By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Most years, it would be beyond trite to speak of a football game eight days into the season in terms of its potential impact on the playoffs. To overstate the importance of a match about to be played before the student body so much as arrives on campus normally would be an exercise in inflation to rival the German economy in the Weimar Republic.
Alas, this is not a normal year in Ontario University Athletics, so here we are, with the Queen’s Golden Gaels about to face the Ottawa Gee-Gees Sunday afternoon, in a contest that could very well be part of the conversation in the final days of the regular schedule when the playoff invitations are being written.
It’s widely believed that Guelph and Western are the top teams in the league this year. Shellacking their opponents on the opening day of the season a week ago did nothing to dispell that.
Beyond them are teams that have either slipped due to graduation, or expect to climb because they see their young players maturing. Most pundits are numbering Queen’s and Ottawa among a group that also includes McMaster, Laurier and Carleton.
Assuming Guelph and Western pull away from the field and claim the top two spots, there will be just four playoff chairs for those five teams when the regular-season music stops, and every game you win against one of those middle-of-the-pack opponents becomes another element in your favour when it comes to breaking potential ties.
So, for instance, if Queen’s and Ottawa somehow end tied at the end of the regular year—either for the final playoff berth; or for fourth place, and home field advantage for the first round—the winner of Sunday’s game gets the prize.
Hence, a game being played on the summer side of Labour Day takes on significance normally reserved for those played on the winter side of Thanksgiving.
A year ago, the Gaels hosted Ottawa on Labour Day and the Gee-Gees spoiled the holiday with a 37-30 win in a game Queen’s led by 14 points with a little more than eight minutes to play. Ottawa’s 21-point fourth quarter was rendered moot because Brendan Morgan played in that game for the Gaels—and three days later he was discovered to have been academically ineligible to do so—but the administrative snafu and the withering collapse combined to send the Gaels into a tailspin that didn’t end until the schedule maker mercifully gave them a homestand against Toronto and York.
By then, it was too late to salvage the season. Queen’s was out of the playoffs and Ottawa, with a season-ending upset victory in Hamilton over eventual Yates Cup champion McMaster, was in.
As they were a year ago, the Gaels are coming off a season-opening victory. The Gee-Gees, who had a bye in Week 1, will be playing their first game since they were tagged with a 36-3 exhibition defeat by the reigning national champion Montreal Carabins two weeks ago.
The quarterback match is an interesting one. Last season, Derek Wendel, the former Kingston Grenadier from Shannonville, emerged as one of the league’s best, after two years as Aaron Colbon’s caddy.
In those two seasons, Wendel threw just 64 passes in mop-up duty, and though he completed more than 60 per cent of them, it wasn’t clear if he’d be ready for a starter’s workload, but he clearly showed that he was, averaging 271 yards passing per game with an overall completion percentage of .624, both fourth best in the league.
Though the Gee-Gees graduated the Metras Trophy winner, defensive tackle Ettore Lattanzio—and cornerback Jackson Bennett is done for the year after injuring a shoulder against Montreal—they return a strong corps of receivers, three of whom—Ian Stewart, Sydenham High School grad Ben Fisher, and Nick Dagher—had at least one 100-yard receiving game last year. Also back is Mitch Baines, whose 95-yard game against Queen’s a year ago was his best.
This season, Queen’s quarterback Nate Hobbs is in the same position Wendel was a year ago. After limited duty as a freshman under Billy McPhee in 2015, Hobbs was terrific in his first game as a starter, completing 24 of 36 pass attempts (.667 completion rate) for 338 yards last Sunday against Carleton.
In the last 30 years, only one Queen’s quarterback did better in his first intercollegiate start, and that marginally. Danny Brannagan had almost identical numbers—21-for-31 (.677) for 341 yards—Sept. 10, 2005, against York. The only differences are subtle: Hobbs and Brannagan each threw two touchdown passes; Brannagan, a true freshman, threw an interception while Hobbs, a sophmore, did not.
The Gee-Gees have a history of raining on the Queen’s football parade. In addition to last year’s victory, Gaels’ hearts were broken in 2010 (an Ottawa field goal with 16 seconds left in the fourth quarter forced overtime, where the Gee-Gees prevailed) and in playoff defeats in 2008 (a stunning upset after Queen’s had completed an undefeated regular season) and 2006. Since the use of an ineligible player led the Gee-Gees to forfeit their 1997 Dunsmore Cup victory, Ottawa has won 17 of its last 22 games with Queen’s.
Sunday’s game, at Gee-Gees Field on the Lees campus, will start at 1 o’clock.