Top-ranked teams set to renew rivalry in Yates Cup rematch

Top-ranked teams set to renew rivalry in Yates Cup rematch

BURLINGTON, Ont. – It was a year in the making, but Ontario University Athletics (OUA) football fans will get the rematch they’ve been waiting for, as the No. 1 Western Mustangs and No. 2 Laurier Golden Hawks will meet for a Yates Cup encore in the 110th edition on November 11.

Coming off of their historic matchup just one year ago, wherein the Hawks posted the most dramatic comeback in Yates Cup history, the top two OUA squads will be meeting on the province’s grandest stage for the 15th time overall. The Hawks will be looking for history to repeat itself in what would be the school’s ninth provincial title and their first back-to-back championships since 2004 and 2005, respectively. The Mustangs, meanwhile, will hope the third time’s the charm, as the team attempts to bounce back from losses in the last two Yates Cup games – both hosted in London – and earn their first championship since 2013. 

The Western squad has had one goal in mind all season and has been emphatic in their on-field execution, as the only undefeated team in the province has been as sharp as they come on both sides of the ball. This trend continued into their semifinal game against the Guelph Gryphons, as the Mustangs made quick work of their semifinal foes; a far cry from their tight tilt early in the regular season.

It was dominance across the board for Western against a strong Gryphons squad, as the team limited Guelph to just 77 total yards on the day, while racking up 488 of their own en route to their 66 point explosion. After a closely scored first quarter, it was all Western the rest of the way, with much of the scoring coming from the OUA’s leader in rushing touchdowns – Cedric Joseph. The Montreal, Que. native had a knack for finding the endzone this season (10 touchdowns), but found yet another gear on the weekend, punching in four majors on the day.

Supporting Joseph’s game-changing performance was QB Chris Merchant (Calgary, Alta.), who found the endzone with his arm – connecting with Harry McMaster (Niagara Falls, Ont.) for a 27-yard score – and his legs, as he punched in a one-yard run to push the Mustangs’ total to 50. K Marc Liegghio chipped in with a trio of field goals, while QB Kevin John (Mississauga, Ont.) put the icing on the cake with a late five-yard TD run. On the defensive end, Western wreaked plenty of havoc in keeping the star-studded opposition at bay, intercepting QB James Roberts twice, while breaking up another handful of passes to hold standout WR Jacob Scarfone to just 12 yards and RB Johnny Augustine to 28 yards on the ground.  

For the second time in three weeks, meanwhile, the Golden Hawks were faced with the daunting task of overcoming a stout McMaster defence, but just like in their regular season finale that earned them a quarterfinal bye, Laurier topped their third-ranked opponent in fine form. Relying once again on backup QB Tristan Arndt (London, Ont.), the Hawks managed to do enough on offence, while standing tall on defence, to secure their familiar spot in Saturdays’ finale.

Arndt wasn’t alone out there for the Hawks, as he had the support of several key cogs on the Laurier offence, including RB Levondre Gordon (Mississauga, Ont.), who tallied 121 yards and one touchdown on the day – a four-yard run to open the scoring – as well as K Nathan Mesher (Waterloo, Ont.), whose four field goals kept the Marauders at arm’s length all game long. One of the major reasons this 19-point output was enough to earn the win, however, was a stingy defensive performance led by DB Godfrey Onyeka (Brampton, Ont.). The fourth-year star picked up a team-leading seven tackles, forced a fumble, and secured one of two Laurier interceptions on the day, as the Hawks held Mac to under 300 yards on offence and just six points. 

In the end, when the final whistles blew, the stage was officially set for a Yates Cup rematch, and one that will have a lot to live up to following the 109th edition. In a game that looked all but done in the final frame, the Golden Hawks scrapped and clawed their way back. Thanks to a trio of touchdown passes from QB Michael Knevel (Brantford, Ont.), the Golden Hawks tied things up and positioned Nathan Mesher for a game-winning 26-yard field goal in the dying seconds – which he made.

The win helped Laurier get a lingering monkey off of their backs, having historically struggled against Western in the postseason, especially on the road. In the team’s first matchup since this tilt – a 29-13 Mustangs’ win on September 30 – it was the Mustangs who took to the road to visit University Stadium and bounce back against their Yates Cup combatants. Despite a closely-contested first half, a pair of Cedric Joseph touchdowns to close and open the break helped Western settle in for the eventual win.   

Despite the difference in score, the rest of the scoresheet showcased an even tilt, albeit with both teams using a different approach to achieve their respective outputs; something indicative of their seasons as a whole. Certainly, any game between these top-ranked teams features two of the best offences in the business, but they predominantly achieve their success in countering ways.

Leading the charge for the Mustangs is a potent ground game that produced an uncanny 22 rushing touchdowns this season. The dynamic combination of Joseph (72.3 YPG, 10 TD) and Alex Taylor (118.7 YPG, 2 TD) lead a ground game that also sees significant contributions from signal caller Chris Merchant.

But while the explosive Western offence draws heavily from their ground game, it’s a sizzling air attack that often sets the Golden Hawks up for offensive success. Leading the charge for the passing game is top-receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. (Ottawa, Ont.), who hauled in a record-setting 75 catches on the year. He was less than 50 yards shy of 1,000 on the campaign (953), while also tacking on six receiving TDs to his name. Combined with running mate Brentyn Hall (Toronto, Ont.), who notched five touchdowns of his own this season, the Golden Hawks sit comfortably near the top of the passing charts across the province.

The dynamism in these offensive units goes beyond these key components; however, as the likes of Mustangs’ receivers Harry McMaster and Malik Besseghieur (Nanaimo, B.C.), along with RB Levondre Gordon of the Hawks round out two of the most capable crews in all of Canada. Not to be outdone, however, a pair of capable kickers can also be difference makers in the end result as well. Marc Liegghio’s 130 points on the year far and away eclipsed his Western teammates, while “No Pressure’ Mesher’s big boot (long of 52) makes him a constant threat to put points on the board.    

These point-producing groups have the potential to generate a high-scoring affair, but their top-ranked defensive units also have the ability to take over games.

On the Western side, a collective effort helped the London squad lead the conference in several statistical categories, including points allowed per game (13.1) and yards allowed per game (288). Among the many defensive standouts are leading tacklers Jean-Gabriel Poulin (St. Nicolas, Que.), Nicolas Vanin (London, Ont.), and Fraser Sopik (Toronto, Ont.), each of whom accounted for more than 30 takedowns on the year. A diverse collection of others have also made their mark on their pace-setting campaign, as a total of six Mustangs brought down at least one interception, while nine made their way into the sacks column, showing that the opposition must always be aware when taking the field.   

The Golden Hawks, meanwhile, have found noteworthy success on ‘D’ as well, sitting in and around the top four of the OUA in several statistical categories. The Hawks surrendered a solid 21.7 PPG, and much of this success has to do with their ability to get to the quarterback. The reigning champs accumulated 27 sacks on the year, bettering the Mustangs’ mark of 16 in that category, and were led by OUA co-leader Robbie Smith (Brampton, Ont.). Moreover, just as McMaster found out in the semifinal, Western must also keep an eye on Onyeka, the team-leader in tackles with 42.5, along with the trio of Shomari Hutchinson (LaSalle, Que.), Scott Hutter (London, Ont.), and Isaiah Guzylak-Messam (Hamilton, Ont.), each of whom secured a pair of interceptions on the year.

The winner of what should be a rematch for the ages will travel east to take on the winner of the Loney Bowl (AUS Final), which features Saint Mary’s against Acadia. The team to reign supreme after this Uteck Bowl matchup on November 18 will punch their ticket to the Vanier Cup in Hamilton, Ont. on November 25.

If you can't catch the action in person, the 110th Yates Cup will air live on CHCH and will stream on, with pre-game festivities kicking off at 1:00pm.