In front of any great offence stands a stout, impenetrable offensive line. The Western Mustangs football team is no different. In fact, it could be argued that the offensive line has been the most important aspect of the Mustangs offence this season.
Playing for a team that relies heavily on running the football, the line is always at the forefront of the attack. After their regular season win over the McMaster Marauders, running back Cedric Joseph asserted that the offensive line ultimately decides the game.
“Their performance usually dictates how well we do as an offensive unit,” said Joseph. “I really believe that everything starts up front with the five guys.”
Throughout the regular season, Western’s first down play was a handoff over 50 per cent of the time, placing a lot of pressure on the offensive line to open space and own the push. While running backs Joseph, Alex Taylor and Trey Humes each had good years, the offensive line makes or breaks each rush at the line of scrimmage.
However, assessing the offensive line play is usually, by necessity, based on an eye test; there are no easily consumable statistics for the average fan to understand the battle in the trenches. But according to David Brown, a fifth-year veteran of the Mustangs offensive line, the production of the line can be valued through the production of the whole offence.
“We're … the first line of protection for [quarterback] Chris [Merchant], first and foremost, and the rest of our athletes,” said Brown. “If they're having a good game, it means we're having a good game.”
Through this level of analysis, the offensive line hasn’t simply been good this year: they’ve been incredible.
Through eight regular season games, the Mustangs set the pace for the entire country with 2,173 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground. The Guelph Gryphons, the next closest team in the rushing yards category, posted 1,631 yards this season — a full 542 yards behind Western. The Mustangs had eight more rushing majors than anyone else in Canadian university football.
Western also ranked second in the nation with 2,896 yards through the air during the regular season. The only team better, the Calgary Dinos, racked up 3,456 aerial yards, but they managed just 1,102 on the ground (1,071 yards short of Western).
Throughout the playoffs, the Mustangs have had to rely on the offensive line more and more, as they've had to deal with some of the biggest defensive stars in the country.
Carleton brought Kene Onyeka; the offensive line held him to zero sacks on the day.
Guelph threw Luke Korol at them; he finished with just four tackles.
The Huskies offered the most formidable competition: Tristan Koronkiewicz and Riley Pickett. Koronkiewicz was the only challenge the line has failed, allowing him to record two sacks and eight tackles. However, the defensive lineman’s partner in crime, Pickett, was largely unnoticeable, managing just three tackles and no sacks.
Through all of these challenges the offensive linemen have also had to respond to a shifting offensive style. While they could rely on off-tackle runs and short passes during the regular season, the Mustangs coaching staff recently asked the group to pass protect more and hold the line for tough, long-developing play action calls.
True to their role, though, the Western offensive line never complains, doing anything that will help the team.
“I think as an O-lineman, you like to run-block,” said Brown. “But it's up to our coaches: see what kind of weaknesses in the defences they see. If that's passing the ball, we'll do our best to pass protect. If that's running the ball, we'll do our best to run-block.”
While the group has been tested all season and has been thrown in the fire throughout the playoffs, they will face their toughest test this weekend in Quebec City.
“Laval is one of the best defensive fronts in the country,” said Brown. “[They're] led by Matthieu Betts, probably one of the best defensive players in the country. We have to be on our A-game for sure.”
Matthieu Betts tore up the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec this season, bringing down nine sacks in seven games. According to Brown, Laval’s star defensive lineman’s skill cannot be compared to the past challenges the Western front has faced.
“I think this guy is on another level,” warned Brown. “He's a really good football player. He's kind of a generational talent in Canada. I think it's going to take absolutely all we have.”
While they haven’t gained much fanfare, Western’s offensive output has leaned heavily on the O-line — and this group may be the deciding factor in the Vanier Cup.