BURLINGTON, Ont. – They may have taken two different routes to the postseason, but on Saturday, the paths of both the No. 3 McMaster Marauders and No. 6 Queen’s Gaels will converge in Hamilton for a quarterfinal matchup.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Queen’s Gaels, who went from basement dwellers to playoff team in a matter of four weeks. The team wasn’t able to get off to the start they wanted in 2017, collecting a pair of devastatingly close losses to Carleton and Ottawa to kick off their schedule. One-sided affairs against Laurier and Western brought their record to 0-4 at the halfway point, but as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait.
After navigating the choppy early season waters, Queen’s began righting the ship against Windsor to pick up their first win of the season, followed by similarly emphatic, offensively-driven wins over Waterloo and York. Their three-game streak put them in the hunt for the playoffs down the stretch and they were able to capitalize with a win over Toronto to clinch the sixth seed.
For the Marauders, it was much smoother sailing en route to their No. 3 ranking in the province (and their climb to as high as No. 4 in the nation). The team found a formula that worked right from the get-go, kicking things off with a hard-fought win against Carleton, wherein they held the Ravens to under 10 points. A loss against the Mustangs evened their record early on, but another four straight games holding their opponents to single-digit scoring catapulted McMaster up the contenders list. It wasn’t until Week 9 – a 40-15 loss to the now No. 2 ranked Laurier – that the Marauders suffered their second defeat, but all in all, McMaster’s season established them yet again as one to watch in the OUA playoff picture.
But how exactly will this picture play out when pitting the offensively-powered Gaels against the defensively dominant Marauders?
Even though much of what the Gaels have been able to on the field is vastly improved, the competition is about to go up a notch lining up against the Marauders on Saturday. McMaster has had the same narrative all season, with the key question being whether or not the young offence could keep up with the elite defence. Despite a Week 2 loss to Western, these answers became all the more clear as the season pressed on.
The youth movement has in full effect for Mac, and while they haven’t put up the same offensive numbers of some of the other top teams, they have remained steady and reliable in that facet of the game. Freshman QB Jackson White completed 65.6% of his passes en route to 216 YPG and 10 TDs on the season, not to mention his ever-resent ability to use his legs as a threat as well. But while the young, developing offense, led by White, will undoubtedly play a role in the result, McMaster will once again look to their elite defence to shut the door on one of the province’s top offensive units.
Even with their 40 point misstep against Laurier in the final week, McMaster still surrendered just 14 PPG and just over 300 YPG, while also ranking top three in interceptions, fumbles, and sacks. Everywhere you look on the defensive side for the Marauders, there is an imposing threat, including the team leaders in interceptions (Nolan Putt), tackles (Eric Mezzalira), and sacks (Mark Mackie). The veteran leadership and on-field execution from these, and many others on the defensive side of the ball, make the McMaster squad nearly unparalleled, and on Saturday, they’ll go head-to-head with an offense clicking on all cylinders.
One of the biggest weapons that the Gaels will unleash on Mac is under centre, as QB Nate Hobbs put on a passing clinic this season, to the tune of 321.3 YPG and 21 TDs (six clear of the next highest total). Hobbs flipped the switch on his season from a statistical standpoint along with the rest of the team, earning 17 of his total touchdown passes in the team’s final four games.
Upon taking over the starting role, meanwhile, RB Jake Puskas was another key contributor to the team’s late season surge. In the final five games of the season (all starts), Puskas eclipsed the 100 yard rushing mark in each and totaled six scores on the ground (plus another three in the air). Following a similar resurgent script was WR Chris Osei-Kusi, who went from just 120 total yards and one touchdown in the four losses to an average of more than 150 YPG along with six TDs in the four wins.
So will the Queen’s Gaels be able to ride their momentum all the way to a quarterfinal upset in Hamilton or will the McMaster Marauders’ defence shine once again en route to another semifinal appearance?
The winner of Saturday’s quarterfinal tilt will advance to the semifinals – taking place on November 4.