For many teams it would have sounded the death knell.
In early May, Stefan Ptaszek stunned the CIS when he announced he was stepping down as the head coach at McMaster to take the job as the offensive coordinator with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger Cats. It was just three and a half months before the OUA regular season was scheduled to begin.
Less than two weeks after that bombshell, the Marauders announced that Greg Knox, the club's former defensive coordinator, would leave the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers to lead his former program.
There is never unanimous agreement when a program hires a new head coach. There were many – though the respect for Knox seems to be universal – that would have preferred offensive coordinator Jon Behie be given the nod to head football operations.
But it would be Knox who would take over a program that was still feeling the shock after a first-round 29-15 playoff loss to Laurier last season. He knew there was some work to do.
"We were coming off a disappointing end of the season and then with a transition," Knox told In The Huddle. "With the type of changes we had and when we had them, we knew there were challenges ahead."
The transition appeared to be seamless. The Marauders opened the Knox era with a somewhat surprising 40-10 rout of Carleton. The win over the Ravens wasn't overly startling, but the margin of victory caught many by surprise, especially with there being major questions on the o-line.
"There were massive challenges with the offensive line at the beginning of the season," admitted Knox, who is thrilled with the progression of that group. "We've run the ball more effectively than I can remember a MAC team doing, and we're running the ball when our opponents know we were running the ball."
That's no small feat, nor is keeping quarterback Asher Hastings upright. The OUA has some impressive defences, but the head coach is happy with the way his offensive line, and offence as a whole, has given the QB time in the pocket.
"Our pass protection has been good," said Knox. "Our receivers have been doing more blocking. We also have more formational variations."
Knox belies the stereotype of a former professional athlete. A safety by trade, the Peterborough, Ont. native played the better part of a decade with the Calgary Stampeders, where he had a career high 10 interceptions in 1994.
He'd win two Grey Cups with the Stamps, after concluding his OUA career at Laurier with a Vanier Cup championship in 1991, playing alongside a wide receiver named Stef Ptaszek.
Much like his predecessor at McMaster, Knox has a professorial demeanor. He's very precise with his answers, including taking a long pause before letting OUA.ca know what has made him happiest about the way this season has played out so far.
"I'm happy that we're progressing in all three phases," explained the coach, "and I think we're conducting ourselves with more discipline and it's showing week to week."
One aspect of that discipline would be keeping the number of penalties down, yet that has not been a long suit of the Marauders this season. Among OUA teams, only York had more than MAC's 112 penalty yards per game, though they were flagged for just 75 yards against Western last week in a game they lost by just one point.
They'll need to play a relatively clean game against the Gryphons this week. Guelph was a tipped two-point conversion play at Queen's away from missing the playoffs, but the defending Yates Cup champs still have the respect of the Marauders head coach.
"We're certainly not taking them lightly. They played us tough," said Knox. "They keep fighting. They battled to the very end against us. They battled back against a tough Laurier team. They're armed and dangerous."
This week's combatants met October 1st in Hamilton. The Gryphons led 7-5 at the half, before the home side put up 16 unanswered points in the third quarter en route to a 27-15 win. Hastings was held to 199 yards passing. Aside from the Waterloo game, where he was lifted in the third quarter, it was the only time he was held to under 200 yards all season.
McMaster, however, was able to run the ball exceptionally well against the Gryphons, with Chris Pezzetta rushing for 143 yards, his second-highest total of the season.
At the beginning of the year a first-round matchup between MAC and Guelph was virtually unthinkable, but it's become a reality.
It's been a long time since the OUA playoffs offered fans a pair of first-round games as intriguing as McMaster versus Guelph and Ottawa against Carleton.
This weekend should be a blast.
The O Zone:
The final playoff spot was decided in remarkable fashion. With Guelph comfortably ahead of York, the Queen's Gaels knew they had to win against Ottawa to clinch the final playoff berth. Those that witnessed the game will remember it for a long, long time. Nicholas Fraser-Greene returned an interception 40 yards for a TD with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. It gave Queen's a comfortable 34-24 lead. But the Gee-Gees stormed back, scoring a touchdown, then tying the game on a late Lewis Ward field goal. In OT, the Gaels scored a touchdown, but the Gee-Gees also scored a major. Instead of kicking a single point and going to a second overtime, the visitors gambled and went for two points. Derek Wendel rolled to his right, looked to his favourite target, Mitchell Baines, but underthrew the ball. Gaels defensive back Jason Shamatutu was there to tip the ball straight up in the air, but it fluttered into the hands of Baines for the game winning points. The swing of emotions among Gaels supporters was dramatic. Within a second they went from elation after seeing the ball get tipped, to shock after seeing Baines catch the ball - realizing the season was over. For those that endure many a blowout in OUA football, their patience was rewarded with an incredibly exciting game.
The other playoff game this week is a rematch of the Panda game. Carleton hosts Ottawa at MNP Park as TD Place is booked for a soccer game. In the regular season meeting, coincidentally played the same day as the Marauders/Gryphons regular-season encounter, the Ravens blasted the garnet and grey 43-23. Perhaps the most interesting storyline will be watching how Ottawa tries to contain Nate Behar. The fourth-year receiver torched the Gee-Gees with a dozen catches for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns.