Talks with Hawks: Episode 15 – Talking to Myself (an analysis of the 2019 season)

Talking to Myself

     Someone once said that talking to one’s own self is a sign of impending mental collapse.  Living alone and being in a quarantine situation, I have had a lot of time to  think. One of the things I have reflected upon was the 2019 football season. I have been on the sideline for virtually every Hawks game since 2011. I have witnessed many amazing things. There have been incredible highs, and some enormous lows. However, without a doubt, one of the most bizarre seasons any team has ever experienced belonged to the 2019 Hawks.  So, this episode will be a discussion with myself: a chronicle of what happened during the 2019 season. 

 In 2019, for the 2nd year in a row, the Hawks finished the season with a 4-4 record and missed out on the playoffs due to a tiebreaker.  That followed back to back Yates Cup appearances, including a 2016 victory in the previous two years. To say the results of last season would be a disappointment would be an incredible understatement. Despite Western going 8-0 in the regular season last year, virtually everyone agreed the OUA was wide open in terms of who would win the Yates Cup.  McMaster ended up as champions but I felt there were 7 teams that could have made a justifiable case as to why they would end up winning the Yates Cup.  And yes, WLU was 1 of those 7 teams.  Don’t believe me? Take a look at these statistics.  Last year, on offence, WLU was:

2nd in overall yards gained 1st in rushing yards gained

3rd in points scored Tied for 3rd in 1st downs

1st in Red Zone efficiency*(scoring a TD OR a FG once inside the other team’s 20 yard line)

1st in time of possession 2nd least sacks allowed

Defensively, take a look at these statistics:

1st in least total yards allowed 2nd in least rushing yards allowed

2nd in least passing yards allowed 5th in sacks

5th in least points allowed (actually 3rd if only points given up by the defence are included)

And on special teams:

3rd in field goal % 

4th in punt average

5th in kick return average

Miscellaneous:

5th least in total penalties and penalty yards assessed.    

     I think it’s fair to say that if one saw these statistics and one was asked to predict the record of the team that achieved them, they would probably have said they finished 6-2 or better.  I have examined the stat sheets for each game in detail. So, let’s go through each game and try to figure out how and why the team only finished 4-4.

Week 1 Western 32 Laurier 19

     There have been many times when the vaunted Western offence has torn up opposing defenses, including those of some pretty damn good Hawks teams.  What makes last year’s loss in the season opener so frustrating is the incredible job the defense did the majority of the time. The Hawks outgained Western 442 to 288 in total yards. That is a significant edge!  Holding Western to under 300 yards in total offence (and under 100 yards on the ground) is something that almost never happens. So, how does one explain the loss? Well, a couple of things stand out.  Despite Western not having a single rusher gain more than 35 yards on the entire day, they did have a couple of ‘quick strike’ touchdowns. Trailing WLU 3 to 1 at the end of the 1st quarter, Western had a two play 83 yard drive featuring a 62 yard touchdown pass.  Later on in the quarter, Western blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. Early in the 3rd quarter, a three play 50 yard drive that ended on a 36 yard touchdown pass put the Mustangs up 22 to 6. WLU had to settle for two field goals after long drives of over 10 plays each that averaged 66 yards in length. The Hawks did score two touchdowns in the 2nd half but Western had 10 more points as well.  On the day, Laurier had the ball for almost 35 minutes. The Hawk defense shut down the Mustangs most of the day, really only just giving up the 2 long td passes. The Hawks had 2 turnovers while Western only had 1.  As well, the Western punter had a phenomenal day kicking the ball averaging over 49 yards per kick which meant WLU often faced a long field in front of them. The key statistic on the day in my opinion was penalties. While Western had 9 penalties for 85 yards, Laurier had seventeen penalties for 160 yards! 

Week 2 Laurier 18 York 10

     Coming off a loss where the team had to feel pretty good about the effort on both sides of the ball vs the undisputed best team in the league over the past 2 seasons, the Hawks followed up that effort with a somewhat sluggish performance against a York team that has struggled significantly for a number of years. Once again, the Hawks outgained their opponents by a huge margin in terms of yards: 380 to 222.  Time of possession was about equal. Penalties were identical. Punting average was about the same for both teams as was also the total return yardage on special teams. Laurier only had 1 turnover while York had none. York’s only touchdown was on a long punt return.  Leading 15 to 10 late in the game, Laurier sealed the victory with a very short field goal with about one minute left.  The defense held the York QBs to a 43% completion percentage.  Anyway, a win is a win so let’s just move on to week 3.

