Western Mustangs face Guelph Gryphons in first test of football season

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It’s never too early in the school year to be tested.

The Western Mustangs will face their first real test of the Ontario university football season Monday when the Guelph Gryphons come to town for a 7 p.m. start.

While the Gryphons lost their opening game in double overtime to the Ottawa Gee-Gees, the Mustangs were hammering the York Lions.

The Gryphons will be better than their 3-5 season last year, even though they were disappointed they couldn’t complete a late comeback in their opener.

The Mustangs’ 63-point win over the Lions looked impressive.

But the Guelph strengths will play right into the area the Mustangs consider questions marks, at least for now. Just how much of a question mark they are will be better identified after Monday night.

After a year of being the interim head coach at Guelph, Londoner Kevin MacNeill was given the job full-time after the season.

MacNeill was the team’s defensive co-ordinator for years. He’s a good football guy. He said the interim label didn’t hurt his ability to recruit and said they had a strong recruiting year.

“We had 22 kids committed before Christmas last year and I wasn’t named head coach yet,” MacNeill said. “I think the program and the university and our vision speaks for itself. (Being named head coach) didn’t have as big of an impact as I thought it might have had. It was pretty good.”

MacNeill said he believes the greatest improvement his team has made is on the offensive and defensive lines. If a team is going to beat Western, the line play is where the victory will germinate.

“We developed some good kids and some good recruits that have come in and shown promise,” MacNeill said.

“We feel like we’re pretty strong at receiver and (defensive back) as well.”

MacNeill says his team wants to run the ball and didn’t run it as well as he would have liked against the Gee-Gees. The Gryphons ran it 35 times for 126 yards averaging 3.5 a carry. But they kept pounding away all game. Patrick Pierre ran 26 times for 100 yards.

MacNeill says the offence is still learning. He brought in Jean-Francois Joncas as a new offensive coordinator and the Gryphons are learning a new offence.

“Putting in a new offence; there are some growing pains along with that,” MacNeill said. “I’ve seen deficiencies we’ve had in the past that are being corrected. From that perspective we’re happy with the group of guys we have and the coaching staff.”

Look for the Gryphons to challenge the young, smallish Western defensive line although MacNeill says it’s more than just the defensive line. Like most coaches MacNeill didn’t want to talk about how he’ll attack Western but was more than happy to talk about how good they are.

“It’s always fun, we love playing Western,” MacNeill said. “You have no idea how much I respect Greg (head coach Greg Marshall.) It’s such a great group of coaches and I know them very well. They are good. They are dialed in. They are a real challenge.

“Even though they’ve changed some names here and they still have one of the best linebacker crews in the country; they have the best running back in the country Alex Taylor plain and simple. He’s so, so good. You have a 6’8”, 350 pound offensive lineman (Dylan Giffen) who didn’t start last year, that’s pretty good. They are really good up front. They grind you. Chris Merchant can scan the whole field and make any throw from the pocket.”

Guelph presents the same kind of challenges for Western. Unlike York they can throw the football. They have a great set of receivers led by Jacob Scarfone. The Mustang linebackers that could help the defensive line with the run against York will have to be a little more wary of the pass against Guelph.

When it’s all over on Monday night both teams will have a better idea of how good they are or how much more work they have to do. 

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