Les Carabins ont leur Coupe Vanier

La Coupe Vanier 2014 appartient au Québec, mais pas à Québec. Les Carabins de l’Université de Montréal ont procuré la coupe au 514 en défaisant in extremis les Marauders de McMaster 20-19 dans un match davantage mémorable pour son caractère anxiogène que pour la qualité du spectacle. Inutile de dire que les Carabins s’en contenteront, eux qui remportent le championnat canadien pour la première fois.

J’étais intéressé de voir l’effet qu’allaient avoir les tactiques motivationnelles de l’entraineur de Mac Stefan Ptaszek. Celui-ci avait fait une sortie décriant le fait que les Carabins pouvaient se préparer en suivant leur routine habituelle tandis que celles des Marauders serait chambardée. Si on s’attardait au fond, l’argumentaire était chancellant, mais personne n’était dupe. Ptaszek voulait faire d’une pierre deux coups: instaurer chez ses joueurs la mentalité de “nous contre le monde” tout en faisant subir davantage aux Carabins la pression d’un moment qu’ils souhaitaient depuis si longtemps. Après tout, la finale avait beau être à Montréal, mais des deux équipes, c’est McMaster qui est l’habituée des finales de la Coupe Vanier, ceci étant leur troisième en quatre ans. Force est de constater qu’à la base, la tactique a fonctionné à merveille.

Je sais que Ptaszek a emmerdé beaucoup de partisans (et d’anciens) des Carabins avec ses commentaires. Toutefois, rien de tout cela n’altère le fait que le mec est un sacré coach. Appelons un chat un chat. Pendant toute la première demie, Ptaszek et ses entraîneurs ont gagné la partie d’échecs qui les opposait à l’équipe d’entraîneurs des Carabins. Les premières séries offensives des Bleus nous ont montré que les Marauders avaient fait leurs devoirs quant aux tendances et aux jeux préférés de l’UdeM. L’équipe de Hamilton refoulait constamment les Montréalais en situation de deuxième et long et envoyait subséquemment une pression trop forte pour les bloqueurs des Bleus. Les Bourgognes sont rentrés au chaud pour la demie ayant déjà réussi six sacks sur le quart Gabriel Cousineau, alors que les ailiers défensifs Connor MacKay et Mark Mackie, qui avaient terrorisé les Mounties de Mount Allison la semaine précédente, ont connu un excellent match et ont grandement contribué à l’inconfort quasi-constant de Cousineau.

Parlant du quart des bleus, on a vite compris qu’il ne battrait pas le record d’équipe pour le plus de verges par la passe lors d’un match qu’il avait établi la semaine précédente contre le Manitoba. Bien qu’il faille féliciter les Marauders de leur excellent plan de match en défensive, ils ont néanmoins bénéficié d’une performance pour le moins erratique de Cousineau, qui multipliait les passes imprécises, particulièrement au premier essai. La performance moyenne de Cousineau était d’autant plus exposée du fait que les Carabins ont commencé à s’éloigner de la course plutôt rapidement. Je ne suis pas de ceux qui définissent l’équilibre à l’offensive par le dogme de courir et de lancer à 50 pour cent du temps, mais il y aurait peut-être eu lieu de donner plus de chances à Sean Erlington et à la ligne offensive de se bâtir un peu de momentum au sol.

Vu la quasi-inertie de l’offensive des Bleus en première mi-temps, le match aurait pu s’éloigner de l’UdeM très rapidement, n’eut été de la performance somme toute solide de leur défensive qui, sans appliquer autant de pression sur le quart que contre le Manitoba, a su limiter les dégats contre une attaque des Marauders qui a pris très peu de risques pendant l’entièreté de la rencontre. Bon, il faut dire que lorsque deux de ces risques finissent en interceptions (dont une où le maraudeur Anthony Coady semblait être atterri hors du terrain, #CoachsChallenge), cela incite à la prudence. Le quart de Mac Marshall Ferguson n’a pas le talent de son prédecesseur Kyle Quinlan, mais il a été plutôt sobre dans ses décisions. Il passait souvent à sa deuxième ou à sa troisième lecture trop rapidement pour que la pression ne l’atteigne. Au sol, c’était tout ou rien pour les Marauders, alors que les Bleus, hormis quelques gros jeux inopportuns, n’ont pas été trop généreux envers les porteurs bourgognes.

