By CLAUDE SCILLEY
The seeds of the Queen’s Golden Gaels’ stunning 23-15 victory over the Guelph Gryphons Saturday were sown about 53 weeks ago. To say the memory of the 66-0 whipping they took at Guelph a little more than a year ago lingered as this week’s rematch approached would be understatement of the highest order.
“Our kids were pretty excited for this game,” Gaels defensive co-ordinator Greg Marshall said. “They embarrassed us last year, and you don’t forget those things.”
Gaels linebacker Luke McQuilkin confirmed the opinion when asked if the memory of that 6-0 setback ever crossed his mind. “Every single play,” he said, tracing his personal angst farther back than that, to the overtime playoff defeat of his rookie season, 2012, when the Gaels blew a sizable fourth-quarter lead in a playoff game at Guelph.
“I remember the fourth-year players that year, who wouldn’t have another game of football to play, and how sad it was for them,” he said. The joy of rising from the middle of the Ontario University Athletics pack to hand the Gryphons their first defeat of the season bubbled over after Saturday’s game as McQuilkin shared a moment with his father. “I was crying,” he said.
Perhaps no player typified the Gaels’ pluck on a day when a chill wind from the northeast blew into Richardson Stadium than McQuilkin, a young man in his fourth year of commerce and football study at Queen’s who has not often been a starter but on this day would get a chance in place of the injured Nelkas Kwemo.
McQuilkin made two of the game’s landmark plays: an interception in the end zone early in the second quarter, ending a Guelph bid to score its first touchdown, and a tackle for a loss in the third quarter, the second play of a three-play sequence where the Gryphons failed to score from first-and-goal from the Queen’s one-yard line.
That series, and the very next play, a 108-yard touchdown pass from Nate Hobbs to Matteo Del Brocco, gave the Gaels a 16-7 lead in the ball game, but more significantly they may one day come to be seen as the coming-of-age moment for a group of young players who have taken their lumps as they’ve struggled to find their way. Pundits may reflect on that part of this ball game as the time this group stopped playing in awe of teams others considered superior, and acquired the requisite confidence to feel themselves truly equal.
McQuilkin was modest about the impact of his interception—“it showed that we came to play,” he said— but Hobbs said the boost it bestowed on the rest of the team was beyond description.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know what words I can use to describe it right now. It’s amazing.”
Guelph actually turned the ball over three times in the red zone, the other being an interception by Justin Bowman at the Queen’s 10-yard line on Guelph’s next possession after the McQuilkin pick. Though the Gaels put no points on the scoreboard as a result of either takeaway, they did assemble drives of 12 and seven plays that gobbled up time that the Gryphons were playing with the wind at their backs.
It came in handy in the second half, when Guelph had the football all to itself. Queen’s had possession three times to the point when Johnny Augustine scored for the Gryphons to cut the deficit to 16-14 at 4:02 of the fourth quarter. There were three two-and-out series, and the long touchdown on the first play of the other series, meaning that on 37 of the first 42 plays of the half, the Queen’s defence was on the field.
“No wonder we were getting tired,” McQuilkin said.
Interestingly enough, the Gaels weren’t playing like they were tired. To the end, they were flying around the football field like the game had just begun. In a game where the opponent is capable of scoring quickly and often, the good plays are magnified and the Gaels had lots of them, and they seemed to be coming from everywhere: a couple of tackles by Mike Moore at the line of scrimmage; a nice breakup of a Guelph pass on second down in the final three minutes by Chris Mackey; a sack by Corey Flude on the first play after the Gaels botched a handoff and gave the Gryphons the football at their own 50-yard line in the final minute of the game; a tackle by Frederic Kinkead after a third-down completion that prevented Guelph from extending that drive.
It might be a stretch to call it a brilliant defensive performance in a contest where the opponent had more yards (404) and more first downs (25) than you did, but it was certainly gritty and determined.
“That’s a good offensive line we were facing,” Marshall said. “Our kids had to keep battling because they were hammering us pretty good at times, but the kids kept fighting. We told them going in that (Guelph was) going to make plays. We just had to keep lining up, and we made enough plays when we had to.”
Guelph coach Stu Lang grudgingly said the Gaels defence played well, but more importantly to him, “we didn’t.”
“And that’s a deadly combination.”
From where Lang stood, Del Brocco’s touchdown was the important play in the ball game, “the big change,” he said, emerging from the visitors’ coaches office only long after the game was over.
