The saying in Canadian university football circles is that Western is Western. One should refrain, no matter how great the temptation, from tweaking coach Greg Marshall and the Western Mustangs for their nationally televised 18-11 loss last week to the rival Queen's Golden Gaels even though their offence made it two games without an offensive touchdown on the grass at Richardson Stadium, this time with QB Donnie Marshall managing only 109 yards passing.
At this time last year, many CIS watchers were crowning Western as Ontario's or even the country's best team and overlooked that eventual Vanier Cup champion and currently No. 1 McMaster was injury-riddled. It is remiss not to make note of a sea change in opinion toward the Mustangs. Greg Marshall has gone from being called "the guy who never loses it" before the 2009 Yates Cup against Queen's, when he had record-setting quarterback Michael Faulds, to having the same hometown broadsheet unequivocally declare there is "no way the Mustangs will have a chance of winning the Ontario university football title unless they overhaul their passing game." It is hard to recall anyone being that blunt before now toward the Mustangs, even though Saturday's result was in line with the recent history of their series against Queen's. (Western is now 1-10 since 2001 against Queen's teams which went on to finish the season with a .500 or better record.)
After all, Marshall has steered his teams at Western (since 2007) and McMaster (from 2000-03, all wins) to the OUA's Yates Cup championship game for nine consecutive seasons. Steady as rent.
That streak is in greater peril than it's been at any time in Marshall's tenure at Western, since top-ranked McMaster and No. 5 Queen's stand to earn the OUA's first-round playoff byes and home field for the semifinals. The purple ponies may be paying the piper for relying on a run-heavy scheme that counts on them to overcome a self-induced tactical disadvantage. In 2012, it might still be possible to win the Yates Cup by relying on a punishing running game, but not the Vanier Cup that a team worthwhile truly craves. And Greg Marshall, whose team had exactly one play longer than 20 yards in the first 58 minutes against Queen's, knows this, having said on Saturday, "It shouldn't take me until two minutes left in the game to find a way" for his team to complete a deep ball.
The elements of the Mustangs' M.O. — pushing teams around with the power running game — are not as strong this season. They also don't count for as much.
A passing game
Like the entire football world, CIS football has become a passing game. Six passers in the the 26-team league are averaging at least 285 yards per game. McMaster's Kyle Quinlan, through three games, is completing 76.3 per cent of his passes and is threatening the national record of 75.2%. Other nationally ranked teams which had been content with relying on physical prowess to play ground-and-pound football are taking to the air. Second-ranked Calgary's quarterback, Eric Dzwilewski, is averaging 301 yards per game, while Alexandre Nadeau-Piuze of No. 4 Montreal is averaging 258.3.
Since Faulds left Western with a national record of career passing yards, the Mustangs have reverted to the kill the body and the head will die principle. Have a massive offensive line that wears down defenders. Have a big power back who can break off five and six-yard gains until the wearying opponent has a mental mistake that opens a lane for a long touchdown run. Lastly, have a steady quarterback who can hit the long play-action passes.
Western currently has that first element. It lost the second this spring when Kitchener native Tyler Varga, whose terrifying thighs seemed in danger of ripping through his pants when he was running through teams last season, opted to study and play football at Yale (which is already paying off for him). Speedster Nathan Riva also made the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who were a CFL team at that time. The current quarterback, Donnie Marshall, is kind of a non-denominational, right-handed CIS answer to Tim Tebow — gritty leader and gutsy rusher but no polished passer.
The growth of amateur football in Canada means there is more than enough talent to go around, so no one team other than Laval can have a huge stockpile. That's especially true at quarterback, which is why there can often be an interlude after a program-changing passer moves on. (Western has one, rookie Will Finch, waiting in the wings.)
Teams are also employing more full-time coaches, meaning there are more keen minds breaking down video. Last Saturday, Queen's basically expected Western would do what Western does and just worked on limiting the damage. Western rushed 44 times for 241 yards and kept the ball for 34 minutes, numbers most people would equate with a W. But its offence could only kick a single field goal because Golden Gaels defensive coordinator Pat Tracey's game plan was about "defending the field," to borrow his phrasing.
That's why teams are moving toward pro-style passing games and spread attacks. Greg Marshall is not any less of a coach. His dilemma is probably like Eric Taylor's in Season 3 of Friday Night Lights when he had to junk his preferred I-formation and let a hotshot young coach could put in the spread. (Coincidentally, two of Marshall's former quarterbacks, Jon Behie at McMaster and Faulds at York, are part of CIS programs which run sophisticated passing games.)
Saturday's result just reaffirmed how the pendulum in university football has swung more from working hard to working smart (and hard), which is a common thread with both McMaster's and Queen's recent success. Each used that to score the playoff win over Laval and a Vanier Cup title, prizes that have eluded Marshall at both of his stops. In fairness, his 2003 Marauders and 2010 Mustangs each lost national semifinal games to Laval in the final minute of play. Those teams look cutting edge; the Mustangs look like they need to play catch-up, something typically not done by running off-tackle.
Don't count them out as a playoff spoiler, though. Remember, it's Western.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.