By CLAUDE SCILLEY
So which does a coach prefer to play in a sudden-death playoff game: the devil he knows, or one he doesn’t?
“It’s difficult to play a team you haven’t played,” said Kingston Grenadiers coach Mark Magee, whose team Saturday afternoon will do just that, when it hosts the Oshawa Hawkeyes in a first-round Ontario Varsity Football League playoff game at Loyalist Collegiate.
Game time is 1 o’clock.
The Hawkeyes, 4-4, did not meet the Grenadiers, 6-2, during the regular year, and while Magee subscribes to the conventional wisdom, that it’s hard to beat the same team twice in the same year—since the defeated opponent likely saw your best, and has since had the opportunity to devise ways to neutralize it—he also appreciates the challenges of seeing a team for the first time in such a playoff scenario.
He said the complexion of the early part of a game changes a little bit, as unfamiliar foes feel each other out, but the advent of game video means the teams won’t exactly be strangers.
“We know they’re a power run team,” he said, in something of an understatement. The Hawkeyes were second in the league in rushing, with 2,126 yards (an average of 266 per game). Leading the way was Dawson Odei, a final year player who was third in the league with 880 yards.
The most formidable back the Grenadiers will have faced this year, Odei averaged almost eight yards per carry, and individually rushed for more yards than four teams in the league gained collectively.
To compile a .500 record, Oshawa needed every bit of that ground game, since their passing attack was least effective in the conference, generating just 642 yards all season (or 80 yards in an average game).
“They don’t throw the ball very much but they do have good receivers,” Magee cautioned.
“Their defence looks to be very athletic, very disciplined. They play a defence that you would expect them to play against certain formations, so when we line up in a certain way, we can see what they’re giving us. Because of that, we should be able to do certain things.”
Two other elements jump out of a statistical review of the Hawkeyes: They average almost 17 yards per punt return, and they led the league with 31 quarterback sacks. Linebacker Drue Moore tied for the league lead with eight, and he was involved in two others; lineman Aidan McKenna tied for fifth with six sacks.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to (play them twice),” Magee said. “These guys are tough.”
The Grenadiers had a bye week to close the regular schedule, and Magee said it helped to heal some wounds. Defensive tackle Jonah Johnson, in and out of the lineup the past few games with a tender shoulder, will be back in the Kingston lineup.
A coach never knows how a team will respond to almost two weeks without game activity.
“I’m worried that we don’t have a letup,” Magee said. “It’s been an OK week of practice. It seemed like the kids were attentive; they seemed to be listening, doing a lot of learning. We haven’t changed a lot in terms of our offence, we’re not putting in a lot of new stuff. The expectation is we’ll do the old stuff well.
“In a one-and-done situation, after having such a good year, if we don’t play well the season’s over. The guys have to realize that, (without a victory), there’s not a game next week.”
The Grenadiers may be a more difficult puzzle for the Hawkeyes to solve, in that they were neither spectacular nor horrible in any aspect. They were sixth in passing, ninth in rushing, sixth in scoring, and eighth best in terms of fewest points allowed. In an average game they threw for 201 yards and rushed for 150.
For a team that was 6-2, there are precious few individuals among the league leaders. Quarterback Dylan Fisher, with 1,516 yards, is fourth among passers who survived into the playoffs; Carter Matheson, with 613 yards from 32 catches, was seventh among receivers.
Johnson, with four sacks, tied for ninth in the league and Mike Bashall, with a 36.2-yards average, was 11th among punters with at least 10 kicks.
The Grenadiers don’t have a marquee running back but they’ve done well enough on the ground to balance the offence: four different players have had 100-yard rushing games—three of them 200-yard games. Of the four, however, one, Konner Burtenshaw, now is a full-time defensive player and another, Calvin deFayette, is done for the season with an ankle injury.
That leaves Riley Avery, who began the year No. 3 on the depth chart, and Harry Robinson, who began the year in the defensive secondary, as capable running backs, with Robinson having most of the playing time the last two games.
• The Grenadiers finished third in the Wettges Conference, behind Ottawa, 8-0, and West Durham, also 6-2 but favoured in the tie-breaker by virtue of a 28-27 win over the Grenadiers on the opening weekend of the season.
• Oshawa, 4-4, finished sixth, behind fourth-place Cumberland and fifth-place Metro Toronto, both 5-3.
• The Hawkeyes beat Metro in their first game, but lost to their other three playoff-bound opponents: Cumberland, Ottawa and West Durham. They were 3-1 against teams that did not make the playoffs
• Oshawa lost its last game, 33-30 to the Toronto Thunder on Saturday.
• The Grenadiers staged a stunning comeback in their last outing, scoring two touchdowns in the final four minutes of a game they ultimately won in overtime, 36-35 over Toronto.
• Kingston enters the playoffs on a two-game winning streak—having scored 87 points in those games—with a 4-0 mark against teams that failed to make the playoffs and a 2-2 record against teams that did.
• The Grenadiers are 3-1 at home; the Hawkeyes are 1-3 on the road.