Week 3 Toronto 38 Laurier 34

     This was an upset.  The U of T offence had a quite a resurgence, especially during the first half of the year. They had scored 84 points in their 1st 2 games  and could very easily have been 2-0 instead of 1-1. Although they slowed down in the 2nd part of the season, one could have made an argument that Toronto QB Clay Sequiera was a legit MVP candidate.  On this day, Sequiera was 18 for 32, with 322 yards passing and 4 touchdowns. He did a great job evading the WLU pass rush. He was only sacked once. Laurier got off to a quick 17 to 0 lead in the first quarter on a touchdown reception by Brentyn Hall and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown by rookie Tanner Nelmes. In the 2nd quarter, Sequiera threw 2 long touchdown passes and the U of T defense got a touchdown on an interception.  The score at halftime was 25 to 24 for WLU.  In the third quarter, another long U of T touchdown pass made it 31 to 25 for Toronto.  After that, the U of T offence was shut down for multiple series while the Hawk offence consistently drove the ball well during the 4th quarter, but due to penalties and some key drops, we had to settle for three Nathan Mesher field goals to take a 34 to 31 lead with only a couple of minutes remaining.  Sadly, the Blues struck for another long TD pass in the final minute to secure a 38 to 34 upset.  Clearly, one key issue in this game was an inability to defend deep balls.  The four U of T touchdown passes ranged from 36 to 57 yards in length. Offensively, WLU outgained Toronto 515 yards to 404, had 33 first downs vs 21, and had over 36 minutes of ball possession.  However, whereas Laurier had to settle for four fairly short field goals, Toronto offensive bursts ended in touchdowns.  What the stat sheet doesn’t show is how injured the Hawks were at the receiver position that evening.  What the stat sheet does show is that for the 2nd time in 3 games, the amount of penalties WLU took was far too high. 15 penalties for 158 yards (compared to 7 for 69 yards by Toronto) was ultimately too much to overcome. 

Week 4 Ottawa 25 Laurier 22

     This might be the most frustrating loss that I have ever witnessed.  First off, let’s start with some positives.  The penalty problem was solved during this game.  We only took 6 penalties for 44 yards. The defense was outstanding the entire game.  They only gave up 158 total yards and 11 first downs and really only one drive of any real substance.  However, turnovers and special teams difficulties killed us.  It was a very windy day and it made throwing the ball difficult. The Hawks relied heavily on the rushing effort of Dre Gordon who had a career high 38 carries for 188 yards and two touchdowns. At the end of the first half, the Hawks should have been up by a lot by somehow they only lead 5 to 3. The team had 5  fumbles on the day (all by different players) including 3 in the first half, 2 of which were inside the Ottawa 25 yard line and another one that came at the end of a long pass reception that would’ve got us inside the Ottawa 35 yard line. It should be noted that this was really only one of 2 games in the year that the Hawks had a significant turnover problem on offence. The only Ottawa points came on a field goal shortly after they blocked a punt, which was a bad omen of things to come.  In the 3rd quarter, the defense again continually absolutely shut down any semblance of an Ottawa offensive attack.  Hampered by winds and a still heavily injured receiving group, the WLU run game pounded the rock repeatedly and two Gordon touchdowns put us up 19 to 3 going into the 4th quarter. So, what happened?  First off, let me say that the Ottawa defense was a solid unit. The fact they were able to hold the Laurier O to 3 points in the final quarter is a testament to their abilities. We actually went up 22 to 3 early in the quarter.  After that is when things fell apart. There was seemingly no way we could lose.  Up by 19 points with 12 minutes remaining with a defense that was continually destroying the Ottawa O, defeat was seemingly impossible.  Again, so what happened?

1.Ottawa gets the ball. The defense allows one first down before Ottawa is forced to punt.  A 66 yard punt is fumbled by our returner on our 4 yard line.  The returner still had plenty of time to fall on it.  However, he inadvertently kicked it backwards into the end zone.  It was there that an Ottawa player fell on it for a touchdown.   WLU 22   Ottawa   10

2.Laurier mounts a decent drive and picks up a few first downs.  Facing a 3rd and 2 at the Ottawa 42 line, WLU sends in the punt team.  A strong punt rush ensues and to avoid having the kick blocked, our punter throws a pass that is intercepted.  Slightly under 9 minutes remained.  The defense came in and shut down the Ottawa offence again and forced them to punt.

3.Laurier had another decent drive, picking up a few first downs before having to punt.  The punt is partially blocked, but it crossed the line of scrimmage and it was returned for a touchdown by Ottawa’s most dangerous player Karim Beaver.    Slightly under 5 minutes remained.   WLU 22  Ottawa 17         

4.After exchanging punts, the Hawks still lead by 5 with about 2.5 minutes left.  Laurier faced a 3rd and 1 on our 49 yard line with slightly over 2 minutes left.  Given that three WLU punts had already had disastrous results on the day and knowing that Ottawa was out of timeouts, Coach Faulds made the proper call and went for it.  However, Ottawa stuffed the run and took over the ball with about 2 minutes left.

5.Ottawa mounted their only ‘drive’ of the day: 46 yards, aided by a phantom pass interference call and scored a TD to go up 23 to 22.  A sack in the endzone soon after gave Ottawa 2 more unneeded points. 

If we played Ottawa 10 times last year, I am sure we would have beaten them the other 9 times.  This loss was a killer.  It was a long bus ride home.