Les Carabins ont fait quelques ajustements intéressants à la demie et ont reçu un bon coup de main de leurs unités spéciales, qui ont forcé et recouvré un échappé sur le botté d’envoi de la deuxième demie. Les Bleus ont ensuite marqué un touché sur un bel attrapé du toujours fiable Philip Enchill (#Spartiates). Il y a un moment que je le vois aller (depuis son arrivée au collégial) et j’adore ce joueur, qui semble prêt et apte à exécuter toutes les tâches qu’on lui confie. C’était justice de le voir faire un jeu aussi important lors de cette finale.

On mentionnera aussi le botteur Felix Ménard-Brière, qui, pour un deuxième match de suite, a sorti un botté de dégagement retentissant à un moment clé du match de façon à redonner l’avantage du terrain à son équipe. Les Carabins ont fait meilleur usage de ce cadeau de leur botteur cette semaine, recupérant rapidement le ballon et allant chercher leur second majeur de la rencontre. L’autre touché des Bleus appartient à Erlington, mais le jeu clé de la série où les Carabins l’ont marqué est le remarquable catch de la recrue Régis Cibasu, sur une passe où Cousineau fait complètement confiance au costaud ancien Lynx d’Édouard-Montpetit lors du duel aérien contre son couvreur. Pensez-vous que la LCF l’attend avec impatience, celui-là? Marco Iadeluca adore lui donner le ballon sur le jailbreak screen qui suit la feinte de jeu au sol, jeu que McMaster défendait bien au début du match, mais qui a donné un ou deux gains intéressants aux Bleus en deuxième mi-temps.

Il était question, après le match, de savoir si le fait qu’une équipe québécoise autre que le Rouge et Or gagne la Coupe Vanier prouve qu’il y a bel et bien parité dans la conférence Québec. Voilà bien une suggestion risible. Il n’existe pas de parité au Québec. Regardez les joueurs de chacune des équipes de la conférence et vous constaterez que la supériorité des Carabins et du Rouge et Or, particulièrement sur les deux lignes, est telle que les quatre autres équipes de la conférence se battent pour la troisième et la quatrième place. Cela dit, le manque de parité a beau être problématique, je suis moins convaincu que jamais que le RSEQ doit légiférer pour le pallier.

D’ailleurs, si la victoire des Carabins n’est pas en soi garante d’une parité à long terme, d’autres signes encourageants demeurent. Les Stingers de Concordia n’avaient pas le talent pour se hisser plus haut que le quatrième rang cette saison, mais la performance que les frères Donovan ont réussi à extraire de cette équipe passablement limitée à certaines positions augure bien pour l’avenir, surtout si les Donovan continuent d’exploiter adroitement leurs connexions aux États-Unis. McGill, étant donné ses moyens financiers et son prestige, conserve un certain potentiel, pour ne pas dire un potentiel certain, si le département des sports nomme la bonne personne au poste d’entraîneur-chef. Et le Vert et Or de Sherbrooke ne manque pas d’atouts pour bâtir un effectif capable de compétitionner avec n’importe quelle équipe canadienne.

J’ai très hâte de voir ce que la saison prochaine nous réservera, quoiqu’un retour en force du Rouge et Or semble extrêmement probable. L’actuel manque de parité au Québec se règlera de lui-même? Découvrirons-nous plutôt que toute victoire d’une autre équipe québécoise contre le Rouge et Or ou les Carabins ne peut être autre chose qu’une aberration dans la conjoncture actuelle? Nous verrons bien. Entre temps, toutefois, il convient de cesser pour un moment de discuter des questions existentielles du RSEQ et de laisser cette équipe des Carabins célébrer sa victoire. Le jour viendra assez vite où tout cela sera à refaire.

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5 football questions for this week

Law studies are a pain in that they hardly allow me to pour countless words into writing about the game, which is annoying at the start of the NCAA, NFL and CIS seasons. However, I do wish to take the time to answer the five questions I’ve been getting the most from friends and fellow members of the Quebec football community. So here goes.

1. What happened to Concordia against UofM?

Can’t say I didn’t see this one coming. There was a play when Carabins defensive lineman David Ménard penetrated (again) through the Concordia offensive line and batted down a Reid Quest pass. The way the play happened, however, gave the impression Ménard had punched Quest in the face. That play strikes me as symbolic of the spanking the Stingers took from their Montreal rivals, a beatdown about which the word “embarrassing” comes quickly into the mind. 