“We decided to go on third down and didn’t get in—which was a problem—and the next play they score a touchdown and it’s a 14-point change.”
Almost none of this, however, could have been foreseen by any one of the 4,275 fans who braved the elements to watch a game between the 2-2 Gaels—22nd of 27 teams in the nation in terms of yards allowed—and the 5-0 Gryphons—the third-highest scoring team in Canada—only to discover that Queen’s running back Jesse Andrews was a game-day scratch from the lineup, and kicker Dillon Wamsley was going to miss at least the start of the game.
Andrews, who began the day as the leading ground gainer in Canada with 738 yards—his total rushing and receiving yardage singlehandedly representing more than a third of Queen’s offence—took a pounding in the game at Toronto last week, and simply couldn’t go. Wamsley was locked in a classroom somewhere, taking his law school entrance exam. For many, slim hope of a victory evaporated with the news of their absence but the Gaels proved the skeptics wrong.
In so doing, they all but clinched a playoff spot. Now 4-2, with games against two sub-.500 teams (York and Laurier) remaining, the Gaels can even entertain thoughts of hosting a playoff game, as they now are half a game behind third-place McMaster (4-1) and share fourth place with Carleton (4-2), a team over which Queen’s holds the advantage in any tie-breaking scenarios.
McMaster, a team Queen’s doesn’t play, still has to play Western.
Ottawa, Laurier and Toronto all follow at 2-3. Only one of them will make the playoffs.
Notebook—Lang, the ex-Gael who was making his final visit to Richardson Stadium, played in the first game at the current venue more than 40 years ago, but he confessed he remembers nothing about it, other than the fuss about taking the stadium off campus. “The memory isn’t the same at 64,” he said. He wasn’t feeling particularly nostalgic about the occasion, either. “I don’t like the grass,” he said of the last natural turf field in the OUA. “We just aren’t the same on it, for some reason. I won’t be sorry to see that go.” Lang gave $10 million to his alma mater to kick-start the campaign to build a new stadium, one that will have an artificial playing surface that is scheduled to be ready for the 2016 season. … In a battle of sophomore quarterbacks, Nate Hobbs out-shone his rival, James Roberts. While Hobbs was poised under pressure and kept his eyes downfield as he eluded many potential sacks, Roberts was intercepted three times and overthrew his receiver in the end zone on the third-down play from the Queen’s two in the third quarter. Roberts leads the country with nine interceptions in six games. For Hobbs, meanwhile, it was his third interception-free game in a row, and his fourth in six games this season. … In Andrews’ absence, Jonah Pataki got the start at tailback, but he went out of the game with an injury on the second-last play of the first half and didn’t return until the fourth quarter. He finished with 73 yards from 23 carries and a pair of one-yard touchdown runs. His most important play was a 40-yard gain on a shuttle pass from Hobbs that set up the second score, one that ultimately clinched the victory with nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter. … Connor Weir had a splendid day returning kicks for Queen’s. He had a 42-yard punt return that set the Gaels up on the Guelph 20-yard line for their first possession of the day. He later returned a kickoff 32 yards. … The Gaels didn’t get anything out of that start at the Gryphons’ 20. Nick Dowd, the emergency kicker playing in place of Wamsley, missed a 21-yard field goal, the sixth miss in a row for Queen’s, which hasn’t made one since the first quarter of Game 2 at Ottawa. Alex Zulys, the replacement punter, kicked five times for an average of 32 yards. Wamsley arrived in time for the second half. He said later the exam went well. … The pass from Hobbs to Del Brocco is the longest for touchdown in the history of Queen’s football. The previous recorded longest were 104 yards, and there were two of them: from Pete Harrison to Jim Pendergast against Carleton in 1980, and from Danny Brannagan to Rob Bagg against Windsor in 2006. … Guelph’s Johnny Augustine finished the game with 179 yards rushing from 24 carries, his career best. It was the third-best single-game rushing performance of the year in the OUA; Andrews had the best, 192 yards versus Waterloo. Augustine scored the Guelph touchdowns on runs of three and 25 yards, setting up the first with a gain of 39 yards to the Queen’s three. … Zac Sauer had nine tackles for Queen’s, and a sack on first down with Guelph driving across midfield late in the first half, helping to force the Gryphons into a punting situation.