 

Week s 5, 6, and 7 WLU  52  Queens  16, WLU  52  Windsor  10, WLU  53  Waterloo  50

    In 2015, the Hawks started off 1-3 before rallying to finish 4-4 and then beat a heavily favoured McMaster team in the playoffs before losing a hard fought semi final at Western.  Four years later, WLU turned it around again with 3 solid efforts.  We absolutely destroyed Queens and Windsor in back to back weeks.  The offence averaged 450 yards a game while the defense gave up 220 yards per game. The Waterloo game was a triple overtime thriller.  For any one you reading this that hasn’t watched Usports football for the past few years, the Waterloo QB Tre Ford is in my opinion the most dynamic player in the country in the entire decade.  His escapability and running skills are unparalleled.  He can also throw the ball pretty damn well too. Ford threw for 351 yards and ran for 135 more.  Nobody is a bigger overall threat.  Waterloo put up over 570 yards of offence.  WLU had over 580 yards of offence. A blocked field goal by Alfred Green forced overtime and we won in in the third overtime period.  We were now 4-3 heading into the final week and scheduled to play a Carleton team that was 3-4.  Everyone had expected bigger things from that team but they struggled most of the year.   

Week 8 Carleton 22 Laurier 10

     Going into the final week of the season with a 4-3 record, the standings were very bunched up.  We could have finished as high as 3rd or as low as 7th.  The tiebreakers that existed were immensely complicated because of all the different permutations. But simply put, it was ‘Win and you’ll be In’ for us.  If we lost, our fate would not be in our own hands.  We ended up losing by 12 to the Ravens and ended up in a tie with Carleton and Waterloo all at 4-4 and all 1-1 vs each other.  We lost a ‘net points in those games’ tiebreaker.  Ironically, had we lost by even more we might have actually come 2nd out of the 3 teams in the tiebreaker as that would’ve given Carleton sole ownership of fifth and our victory over Waterloo would’ve given us 6th. However, the complex nature of the tiebreakers made that theory speculative at best. 

     After 7 games, the Hawks offence had only committed 12 turnovers and half of them were in the Ottawa game. On this day, we turned the ball over 4 more times.  Once again, the defense played amazingly well for at least the 6th time in 8 games.  I should have known this was going to be a bad game the night before.  I was in Oshawa scouting a game and when I tried to get on to Highway 401 after the game, I was rammed from behind by an SUV that had been hit by an 18 wheeler.  Jesse Alexander was with me.  We were both fine but my car was a wreck.  The next day, I drove a rental car to the game but I had to spend the entire game on the phone dealing with my insurance company.  It was not very entertaining. Quite frankly, it was a boring game.  Both offences had under 300 yards, although we did outgain them 285 to 270.  This was the only day where our quarterback play was below average as only 13 out of 33 passes were completed.  That was a shock given a completion percentage of almost 64% going into the game.   The three best players on the field that day were Carleton Ravens.  RB Josh Ferguson had 26 carries for 142 yards to become the only RB to top the 100 yard mark vs WLU during the year.  On defense, Danny McWhirter had 3 interceptions including a ‘pick 6’.   Finally, the Carleton punter had an exceptional game with directional punting getting the ball out of bounds and continually pinning our returners near the sideline.  On his 14 punts, we only had 26 return yards. Laurier trailed 12 to 0 at the half.  Needing a spark, the Hawks went for it on a 3rd and short in their own end early in the 3rd quarter and were stopped.  The defense held the Ravens to a field goal.  WLU mounted a slight comeback and closed the gap to 15 to 10 with 7 minutes left.  With just over a minute left, Laurier had its second chance to take the lead but this time we were backed up near our 10 yard line.  On 3rd down, we gave up a sack and on the next play Carleton got a meaningless 9 yard touchdown run to seal the victory. It was a heartbreaking defeat.  Given our previous 3 game winning streak, I don’t think anyone even imagined that Carleton could beat us. They had struggled most of the year but they played very well against us.  They would’ve also upset Guelph in the playoffs had it not been for a huge special teams error they made in the last minute of that game.

     So, the season ended up with us at 4-4 and out of the playoffs.  In the losses to Western and Toronto, we committed a total of 32 penalties. In the losses to Carleton and Ottawa, we committed 10 turnovers.  At the start of the article, I highlighted a number of amazing statistics that would’ve suggested a much better record.  Well, here are a few statistics that possible help explain why we failed to make the playoffs:

1.On offence, we gave up two touchdowns. If that didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have lost to U of T and we would have been leading Carleton late instead of desperately trailing and needing to have a 100 yard drive to win at the end of the game.

2.On special teams, we gave up five touchdowns. There was a blocked punt, a fumbled punt, two punt return touchdowns, and 1 kickoff return touchdown.  In retrospect, two of those five didn’t matter as they occurred in the York and Queens games.  However, two of the other three occurred in the same game vs Ottawa.

3.As good as the defense played all year, they simply didn’t generate enough turnovers.  We only had 5 fumble recoveries and 5 interceptions.  We ranked last in that category.

     One opposing head coach who shall remain nameless told me near the end of the season, that Laurier was the last team that anybody wanted to play in the playoffs.  Well, sadly, nobody had to do so!  Well I am now done talking to myself.  In next week’s episode, I will be talking to the 2005 Vanier Cup champion Anthony Maggiacomo.

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