It didn’t take long for one to realize “les Bleus” were superior. The porous ConU pass protection forced them to resort to half-slide protection, which requires the running backs to help slow down backside pursuit, but UofM front seven consistently beat the Stingers offensive line on the frontside and pounded QB Reid Quest anyway. Concordia does have skilled offensive players, including future pro slotback Kris Bastien, but because Quest wore the UofM defensive front between 1 and 4 PM, they didn’t really get to show their skills. 

As for Concordia’s defence, it has a lot to offer, but it cannot be expected to hold opponents off the board (especially not UofM and its excellent running back Rotrand Sené) if it spends the entire day on the field. Coordinator Luc Pelland is a terrific defensive mind, and he had great success running his 3-4 defence while at Vanier College, not to mention that it seemingly makes sense considering that Concordia is short on defensive linemen and heavy on linebackers. The thing is, though, I’m unconvinced star linebacker Max Caron thrives in it. Caron (I can say this having played in front him myself) seems at his best with a full defensive line keeping blockers off him so he can roam freely. The prospect of Caron and fellow star Travis Bent playing together, along with experienced veteran Alexandre Lemire and freaky athlete Mikael Charland, is enticing, but again, Caron doesn’t make the same impact when he has to fight through traffic. This is a kid who shone very brightly as a rookie when this columnist was finishing his CIS career, and was unplayable during his second season, as he went on to win the President’s trophy as the country’s best defensive player. The secondary is talented but young, with both characteristics showing at different points in the game. The Stingers also showed a worrisome propensity to lose the edge on outside running plays, particularly when faced with UofM’s beloved wing back on the right side of the formation. 

That being said, it’s one game. Yeah, yeah, I know it was a real beatdown, but allow me to make two final points. First, should the opposition fail to put as much pressure on the passer as UofM did (Laval might, the rest of the league likely won’t), this Concordia team will score points. Quest is talented, so are the receivers, and I really liked the vision and moves I saw from rookie running back Jamall Hamilton-Hyman. Second, and perhaps more importantly, has anyone looked at the Stingers’ schedule this year? They play McGill and Bishop’s twice and get St-Francis-Xavier at home, all completely winnable games, despite the Stingers’ obvious pass protection issues and striking youth in the secondary. They could lose all games against francophone teams and still finish the season with five wins. And you know what five wins gets you, at the bare minimum, in this conference? Third place.

2. What do you make of Johnny Manziel’s conduct? 

This kid is really starting to worry me. That his personality is already far better suited to the pro lifestyle than to that of college is so self-evident, it’s long been past debating.

Moreover, I frankly couldn’t care less about him taunting the NCAA during A&M’s first game against Rice. The NCAA is an organization so unbearably piss-poor in just about every conceivable way (including the hypocritical rule that led to its scrutiny of Manziel) that it deserves little more than to be treated with ridicule, mockery and contempt. 

That being said, it’s all of Manziel’s other off-season antics that have me worried. The whole time, I kept saying to myself “Il faut que jeunesse se passe”, or, for those whose French is not quite up there, that kids must be allowed to be kids and that when the season started, Manziel would come back focused and ready for an encore. But his unforgivable demeanour when dealing with his head coach Kevin Sumlin, after all the “while drunk” incidents he gave us during the offseason is giving me serious pause. Is this kid’s judgement so poor that he doesn’t realize whatever he suffered during the offseason, he did to himself (save for the NCAA investigation). And is he so hard-headed and arrogant that he can’t even keep a low profile on the field until he reminds everyone he can play football? 

That Manziel will declare for the 2014 NFL Draft is, barring a serious injury, as foregone a conclusion as foregone conclusions get. But if I’m an NFL personnel guy, I’m getting very worried about the kind of character I’d be getting in Manziel. 

3. Is the read option in the NFL to stay? 

People who have Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin on their fantasy teams better pray it is. Remember when Mike Tomlin said it was a flavour of the month thing? If he’s right, the outlook for the season just got very different for a handful of teams, worst of all for the Redskins. 

That being said, I think Tomlin’s wrong and that Niners and Skins fans can breathe easy. Unless you’re going to allow defences to play with 12 men, the coaches who designed read option plays last year did it so cleverly (with lead blockers escorting the quarterback) and the receivers and tight ends in the NFL are such dynamic athletes that I can’t see what tactic defensive coordinators could dial up consistently to stop the read option AND not leave themselves super vulnerable to 1-on-1 matchups with dynamite receivers down the field. Would you care to match your safety or Sam linebacker 1-on-1 against Vernon Davis? Didn’t think so. 

