After 135 games, 540 quarters of play, countless passes, tackles, losses and wins, the Varsity Blues finally recorded their first shutout victory since 1995 with a definitive 19–0 home win against the Wilfred Laurier Golden Hawks on Labour Day.
Head coach Greg Gary later told reporter Michael Hogan, “It was one of those games where I never thought it would happen. I mean, a shutout is rare. Even as it was getting late into the game I kept thinking that they’d at least get a rouge or a safety. With about six minutes left I got to thinking, ‘We might get a shutout’.”
The game marked Laurier’s first shutout loss since 1984. History will show that the Blues defeated the Golden Hawks 1–0 in 2010, but that win was decided in a boardroom after it was found that Laurier had used an ineligible player in the game. A win on the field became a loss in the record books. Apart from that altered match, Toronto has failed to triumph over Laurier since October 1996.
“It’s a nice start to the season,” admitted Toronto quarterback Richard Quittenton. That rings especially true for a Blues team that entered the 2012 season hoping to prove that they are a fresh, competitive team.
Saturday’s away game at Western proved something of a letdown after that spectacular start; the Blues fell 62–7 to the Western Mustangs, only avoiding being shut out themselves thanks to a nine-yard touchdown reception by receiver Cody Rossi from rookie quarterback Chris Jugovic, who came in to replace Richard Quittenton in the second half.
On Labour Day, the team was guided to victory by spectacular special teams play, as both offenses were slow coming out of the game — to be expected when two teams with first-year starting quarterbacks meet in a season opener.
Quittenton entered the game as one would expect a first year starter to: full of nerves. “I was nervous before the game not really about my own individual stuff thought, I just wanted to win.”
Following a scoreless first quarter, the momentum swung towards the Blues on an odd special teams play. On a third down Laurier was preparing to punt the ball to the Blues, but the high snap flew past punter Ronnie Pfeffer. He picked up the loose football at his own five yard line under heavy pressure by Toronto, but rather than concede the safety he booted the ball out of bounds at the two yard line. Two plays later Quittenton snuck the ball into the end zone for the first major.
“Special teams is a high point for us right now,” Gary told The Varsity. “Last year we thought that we weren’t as good on special teams as on the other facets of our game so special teams is something we really focused on and we made it a priority. Ken Mazurek (special teams coordinator) did an outstanding job.”
A home stadium is typically filled by home supporters who can be as valuable as an extra player on the field — the “13th man” of Canadian football.
Following Laurier’s muffed punt a Blues fan sitting near the 50 yard line spent the rest of the game taunting the Goldenhawk’s punter with chants of, “Put 37 [Pfeffer’s jersey number] on the field! Let’s see him lead the team again.”
The ability to distract players and interrupt the progress of a game has proven the the greatest advantage of a home field crowd.
Qwest Field, the home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, is renowned for its loud crowd, which has been recorded at 112 dB, only 18 dB below a Boeing 747. In a 2005 NFL game, the New York Giants incurred 17 false starts due to the Seattle crowd noise.
The 5,000 Blues fans in attendance, while not nearly as loud as a Boeing jet, still forced Wilfred Laurier into an offside in the second quarter, which lead to a successful Andrew Lomasney field goal from 27 yards out, and another two false starts in the fourth quarter, including an illegal procedure. The flow of the Golden Hawks offense was greatly interrupted by the penalties as they were unable to advance the ball with any consistency throughout the game, generating only 190 total yards.
Last season the average attendance at Varsity Stadium teetered around 1,300. This year’s home opener saw a near 4,000-person increase, and the largest opening game crowd of the past few years. The 13th man advantage on Labour Day definitely played a role in the victory.
But home field advantage can prove a suffocating disadvantage when you are playing before a hostile away crowd. The Blues learned this lesson on Saturday in London in the 62–7 loss to the Western Mustangs.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
One area that the Blues must improve if they wish to remain competitive in the OUA and avoid losses such as the one against Western is their penalty count.
“We’re a team that’s going to get penalized,” said Gary. “We play on the edge we’re aggressive. I expect us to get penalized we’re trying to clean it up but a lot of our effort penalties and we’ll expect those. Just trying to make plays and I can live with that.”
Western and Toronto combined for 259 yards in penalties, with the Blues being flagged 15 times for 135 yards. Last week, the Blues were charged for 110 yards in penalties against Laurier.
The loss is a reminder that the season moves on and the excitement and glory of the first win becomes simply a W in the books with seven more matches ahead.
Yet, the loss is simply that — a single loss.
From 2001 to 2008, the Blues football team went six consecutive seasons without a victory. These were not close games where one play, one catch, one tackle could have changed it all. They were shut out, demoralizing losses to the tune of 80–0. With the first victory in nearly seven years coming against Waterloo at the start of the 2008 season, the Blues set at record for the longest losing streak in Canadian university history at 49 games.
The past two seasons have seen a turnaround for the team. Under Gary the team has won three games each year, ending the 2011 season one game out of the playoffs.
Amidst all the mockery, it can be easy to forget that the Varsity Blues football team existed before the skid began in 2001 and that its history is far richer than those 49 lost games.
The years in which Toronto opened the season as victors at 1–0 provide an encouraging precedent for the current Blues team to emulate.
The 1993 season is eerily familiar to anyone following the team this season. That year, the Blues beat Waterloo by 19 points in their opening game, and lost only one game all year, to Western, on the road to becoming Vanier Cup champions. While the Blues, who face a tough schedule this year, most likely will lose more games than that 1993 team, the similarity of their starts offers hope that this year’s team can follow a similar path.
But it’s only two games into the season, with one definitive victory and a demoralizing loss. The upcoming games will reveal which team will play the remainder of the season — the shutout victors or the 55-point losers.
“We’re going to play each game one at a time,” coach Gary said after the victory over Laurier, “We want to win five games and get to the playoffs.”