It has been the 'Year of the Blowout' in OUA. Much of the discussion, including in this space, has been about the unusual number of lop-sided games this year. With that in mind, the season has not been as bad as one may think. In fact, there have been many fantastic story lines that may have been overlooked by people attracted only by the negative. Here's a list of ten stories that should not be ignored.
10. Chris Pezzetta: Football is a great game that sometimes comes with a high price. Pezzetta was coming off a dream season in 2011. McMaster had just won a remarkably entertaining Vanier Cup game, he had established himself as the starting running back and was looking forward to being a key contributor in the Marauders attempt to make it back-to-back Vanier victories. The 2012 training camp had just opened when the Burlington native suffered a major knee injury and would be lost for the season. He was working hard to prepare for the 2013 season when the unthinkable happened. He sustained another knee injury while working out before camp opened and again would be lost for the year. Two seasons, two major knee injuries. It would have been easy for Pezzetta to give up the game for good, but he came back this season and has been a key contributor in what has so far been an undefeated campaign. Two weeks ago he was named OUA's Offensive Player of the Week. It truly is a feel-good story.
9. Coaching stability: Two different situations, two new coaches, two teams playing well. The Ottawa Gee-Gees fired Gary Etcheverry during the 2012 season. The team was 0-5 and morale was extremely low. Long-time CFL coach Jamie Baressi was brought in to right the listing ship. The garnet and grey responded with a playoff appearance last year and have followed that up with a 4-2 start this season, a record that would be 5-1 if it were not for a heart-breaking loss in the Panda Game. Meanwhile, Laurier's head coaching decision was far, far tougher. Gary Jeffries was a beloved figure. Jeffries had been coaching for decades before being named head coach in 2003. In less than a decade in that role he had four Yates Cup appearances and a Vanier Cup championship under his belt. After a couple of sub-par seasons the popular coach was gone and the program eventually selected Michael Faulds as head coach. The former star quarterback at Western had been the offensive coordinator at York and has helped restore some swagger at Laurier. They're 4-1 and would be 5-0 if not for a stunning loss at Windsor.
8. Guelph: It would be fair to say that the Gryphons are still in a fight for respect. They're known for their recent success in recruiting and their style with multiple uniforms, but they're also looked upon as trailing Western and McMaster on the field. The Gryphons almost upset the Marauders in Hamilton on opening day, but still aren't thought of with the same respect as the other two programs. One thing will change that; winning. The Gryphons have a chance to do that in two weeks when they host Western, but it will be in the post-season where they can really make their mark. This has become a very good program.
7. Tyler Crapigna: When OUA fans saw the McMaster kicker for the first time, many would wonder how someone so small could kick the ball so far. The 155-pound freshman has added 15 pounds to his 5'7" frame and is now known as the top field-goal kicker in the history of the conference. Crapigna added another milestone to his career, which includes a Vanier Cup-winning field goal in overtime against Laval, when he passed Western's Lirim Hajrullahu in the record book on Saturday. Crapigna has now kicked 79 field goals in his OUA career. The Calgary Stampeder draft pick is only three field goals behind Sherbrooke's William Dion for the CIS career record.
6. Austin Kennedy: While Tyler Crapigna has already set an OUA record, Austin Kennedy is on the verge of another one. He has ten touchdown passes this season, giving him 74 for his career. That's just five shy of former Ottawa Gee-Gees QB Josh Sacobie's record of 79. St. Mary's Chris Flynn has the national record of 87. Injuries have forced the Windsor quarterback to alter the way he approached the game. When he broke into the league he was known as much for his running skills as he was for his arm. He's become more of a pocket passer, but that hasn't slowed him down at all. His first appearance on the OUA radar came during a night game at Laurier in 2011. It was the second game of the Windsor native's second season. Starting quarterback Sam Malian left with an injury. Kennedy came in and put on a performance for the ages. Despite not getting on the field until the second quarter, he threw for 443 yards and five touchdowns, rushing for another 112 in the Lancers amazing 41-40 come from behind win. Making the night even more memorable, the game ended on a punt into the end zone, punt out of the end zone, and finally, a punt through the end zone for the game winning point. A star was born on that night and that star has not faded.
5. Simon Nassar: If OUA was going to produce the CIS leader in passing yards, the pre-season favourite would have been Will Finch. Marshall Ferguson and Austin Kennedy would also have been considered, but nobody would have imagined that the Varsity Blues quarterback would be atop the national list. Nassar grabbed the CIS lead with a 548-yard performance last week against Ottawa. He has now thrown for 1,717 yards on the season. Perhaps the most impressive quality of Nassar, a fourth-year player from Toronto, has been his ability to avoid interceptions. The Blues have been in a catch-up position in most games this year, forcing the offence to be pass heavy. Despite opponents expecting him to throw, Nassar has thrown just one interception in a CIS-leading 208 passing attempts this year. That is remarkable.
