With many questions looming over the Huskies after their performance against the Windsor Lancers last week, they looked like they may be in for a close game against a young Alberta Golden Bears squad as they tried to find their strengths and build an identity.
As it turns out, they found their strengths, built an identity, and answered a few of the questions that had been swimming around in the minds of Huskie fans over the past week.
Their biggest strength, as it has been speculated by many throughout the offseason and training camp, is their defence. From the first defensive series, the defensive players cast aside any lingering memories of their poor start against Windsor, answering the call on both the ground and through the air. Solid running back KK Sonuga, who has been hyped up by the Bears throughout their training camp, had little impact on the game, with the Huskies defence shutting the door on the ground game, surrendering just 59 yards on the ground. The Bears fared little better through the air, with Julian Marchand and Curtis Dell able to connect on only 58 percent of their passes for a scant 158 yards.
The Huskies identity this season, as it has been for the past few, is that of a nasty, tough, and extremely physical team. This was evident nowhere more so than on the line of scrimmage, where the defensive line, led by Steve Kovach and Zach Hart inside, closed holes and punished runners. The Bears turned the ball over on downs three times on the night, and obtained only seven first downs and no points (the Bears only touchdown was scored on defence). Not to be outdone, the Huskies’ secondary was hitting hard all night, often giving up the short pass in the hope that the receiver would try to get a first down. Alberta receiver Porter Brown, shortly before halftime, found out the hard way that attempting to get YAC yards on the Huskies was painful, getting nailed with a whiplash-inducing hit by Seamus Neary as he tried to break out of a tackle.
In between the Huskies defence answering questions about their play, the Huskies’ special teams showed they were ready to make an impact and put a mark on the game. Not only did they limit Alberta’s punt and kick returns to only 61 yards on the night, but they set the offence up in tremendous position most of the time (that is, when they weren’t scoring touchdowns, which is what Luke Thiel did on a 62-yard romp late in the third quarter). The only area remaining in question is punting, which was shared by Denton Kolodzinski and Steve McDonald, who combined for a 32.8 yard average on the night, with the longest kick only traveling 40 yards.
On offence, the Huskies showed they can be both creative and traditional and still be successful. Starting quarterback Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren was hot in the first half, buying time with his legs, getting out of trouble and moving the pocket. He bought time for his receivers and was able to find many opportunities downfield, although most of that was done after scrambling. His creativity and elusiveness brings option plays and screens into the Huskies playbook and keeps defences on their toes, forcing them to pick their poison, as his cannon-like arm can deliver precise passes as well as his legs can get him out of trouble.
The Huskies also showed that they can be successful under a more traditional, pocket-passing system, as Trent Peterson came in and delivered an effective quarter of play, passing for 81 yards and one touchdown. The Huskies look like they can be effective with either quarterback, or both quarterbacks, leading them. Certainly, the receivers are ready to play this year, with Garrett Bolen, Braeden George and Garrett Burgess making difficult, drive-sustaining catches and Jeff Moore taking a ball that bounced off of a defenders hands in for a major. They also look like the run game will be solid, outside of Gilbert-Knorren, with Ben Coakwell and Dexter Janke picking up good yardage on first downs and picking up first downs and touchdowns in short yardage situations, when called upon.
Questions remain on offence. A retooled offensive line, which featured guards turned tackles Ben Heenan and Darren Hinds along with rookie guard Jordan Arkko, looked less than stellar, with the defense, particularly the linebackers or blitzing defensvie backs, getting through often (although the lack of a consistent blitz pickup can not be blamed on the offensive line alone). Gilbert-Knorren still has to learn to make his reads better and get rid of the ball when the situation calls for it, but those things are problems all young quarterbacks have, and he will improve in those with every game he plays in. As offensive coordinator Brent Schneider said before the game, he’s not looking for perfection, but rather, progression. The Huskie offence, which looks pretty good already, will certainly progress as the season does, taking pressure off the defence and special teams as it becomes a more cohesive and higher functioning unit.
Until then, the Huskies will certainly count on the big returns of Dexter Janke and Kit Hillis, the ball pursuit of Tony Michalchuk and Mitch Friesen, and the pass defence of Seamus Neary and Nico Higgs. Although we likely won’t see an exciting interception return for a touchdown every game, as we saw from Neary tonight, I think it’s will see other big plays from other players, putting to rest any question that this team can compete with the best.
If tonight’s game was any indication, Huskie fans can, at the very least, expect an exciting season ahead.