It will be an interesting Yates Cup final for Michael Faulds.
Laurier's head coach, now in his fourth year leading the Golden Hawks, returns to Western, where he starred for five seasons.
For Faulds, the original road to Western was a long and winding one. He began his high school days in Guelph, followed by a year in Toronto, then a year at a Pennsylvania prep school before heading to London.
The trip was worth it.
Faulds was an incredible CIS quarterback. He had a strong arm, the ability to extend a play with his legs, and intangibles that were off the charts. After his final game as a Mustang he owned the national single-season and career passing records.
There were several highlights over his career, but one came to mind quickly.
"The 2007 team, we started 0-4," Faulds told 'In The Huddle.' "The playoff run was tough as we played at Queen's, at Ottawa with Josh Sacobie, they were 8-0, then the Yates at Guelph. It was Greg's (head coach Marshall) first year and there was a big cultural shift. It was really rewarding to start 0-4 and win the Yates."
In discussing his playing career, it was obvious he still had very warm feelings for his days at Western, but that warm and fuzzy affection will be gone when his Hawks swoop into London this weekend. He's now easily able to slide into a mindset that whoever Laurier plays is the enemy.
That includes Western.
"When I was (coaching) at York for three years I'd hate them," said Faulds. "It was tough at York scheming for guys I had played with, but it's much easier now. I'm a competitor, it's easy to forget where you played and know where you play now. I'm sure it was the same for Greg when he was at MAC."
Western has produced some very proficient passers over the years – Faulds and current Mustangs quarterbacks coach Jamie Bone come to mind quickly – but when you think about the purple ponies' offence over the years there's one particular style of play that comes to mind, and that's the case for Faulds when he was asked what he thinks of first when discussing the 2016 'Stangs.
"I still see that power run game," said the coach. "It doesn't matter if it's (Alex) Taylor or (Cedric) Joseph. On defence I don't see a team that needs to blitz and stunt a lot. Coach (defensive coordinator Paul) Gleason puts his best 12 on the field and they're so sound they don't need to scheme, they just have such high execution."
The Western Mustangs running game has been the ruin of many an opponent over the years, but Faulds is confident that his defence, one of the best groups in the country, can be better all-around than they were in their regular-season meeting with the Mustangs, a 45-26 Western win in Week Six.
Better, yes, but can they slow them down?
"Yes, definitely," said a confident coach. "We did slow them down quite a bit in our regular season game. (Quarterback Chris) Merchant's really coming into his own and in our first game he played a nearly perfect game. They set up their passing game so well with play action, that's what makes them so challenging."
The Hawks have an elite defence. They have players who were among the top recruits in the country throughout the lineup, and ranked fourth among CIS teams allowing only 15.8 points against per game.
That said, Western's offence is good. Really, really good. It led all CIS teams with a remarkable 49.1 points per game (Laurier was second in the country at 42.6).
"You can slow them down but you're never going to completely stop them," said a realistic Faulds. "Our defence has done an outstanding job. On offence we have more weapons now. We left (London) thinking we left some things there, where in the past we felt we just couldn't do anything."
He's also confident in the ability of his own quarterback, Michael Knevel. Julian John won the starting job in camp, but Knevel took over as the starter the week before the loss to Western. Faulds has seen improvement in the Brantford product since the regular-season meeting with the 'Stangs.
"It was his second game," reflected the coach. "Now he's protecting the ball much better in the last few games. He's at 12 TDs and 3 INTs. He's being very smart with the football and is now showing he can run with it too."
If the Hawks are able to establish any sort of running game it would take a ton of pressure of Knevel, but starting back Eric Guiltinan is a game-time decision after getting hurt against Carleton last week. But the Hawks are blessed with depth at the position.
"I'm really comfortable with our situation," Faulds said of his backs. "We thought it would be a running back by committee situation this year, but Eric was so good. He had the conference lead a few games into the season. As he got banged up Levondre (Gordon) and Osayi (Iginuan) got more and more carries and have really improved a ton. They really are thunder and lightning back there."
Western is still the favourite, and a prohibitive one at that. In The Huddle asked Faulds if the Hawks should lose, is the season still a success, or is this year a case of Yates Cup or bust?
"I say Yates Cup or bust, and really say Vanier Cup or bust because I really feel we have the talent."
We will find out on Saturday.
The O Zone:
To be blunt, the attendance at last week's semi-final games was terrible. The players and coaches deserve better. Western and Laurier are two of the better travelling teams in terms of fan base. I would hope that for a sudden-death championship game that people with ties to the schools and specifically the programs would take the time to support these two outstanding teams.
This is the final "In The Huddle" of the season. I can't tell you how thrilled I am with the positive feedback I get about the column. There is a die-hard core of OUA football fans, and if this column helps that base enjoy the games a little more by giving them some insight into the teams, then it's mission accomplished from this end.
The column, and the OUA Uncovered team previews simply don't happen without the cooperation of the coaches. I'm sure some of them dread taking time away from preparation to talk to the media, but the league is blessed with a group of coaches that love to talk about the product. I thank each and every one of them for their cooperation and insight. I thoroughly enjoy every opportunity I get to learn about their programs.
Me not always wryte so good. Matthew Walker has the unenviable task of editing this piece every week. He was able to duck me once this year, giving Katie Mueller the short straw. A huge thank you to both.
Peter Baxter, Gord Grace and Wally Gabler have been nothing but supportive of this initiative. I hope they invite me back for the 2017 season.
Finally and most importantly, thank you for clicking on this column. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoy writing it.