Varsity Blues face stiff test in Mustangs

Courtesy University of Toronto. (medium_varsity_blues_vertical)

The University of Toronto Varsity Blues are teetering on the playoff bubble heading into their final two games of the 2011 football season.

At 2-4, the Blues sit in seventh place in the OUA standings, one win behind Laurier, which currently occupies the sixth and final playoff spot up for grabs.

On paper, U of T faces a formidable task in its push for the post-season.

This Saturday the Blues return home to host the top-ranked team in CIS football, the undefeated University of Western Ontario Mustangs (6-0).

In its final contest, U of T will carry a lighter load, battling Waterloo (0-6) on Oct. 22 at Varsity Centre.

Laurier, which will realistically need to drop both its remaining games if the Blues are to make the playoffs, has a similar schedule, facing McMaster (5-1) this weekend, and Guelph (1-5) to close out the season.

After a 2-1 start, the Blues have dropped three straight, including a 50-14 drubbing last week at McMaster.

First-year head coach Greg Gary believes his club is capable of playing at a much higher level than they’ve shown over the recent rough patch.

“I don’t think our record is a complete indicator of where we are at as a program,” Gary told the Toronto Observer by phone on Thursday. “I think we’ve moved the ball a bit, from where we were last year to this year.”

Fifth-year quarterback Andrew Gillis will be looking to etch his name into the record books against the Mustangs, needing only 173 yards to become the sixth Blues pivot to throw for over 4,000 career passing yards.

Western will be a heavy favourite despite being on the road. The Mustangs boast Ontario’s top attack, averaging 549 yards per game.

There will be substantial pressure on the Blues’ defence, ranked second in the province, to keep the game close, as U of T has failed to record double-digit points in half of its games this year.

A key matchup to watch will be U of T linebacker Wilkerson DeSouza, who will be looking to contain Mustangs running back Tyler Varga.

Varga is the OUA’s leading rusher with 768 yards and 14 touchdowns, while DeSouza’s 38 solo tackles puts him atop the defensive leaderboard.

“We have to do a better job of stopping the run,” said Gary, referring to his team’s struggles against McMaster and Ottawa. “They [Western] have a really efficient running game and probably the best young running back in the league.”

If the Blues can win at least one of their final two contests, they will equal their 3-5 record from a year ago – the program’s best finish in 15 seasons.

Theoretically, if the Blues can earn at least a split in their last two contests, and Laurier drops the ball in its remaining pair, U of T could be looking at a tie for sixth place.

In that case, the team with the upper hand against common opponents would be fingered for the post-season, but that too would result in a wash if the Golden Hawks in fact lose out.

Point differential would be addressed next, and at this point, it can hardly be speculated on with at least eight quarters of football left to be played by both schools.

“I know it’s cliché, but we’re really just focused on Western this week,” Gary said. “I’ve kind of left the big picture out of my head, but the guys have presented me with all the scenarios.”

Acknowledging that the chips are stacked high against his club facing Western, coach Gary remains optimistic that the Blues have a potent offence and top-speed defence capable of pulling the upset with the proper execution.

“Is it a huge mountain to climb? Absolutely,” Gary said. “Have people climbed it? They have. Are we going to be the next team to do it? I hope so.”