A handful of years ago, In The Huddle had a discussion with Guelph head coach Stu Lang. The Gryphons were preparing for a playoff game where they were a decided underdog.
Lang is a man of faith. When asked if he used any religious parables with his team, perhaps the story of David and Goliath, the coach responded with a classic line.
He said he had, comparing his team to the young man who felled a giant with a slingshot before adding, “This year we’re bringing the stones.”
Fast forward to the present, where Kevin MacNeill finds himself preparing for a game in which his Gryphs are underdogs. They visit the unbeaten Western Mustangs on Saturday with a berth in the Yates Cup final on the line.
Can they do it?
“We’re definitely better than we were at the beginning of the season,” MacNeill told OUA.ca, before quickly adding, “but we still have some work to do.”
Better, yes, but the improvement is not as dramatic as one may think. While the Gryphons began the season 0-2, the losses were both in overtime, and both to playoff teams.
Guelph dropped its opener to Ottawa, then exorcised that demon by eliminating the Gee-Gees 30-8 last week. The second game of the season was a loss at Western, offering the Gryphons a second consecutive chance for redemption.
“They battled back to win that game,” MacNeill said of the Mustangs in their previous match up. “We found out how much grit they have.”
Grit yes, combined with a ton of talent. It’s not an accident the Mustangs are ranked No. 2 in the country in the U SPORTS Top Ten and No. 1 in Canada by the Krown Countdown U Power Seven.
The ‘Stangs lead the country averaging 48 points and 609 yards of offence per game, 309 of that on the ground – by far the best nationally.
Defensively they’re second to Laval, allowing just 13 points per game, while they’re the only team in the country to allow fewer than 300 yards against per game; something that’s not lost on MacNeill.
“We realize they’re No. 1 on offence and defence,” said the coach. “Their kids play hard and don’t give up.”
It’s hard to imagine any aspect of Western’s team would be underappreciated, but when asked to choose one aspect of the Mustangs that maybe doesn’t get the respect it deserves, MacNeill, a linebacker in his playing days, opted to highlight that side of the ball.
“Probably their defensive line”, said the coach. “They’re all playing at a high level. It’s a good group of guys.”
Their previous matchup occurred on Labour Day, with Western winning 41-34. Western tied it with a touchdown with five-and-a-half minutes left in the fourth quarter, before winning it in the first overtime session.
The game was likely more memorable for something out of the control of both teams. A violent storm hit London that night and the game was delayed over two hours because of intense lightning in the area, leading MacNeill to joke about the most important thing he found out about his team that night.
“I learned that we can play late at night.”
He also knows that his team can compete with Western on the road, something not a lot of coaches could honestly say to their team with a straight face. Guelph’s coach says he’ll use that during the week, but he’ll continue to focus on his team, not Greg Marshall’s.
While respecting the Mustangs, MacNeill admits his team has a high level of confidence preparing for this game, and prefers to preach to his team that it’s what the Gryphons do on the field that will determine their fate.
“We focus on how we play,” MacNeill told In The Huddle, “I drive my players crazy, but I continue to focus on small details. If you do the small details well you’d be really, really good.”
They’ll have to be really, really good to have a chance of pulling off what would be considered a significant upset, but Guelph’s coach sums it up nicely.
“Any team that makes it to the final four in the OUA is a darn good football team.”
We’ll get a look at that quartet this Saturday.
The Other Semi-Final
The McMaster Marauders outlasted Queen’s 12-9 on a cool, rainy afternoon a week ago.
The game was forgettable on several levels, but will be remembered for a long time because of one spectacular performance. Mac’s Jordan Lyons rushed for an incredible 319 yards, just eight yards shy of the all-time U SPORTS playoff record set by Ottawa’s Davie Mason in 2008.
He’ll have a tougher task this week against a stingy Laurier defence as McMaster visits the Golden Hawks.
It’s tough to evaluate how well the Marauders played last week because the elements certainly became a factor for both teams; something that doesn’t appear to be in the forecast for Waterloo on Saturday.
The good news for the Hawks is that starting quarterback Michael Knevel should be back this week after missing the Hawks last game, a 40-15 Laurier win over McMaster.
Beyond their game last week - a game that determined who got the bye last week and home field this week – the Hawks have eliminated the Marauders in each of the last two seasons. Laurier won last year’s semi-final 21-19 after defeating Mac 29-15 in a quarter-final game in 2015.
The Hawks certainly have the more explosive offence of the two. They averaged 399 yards per game, exactly 100 more than the Marauders, while Knevel has several playmakers at the ready. Running back Levondre Gordon averaged over 100 rushing yards per game, while Kurleigh Gittens Jr. and Brentyn Hall provide a dangerous one-two punch at receiver.
Both teams are very good at getting to the quarterback. McMaster was second in the country with 28 sacks, one more than Laurier.
Can McMaster establish the run again this week? It would be foolish to think that Lyons can repeat his remarkable yardage of a week ago, but it’s not a stretch to imagine he can have a very successful day on the ground.
It should be an intriguing afternoon at Knight-Newbrough Field.