would have been drummed out of the fortune tellers union.
The problem, Sheahan said, doesn't rest with one person or one position or any one fundamental that needs to be executed better. "It's sort of an across-the-board thing," he said.
"Offensive line is a tricky position. It is truly the sum of the whole that brings about success," he explained. "If you get the job done in three or four places at one time but not get it done in another, (the play won't work).
"I know the guys are getting tired of hearing me saying this but we just seem to be one block away (from being successful). There's always one guy who can shut the play down and we seem to have had a bad knack for managing to have one guy show up at the wrong place. (That) changes the design of the play in the mind of the running back. The picture doesn't quite look as clean as it should, and that brings a cut that shouldn't be there."
For the Gaels that has resulted in 12 of 56 running plays this year - more than 21 per cent - going for no gain or a loss.
"That was a pretty tough team to run on last week but I felt we should have done better," Sheahan said. "There were opportunities to make plays. With a little bit more fine-tuning I believe they'll start to come."
Another way to look at it is the Gaels' failure to gain more than 130 yards on the ground in a game so far this year. A year ago, they gained less than 130 yards rushing just once in 10 games. That can be partially traced to inexperience, Sheahan said, either at the intercollegiate level or at a particular position.
"We've been playing a bit of musical chairs on the offensive line, trying to find that right combination of guys," Sheahan said. "Playing with somebody who's inexperienced causes you perhaps to second-guess about how you should play. I believe that the offensive line functions best when they're all playing together, they're all on the same page, they all understand each other.
"In the last couple of weeks they've getting to know one another, in the football sense. There's been a big hole in our offence because of that. We have some guys who can carry the football, I think four or five guys who could arguably be a starting tailback on any team in the league. We just need to be a little bit better up front."
In Windsor, Lancers coach Joe D'Amore is singing a similar refrain. After a day of almost 400 yards along the ground against Waterloo, his team managed just 87 yards rushing Monday at Guelph and he believes that won't do against Queen's.
"Guelph probably has the third best front in the OUA, as far as getting after the quarterback and defending the run," he said. "Queen's and Western are right up there, 1-2. With Sam (Sabourin) at linebacker and John (Miniaci) in the middle, one of the best double-team defenders in the league, it's tough to get to the next level.
"We can't be one-dimensional. If we become a team that wants to throw the ball 60 times we're going to have a real hard time. Mac threw the ball 57 times against them last week and they created turnovers. We've got to avoid that. We have to throw and take chances when we have the opportunity but we have to establish some kind of running game. It doesn't have to be super effective but it has to be positive."
The expectation is modest because after a school record 78-point performance against Waterloo, Windsor's offence sputtered on Monday. The Lancers ran 77 plays but 20 of them went backwards, due to sacks, tackles for loss or penalties.
As for Queen's struggling ground game, D'Amore sees it less as something his team can exploit than a sleeping giant he hopes isn't ready to stir. In the last two meetings, the Gaels rushed for 594 yards against the Lancers.
Nobody is licking his lips at that statistic more than Ryan Granberg. The two-time second-team all-Canadian has just 71 yards rushing so far this year, but games of 265 and 193 the last two times he's faced Windsor.
"We've done a great job of improving our run defence over the course of the last couple of weeks," D'Amore said, noting that from allowing an average of more than 200 yards rushing last year, it's a little more than 90 yards per game so far in 2013, including just 47 last week by Guelph.
"That's great, as far as confidence is concerned, but we're in a big test (against Queen's)," he said. "We know what they do. They've got two or three guys in the backfield that can do all sorts of things. We're not a real big defensive line. We're more athletic than we are stout so we're going to have to use our athleticism, get into the backfield and create some cutbacks that we can clean up."
Though the Gaels' vaunted passing attack generated just 87 yards against McMaster, D'Amore fears it just the same.
"Queen's is notorious for being a run football team first but they have the weapons," he said. "They're going to want to get the ball to Giovanni (Aprile), (Justin) Chapdelaine is there - and Billy (McPhee) is a good quarterback. He's got the arm, probably one of the best arms in the OUA, and maybe the CIS, and he can make every throw.
"We can't defend the field like (you can against) some teams, where you can say, 'That guy's never going to make that throw.' Billy can make those throws. He's capable of throwing the vertical 50, 60 yards so you can't sleep on that play. We're going to have to be ready for anything."
Gaels slotback Scott Macdonell vows he and his teammates will give the Lancers plenty to think about.
"Offensively we know we have the talent so it's just a matter of getting our timing right," he said. "The (offensive) line is what's going to make the machine go. They're the ones who are making the blocks, they're the ones who are the backbone of the whole thing. Even though the receivers who are getting downfield might be the ones making the plays, the credit really goes to the O line and we finally figured it out. We have an idea who our core five are going to be so this week we have an opportunity to show people, to make a statement, (and) say, 'Hey, listen, it's time to go now.' Ryan Granberg and Daniel Heslop and Jesse Andrews - are some amazing runners and we're going to give them opportunities to make the plays."
Game time Saturday is 1 p.m.
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