And then there were two.
The McMaster Marauders and Montreal Carabins will meet for the first time in the history of the two schools when they step on the field at Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal for the 50th TELUS Vanier Cup on Saturday, Nov. 29 at 1 p.m.
McMaster is making its third trip to the Vanier Cup in the past four seasons, all under the guidance of head coach Stefan Ptaszek, including winning its only national championship in 2011 over the Laval Rouge et Or.
Montreal had to slay the proverbial giant for a chance to play in the school's first ever Vanier Cup. Facing a Laval Rouge et Or team that had won the conference title 11 consecutive years, and had not lost at home in 70 games, the Carabins beat Laval 12-9 in a thrilling overtime defensive battle to capture the Dunsmore Cup and advance to the national semi-finals.
Having beaten Laval once in the regular season, Montreal accomplished a nearly impossible feat in the playoffs, as it was the first time since 2002 that Laval had lost more than one game against a conference opponent.
With the city of Montreal hosting the Vanier Cup for the first time ever, the timing couldn't have been better for the Carabins to pull off the historic upset. For McMaster, though, it represents a big final hurdle for a team that has put together a season better than anyone expected in the preseason.
"Winning (the Vanier Cup) was certainly something in the range of what we were capable of, but not the most likely outcome of this season," said Ptaszek. "I think those around the league would have had us third or fourth in our own conference, forget being at a national championship."
Due to the timing of the Vanier Cup press conference, the Marauders headed to Montreal on Tuesday night and will have to prepare and practice away from home. Add in the expected crowd noise, and it creates a less-than-ideal situation for McMaster.
"It is going to be a very 'blue friendly' crowd and an atmosphere that we won't really be able to recreate, but we just have to embrace that and play our best football," said Ptaszek.
There are some positives about playing on the road, one being the lack of outside distractions for athletes and coaches – something Ptaszek pointed to when McMaster played at the 2012 Vanier Cup down the QEW in Toronto.
"(On the road) you're a bit more sheltered from family, friends, well-wishers – so it really is just about football," he said. "My staff and I will do our best to have our athletes focus on one thing, and certainly at home that would have been harder to do."
And while the team and coaches are undoubtedly focused on Saturday's game, there are a lot of worse places than Montreal to spend a week.
"This is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, so for our student-athletes to get up here and soak this in, it's a wonderful experience," said Ptaszek at the CIS media conference on Wednesday in Montreal.
Though the two teams have never met, they share a common denominator for their successes in 2014: defence.
The Marauders ranked first in OUA in points allowed during the regular season, and their defence has terrorized opponents the past two weeks, recording 11 sacks and six interceptions, while allowing just 27 points total in convincing wins over Guelph and Mount Allison to reach the Vanier Cup.
There are very few teams that can claim holding Laval without a touchdown in a game, but Montreal managed to do it twice this season, including the Dunsmore Cup win. The Carabins ranked second in the conference, and third in CIS allowing just 100 points in eight regular season games, and also tied for first in the country with 29 sacks.
Though the Manitoba Bisons were able to generate some offence in the Uteck Bowl against Montreal, eventually falling 29-26, Coach Ptaszek knows that points will be at a premium on Saturday.
"(Montreal) defines themselves with their defence," he said. "They're a beast of a defensive unit. We've gotten to this point riding our defence; offensively we've controlled the ball and clock without putting up a lot of points – because we haven't needed to – and they're very, very similar in that regard."
McMaster is going to be without starting running back Chris Pezzetta, who suffered a knee injury at the start of the Mitchell Bowl after carrying the Marauders offence in the Yates Cup when he was named OUA Offensive Player of the Week. It is a crushing blow to Pezzetta after he returned from consecutive ACL injuries that caused him to miss the past two seasons.
Fortunately for McMaster, Wayne Moore is a more than adequate replacement at running back, and showed he can handle a heavy workload running for 146 yards and one touchdown on 30 carries in the Mitchell Bowl.
At quarterback, Montreal is led by one of the nation's best passer's in Gabriel Cousineau. The fourth-year QB finished third in CIS with 2311 yards, adding 14 touchdowns and three interceptions.
McMaster quarterback Marshall Ferguson was with the team for both the 2011 and 2012 Vanier Cups, but playing behind Kyle Quinlan, threw just one pass in the two games – a 14-yard completion in 2011. Ferguson has managed games well in the playoffs, relying on a strong defence and running game, but his team may need more from him should they find themselves down early in the game. Ferguson does have the potential – as well as the weapons at receiver – to air it out, finishing 10th in the country with 2058 passing yards.
A journey that began for 27 teams at training camp in the warm August sun has been whittled down to two, and they will now meet in the crisp Montreal air as the calendar prepares to roll over into the unofficial start of winter.
They have never met before, but with a national championship on the line, the memories of the inaugural meeting will last forever.
The 50th TELUS Vanier Cup is being broadcast live nationally on Sportsnet and Sportsnet 360, as well as on CIS-SIC.tv.
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET, with the pre-game show beginning at 12:30 p.m.
Vanier Cup by the Numbers
1965 – The first year the Vanier Cup was awarded. The Toronto Varsity Blues defeated the Alberta Golden Bears 14-7 at Varsity Stadium in Toronto.
12 – Vanier Cup appearances by the Western Mustangs, the most of any CIS school. Western has a 6-6 record in the championship game.
8 – Vanier Cup championships won by the Laval Rouge et Or, the most of any CIS school. Laval did not launch its football program until 1996, but became a powerhouse almost immediately. They were attempting to become the first school to ever win three consecutive Vanier Cups, before being derailed by Montreal in the conference championship game.
1 – Vanier Cup championship won by the two teams competing on Saturday. McMaster's lone championship came in 2011 against Laval – it remains Laval's only Vanier Cup loss in nine appearances.
90 – The most total points ever scored in a Vanier Cup game. It occurred in 1994 when the Western Mustangs defeated the Saskatchewan Huskies 50-40 in overtime. It was the first Vanier Cup to ever go into overtime, something that wouldn't happen again until McMaster's 41-38 double-OT win against Laval in 2011.
0 – Head coaches to ever win a Vanier Cup and Grey Cup. Carabins head coach Danny Maciocia could become the first after leading the Edmonton Eskimos to a Grey Cup championship in 2005.
14 – Career playoff interceptions in 15 career playoff games for McMaster corner back Joey Cupido. However, he is still looking for his first career Vanier Cup interception.
-1˚C – Expected temperature at kickoff on Saturday. The forecast is calling for cool temperatures but a mostly sunny day.