The first half of the 2011 Ontario University Athletics football season is in the books, with each of the conference’s 10 member schools having played four games. As we enter October, the race for the Yates Cup is set to heat up very quickly, with the Western Mustangs looking to defend their 2010 OUA title and several other teams still in contention vying to dethrone them. Here’s a look at three of the key storylines that defined the first half of the OUA season.
The Education of Billy McPhee
The Queen’s University football program is one of the most illustrious in the CIS, boasting three Grey Cup championships from the 1920s (before the trophy was awarded solely to CFL teams), 23 Yates Cup victories and four Vanier Cup titles. The Gaels’ most recent national championship came in 2009, with fifth-year quarterback Danny Brannagan leading the team to a 7-1 record and a first-place finish in the OUA.
Alongside the next year’s CFL #1 overall pick, defensive end Shomari Williams, Brannagan would spur the Gaels to a 32-6 dismantling of McMaster in the OUA semifinal, which would be followed by a thrilling 43-39 victory over archrival Western in the Yates Cup final. From there, Queen’s would shock the defending Vanier Cup champion Laval Rouge et Or in the national semifinal by a score of 33-30, before coming from behind to top the Calgary Dinos 33-31. Brannagan would capture MVP honours in his final collegiate game.
With Brannagan, Williams and a host of other impact players gone, the Gaels fell back to earth in 2010, finishing 3-5 and falling to the McMaster Marauders in the OUA quarterfinal. Rookie quarterback Justin Chapdelaine was efficient, completing 64% of his pass attempts and limiting his interceptions, but he had no chance of replicating Brannagan’s prodigious numbers from the year before. With another rebuilding season looming, head coach Pat Sheahan made the decision to convert the athletic Chapdelaine to receiver and start fresh with another untested youngster at quarterback – this time, sophomore Billy McPhee.
Just four weeks into his tenure as Queen’s primary signal-caller, McPhee has shown flashes of brilliance tempered by moments of mediocrity, offering hope that he may one day reenact Brannagan’s considerable achievements while reminding fans that there’s still a long way to go. The first game of the year was nothing short of disastrous, falling at home to CIS preseason #3 McMaster by a score of 26-2, with McPhee completing 13 of 32 passes and tossing two costly interceptions. He fared little better in a 19-6 loss to the Ottawa Gee-Gees, going 20 for 40 for 208 yards, but failing to register a touchdown for the second straight game.
As dismal as the first two contests were, the inverse would be true for the next two. Facing the perennially competitive Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks at home in Week 3, McPhee exploded for 362 yards and four touchdowns, sparking the Gaels to a 49-7 lead (they’d eventually win 58-35). Incredibly, McPhee would crank the offense up another notch in Week 4, throwing for 328 yards and just six incompletions, deferring to emerging running back Ryan Granberg at key points and leading Queen’s to a 63-3 demolition of the York Lions.
With upcoming tilts against the Toronto Varsity Blues and the undermanned Waterloo Warriors, the Gaels should improve on their 2010 record and finish .500 at the very least, and if McPhee can turn up the heat against Queen’s other opponents, the Windsor Lancers and the Western Mustangs, a home playoff game may be in the cards. For now, the Gaels are still in a distinct rebuilding stage, but if the early returns are any indication, the future is promising, for the quarterback and the program alike.
Gee-Gees Yearn for Yates
Although Brad Sinopoli was unable to take his team to the Vanier Cup during his four years at the University of Ottawa, his 2010 statistics eclipsed those of Brannagan during his standout 2009 campaign. Sinopoli debuted as the Gee-Gees starting quarterback in 2009, posting respectable totals en route to a 6-2 season (although Ottawa would lose their first playoff game). In his final collegiate season, Sinopoli won the Hec Creighton Trophy as the most outstanding player in CIS football, passing for 2756 yards and 22 touchdowns.
The Gee-Gees would narrowly escape their semi-final matchup with Laurier, winning 32-31 and setting up a home matchup against Western for the Yates Cup. After falling behind early, Sinopoli led a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback to put the Gee-Gees ahead. Their lead would disappear in heartbreaking fashion, with Mustangs Lirim Hajrullahu nailing a 34-yard field goal with one second left, clinching a 26-25 victory and eliminating Ottawa from the playoffs.
Today, Sinopoli is the fourth-string quarterback of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders; while he’s yet to see any game action, the Stamps look primed for playoff contention at 7-5. His college team has fared similarly well in his absence: Sinopoli’s replacement at quarterback, fourth-year Aaron Colbon, has thrown confidently, while a commitment to team defense under head coach Jean-Philippe Asselin has held Ottawa’s opponents in check. (Aside from a 41-13 shellacking at the hands of Western, the Gee-Gees have allowed just 14 points in their three other contests.)
At 3-1, the Gee-Gees sit in a three-team logjam immediately below Western, wresting for control of second place in the OUA. Late-season games against Windsor and McMaster will be crucial for determining Ottawa’s eventually spot in the standings: wins could lead to a quarterfinal bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while losses could spell a lower seed and a tougher road to the Yates Cup final. A decorated program that has come on very strong in recent years, the Gee-Gees have shown they can thrive without their former quarterback, as they continue to strive for the elusive provincial and national championships.
Dissecting the Standings
The Western Mustangs have appeared in four consecutive Yates Cup finals, a mark that should extend to five seasons if the London club can continue playing the explosive brand of football that has led them to a 4-0 start in 2011. Ranked #2 in the country behind Laval, Western has scored at least 34 points in each of their first four games, including an 86-point outburst against Waterloo in the season opener. With no opponent above .500 scheduled for the rest of the season, the Mustangs should cruise to the OUA’s #1 seed, in search of their first Vanier Cup championship since 1994.
Directly below Western are three teams that could challenge for the Ontario title – Windsor, McMaster and Ottawa, all at 3-1. Two vital end-of-year matchups should help determine the race for the second seed – Windsor will visit Ottawa on October 15th, with the Gee-Gees then travelling to McMaster on the 22nd to conclude the regular season.
Queen’s and Toronto currently round out the OUA playoff picture, in fifth and sixth place, respectively (the 2-2 teams will face off against each other this Friday). Laurier, Guelph and York are still very much in the playoff hunt at 1-3, while Waterloo, returning from a yearlong suspension for steroid use, is languishing behind at 0-4.