This post-season the Western Mustangs football team will be hoping good things come in threes
The 6-2 squad opens the playoffs at home this weekend against the Guelph Gryphons in the Ontario University Athletics quarter-final, hoping to take their first step towards winning their third Yates Cup in as many years.
After a nail-biter in their regular season game with the Gryphons — a 41-39 contest that was decided on a last second field goal by Darryl Wheeler — the Mustangs are not coming into this weekends game overconfident.
“My feeling is that if we’re going to be the best team we have to beat the best. It doesn’t matter what Guelph’s record is — they’re a great football team,” Mustangs head coach Greg Marshall said. “They lost a close game to us that came down to the last few seconds. There [were] lots of plays that game where it could have gone either way.”
If Western is to win this game, the defence will have to contain Guelph QB Justin Dunk. In the first meeting of the season, Dunk ran for 123 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 22 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown.
“Our defence has to play better. They have a great challenge ahead of them,” Marshall said. “They’re a young group and sometimes young players make mistakes and get tentative. We hope that after going through the regular season we’re a little more confident in what we do defensively.”
Western’s defence has had trouble with mobile quarterbacks all season long, struggling against Ottawa’s Brad Sinopoli, McMaster’s Kyle Quinlan and, of course, Dunk, who has scrambled for 430 yards on 60 attempts this season.
“[Dunk] is an outstanding athlete [and] he’s going to make plays,” Marshall said. “One important thing is to not get down when he makes a big play. You have to keep your focus.”
One of the biggest stories leading up to this rematch doesn’t involve football at all. During the regular season meeting between the two teams — a nationally televised game — Dunk scored a touchdown, ran towards a camera and yelled “fuck Western.”
Dunk’s antics didn’t sit well with some Western players, especially linebacker John Surla who chastised Dunk in the London Free Press this week. Surla promised there would be plenty of trash talk after tackles and even during the coin flip come Saturday.
“Justin’s an emotional kid,” Guelph head coach Kyle Walters said of his QB, who was suspended for one game by the Gryphons after the incident. “Surla’s comments in the paper sum it up perfectly. It’s pretty clear the opposition wants to get under our skin and everybody knows that when [Dunk] gets like that he loses focus.”
Walters said that while the incident was water under the bridge for the Gryphons, he also noted he would be relying on his fifth-year pivot to maintain his composure.
“It doesn’t do him any good to get fired up like that and lose his cool. It actually helps the opposition. Hopefully [Surla’s comments] will be motivation to try to keep his cool as best as he can.”
In the final game of the regular season against Toronto, Western had to deal with a major blow when they lost defensive lineman Scott Fournier for the season. Running backs Da’shawn Thomas and Nathan Riva were also banged up during the game.
“For the most part, we’re pretty healthy. We lost a couple of guys and you have to overcome those things,” Marshall said.
Attempting to replace Fournier in the playoffs will be the biggest question mark for Western. Having already lost defensive tackles Mike Van Praet to a broken leg and Vaughn Martin to the NFL, the Mustangs were already thin on the defensive line.
Fournier was crucial to the run stopping game, one of the biggest problem areas for Western’s defence on the season.
“We’re not using any injuries as an excuse. We hope our defence steps up and they have a great challenge ahead of them,” Marshall said.
Luckily for Western, the team has a lot of depth. The Mustangs will need backup players like Alexander Robinson, David Lee and Rob Hennessey to step up.
Another solution the Mustangs have toyed with is playing starting offensive lineman on the defence. Western’s coaching staff has already tried playing offensive guard Matt Norman as a defensive tackle against Queen’s late in the season. It paid off then with Norman getting two tackles and a sack. Expect to see more of the same from Norman.
One positive for Western in this game is that it is on the field turf of TD Waterhouse as opposed to the grass field at Guelph. The conditions were less than ideal in the previous game, causing a lot of problems for the Mustangs.
“In hindsight, looking at the Guelph game, some of the stuff we were doing was difficult. It was difficult for us to go there and slip around in the mud,” Marshall said.
“It’s an advantage when teams that practice on turf all week have to come to our field and play on grass,” Walters added. “We’re excited to get on a turf field where our athletes can have some traction and run around a little bit.”
If Western manages to win the quarter-final against Guelph, they move on to Waterloo to take on the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks next weekend.