I think the read option is here to stay. Probably not as a full-scale system, but as an offensive package. Ready to eat your words, coach Tomlin? 

4. How’d you like Jameis Winston’s debut at quarterback for Florida State?

Very much indeed. Winston stood out in a fairly easy 41-13 win against Pitt by completing 24 of his 26 passing attempts. But that wasn’t what made me happiest about the kid’s debut on Monday.

First, FSU finally has a QB with enough sense to look for tight end Nick O’Leary. O’Leary would be a unanimous selection as the most un-stylish player in College Football, but he also happens to be really good. Winston found him three times in the end zone. How’s that for a start for the big tight end?

Winston, and this makes me smile from ear to ear, was also so incredibly poised it was almost disconcerting. After FSU had seemingly become a breeding ground for happy-footed quarterbacks, from Chris Rix to Drew Weatherford, and even Christian Ponder at times, it’s refreshing to see a young QB keep his cool when a bit of pressure is headed his way. 

Winston maneuvered effortlessly around the pocket, making veteran throws on the run with the kind of accuracy you’d expect from a fifth-year senior. Obviously, it would be ludicrous to expect this kind of performance every single week from him; after all, freshmen, talented though they may be, are often inconsistent. But one thing is clear. FSU has its most talented QB since Bobby Bowden’s glory years. Whether he’ll become the best remains to be seen. But I like what I see so far. 

5. Name one team you expect to surprise and to disappoint this year in the NFL.

My surprise team is the Tennessee Titans. With some clever offseason additions, the Titans are a functional performance from Jake Locker away from becoming a really good team. I loooooooooove the Chance Warmack pick in the 2013 first round, which, along with the signing of Andy Levitre, gives them a really good offensive line. Both their receivers, if they can stay healthy (looking at you, Kenny Britt) are first round talents. Delanie Walker, while not as physically gifted as departed starter Jared Cook, might give them more production at the tight end position. And we haven’t even mentioned Chris Johnson, who figures to benefit from improved offensive line play. 

They are solid defensively, especially if Kamerion Wimbley can give them any kind of pass rush. I like those linebackers a lot and the defensive backs are talented as well. Moreover, the schedule is fairly merciful. They do get an unpleasant first half of October with a long trip to Seattle followed by a visit from the all-powerful 49ers. However, the rest of the non-division schedule includes the Chargers, Jets, and Chiefs at home as well as an opening-day visit to a diminished Steelers team. If Locker is so much as decent, they have a real shot at a Wild Card berth as the AFC South is weak with the Texans winning by default, the Jags still in reconstruction and the Colts poised to crash back down to earth. Which conveniently leads me to…

My “incoming disappointment” team is the Colts. They do have Andrew Luck, who figures to be a Top 5 quarterback for years to come. However, I hated their offseason moves. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated their moves. First of all, they have a much tougher schedule this year. Secondly, they’re still not good enough to overtake the Texans. Thirdly, both the Jags and the Titans will be tougher confrontations this year.

And last but certainly not least: when was the last time you saw a team succeed after deciding to pay middle-of-the-road starters like stars and fringe players like starters? Needing to protect Andrew Luck, the Colts decided to pay decent-at-best tackle Gosder Cherilus a fairly monstrous contract to keep opposing speed rushers off Luck. Not against elite opposition he won’t. 

But the truly shocking part was the contracts they gave to the newest most expensive journeymen defensive starters in the league. They added some beef to their defensive line by giving a whopping 4-year, $22-million contract to Ricky “never-lived-up-to-the-years-and-years-of-hype” Jean-François, who hasn’t been more than a bit part player since high school. 

And then Jim Irsay outdid himself… the boy turned around and gave Eric Walden $16 million. Eric Walden, 16 million dollars. 16 million dollars to Eric Walden. For those who don’t know, Walden is (a) the man meant to replace departed Dwight Freeney (an idea which in and of itself is cause for hilarity) and (b) essentially known as the revolving door around which Colin Kaepernick ran circles while Walden was playing for the Packers in last year’s playoffs. 

Meanwhile, Reggie Wayne isn’t getting younger. They don’t have a really scary threat opposite him (though I love their young tight ends, Fleener and Allen). Their running back squad consists of disappointing first round picks and journeymen. Their offensive line is nothing to write home about. They still lack a dominant nose tackle for their 3-4 and the secondary is still rather unconvincing. At least, they still have Adam Vinatieri, right? 

So here I am having spent much more time on this than I should have. See you soon, football fans. I’ll try my best to keep the territory busy. 

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