4. Dillon Campbell: It was a nice story a year ago. A virtual unknown running back from Laurier won the OUA rushing title, totaling 867 yards. The Whitby native has proven that last season was not a fluke by dominating every game the Hawks have played in this year. The numbers are Madden-on-rookie-mode-esque. So far his game totals are 293, 177, 204, 176 and 171 for a total of 1,021 rushing yards on the season, 368 more than anyone else in the country. Campbell is as well-known at Laurier for his work ethic and humility as he is for his running ability. It will be interesting to see how he fares in his final three games, as the Hawks face Western, McMaster and Guelph.
3. Parity at the top: Despite the imbalance in the conference this year, what may save the day is how great the games have been between the 'big three' teams in the conference. Guelph traveled to McMaster on Labour Day to kick off the regular season. It would be tough for the teams to play a more thrilling game, with the Marauders winning 34-27 in overtime. It was the only lead McMaster had all game. Fast forward to last Saturday when McMaster and Western met in London, with the Marauders pulling off a 32-29 upset in an incredibly entertaining contest that featured an astonishing eight lead changes, three of which came in the final quarter. McMaster would win the game on a 10-yard pass from Marshall Ferguson to Max Cameron with 53 seconds left. The final game between the trio takes place in two weeks when the Mustangs visit Guelph. Bring on the playoffs!
2. The Catch II: It would easily be the play of the year in most seasons – just not this one. Windsor was hosting Laurier in Week Two. It was an entertaining game that came down to the last minute. The Hawks held a 17-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Lancers scored two touchdowns and a field goal in just over six minutes to tie the game. Laurier kicker Ronnie Pfeffer missed a 44-yard field goal with less than two minutes left, but it was good enough for a rouge to give them a 34-33 lead. Windsor got the ball back and moved into Laurier territory, but a penalty put them in a situation where they faced a third-and-18 from their own 52-yard line. Then this happened (@ 0:26):
Laurier would get the ball back and move it to the Windsor 26-yard line. A final pass would not find the mark and the Lancers had a remarkable win on a play that will forever be told in the program's history.
1. The Catch: Thirty years from now people will still be talking about this play. Twelve thousand fans had made their way to TD Place in Ottawa to watch cross-town rivals Carleton and the University of Ottawa go head to head in the Panda Game. The Gee-Gees entered the game as substantial favourites, but the game would be close from the outset. Neither team held more than a seven-point lead and there would be a remarkable seven lead changes. Lewis Ward kicked a 17-yard field goal with just 1:27 left to give the Gee-Gees a 31-27 lead. The Ravens needed a touchdown to win, a field goal wouldn't be enough. They'd turn the ball over on downs at their own 40 yard line with with 1:01 left, but the Gee Gees would go two-and-out, punting the ball out of bounds at the Carleton five-yard line. The Ravens had 25 seconds to go 105 yards. Nick Gorgichuk would hit Adam Zussino for 13 yards, then Nate Behar for 37. The ball was suddenly at the mid-field stripe. Jesse Mills, the stronger armed QB of the Ravens tandem, entered the game for one final toss. We all know what happened.
Despite some of the negative stories, plays like that and stories like the ones listed above are why we keep coming back. It truly is a great game.
Some quick stats and playoff implications.
Queen's was officially eliminated on the weekend. The 0-5 Gaels host Toronto this week.
Carleton needs a win over Guelph, Windsor or Queen's to have a shot at a playoff spot. Tough sledding, but possible.
The winner of this week's Ottawa at Windsor game all but locks up a playoff berth.
Llevi Noel of Toronto leads the OUA with 549 receiving yards and his 8.5 yards a catch and 137.2 yards per game lead the CIS.
Ronnie Pfeffer of Laurier leads the country with a 44.9 yard punting average and has gone 15/17 kicking field goals for an 88% success rate with a CIS-long 50 yarder.
Marauder kicker Tyler Crapigna leads the CIS with 84 points.
Waterloo's Greg Zaitz is second in the CIS with 43 tackles, three behind CIS leader Jonathan Langa of St. Mary's.
Ettore Lattanzio of Ottawa is tied for the CIS lead with seven sacks.
Mike Hogan's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ontario University Athletics.