At the beginning of the season they were favoured to get here. There is now just one game left to be played in the OUA and it’s the Yates Cup rematch many were hoping for.
The Western Mustangs and Laurier Golden Hawks will hit the field in London this Saturday (1:00 pm CHCH, oua.tv), but they arrived at the championship game in different ways.
The ‘Stangs were dominant en route to the final. Aside from a Labour Day overtime win against Guelph, nobody came within two touchdowns of Western all season. They finished 8-0, won by an average score of 48-13, and most recently showed the Gryphons they didn’t appreciate the close nature of the Week Two nail biter – winning last week’s playoff game 66-12.
The Hawks road to the final was a little bumpier. They finished with a 6-2 record, losing to Western and Guelph within a three-game span. When it looked like they were starting to slip a bit, the Hawks defeated McMaster twice, 40-15 in the regular-season finale, then last week 19-6. Both games were at Laurier; both games featured freshman Tristan Arndt at quarterback in place of injured starter Michael Knevel.
Will Knevel be ready this week?
“I’m saying 60/40 he will play this week,” Laurier Head Coach Michael Faulds told In The Huddle. “That said, I was wrong last week when it looked like he would be able to go until about Wednesday.”
Losing a player of Knevel’s calibre would certainly hurt, especially at the most important position on the field. His play has been the catalyst for a new-look Laurier offence this year, which has added an impressive passing attack to go with their historically good ground game.
Western is best known for its dominance on the ground. Alex Taylor averaged 119 yards per game, Cedric Joseph was second in the country with 10 rushing TDs, and they rarely use the talented Yannick Harou. How deep are they? Trey Humes led the Mustangs in rushing last week, carrying the ball 15 times for 88 yards.
That was the norm this season. In eight games, the purple ponies pounded their way to an average of 310 yards per game, 89-per game more than Alberta, who finished second in the country in that category.
“It’s a unique group,” said Western coach Greg Marshall, no stranger to talented collections of running backs. “At Mac we had depth with Kojo Aidoo, Kyle Pyear, and Jessie Lumsden, but we moved them around.”
This team just keeps sending out one talented tailback after another which has helped keep the athletes fresh.
“We’ve been able to roll them all through,” explained Marshall. “It’s helped with their health. It’s a lot of pounding over a season. It’s worked because they’re all unselfish. Not one of them has ever complained about the number of touches they’re getting.”
Beating Western means you have to at least slow down the running game, which is much easier said than done. Laurier couldn’t do it in their regular-season meeting when the ‘Stangs ran all over them, totalling 358 yards on the ground in their 29-13 win.
On that day, not one of the talented running backs that led Western rushers, but rather quarterback Chris Merchant, who lit up the Hawks for 142 yards on 11 carries.
Faulds is one to stress the positive rather than dwell on the negative. He looked back at the regular season matchup and found the positive aspect of his defence’s play that day.
“The legs of Chris Merchant hurt us,” explained WLU’s coach. “Our coverage was so good he had to pull it down and rush and he got good chunks of yards. We match up well with our secondary with their receivers.”
Marshall’s teams have been butting heads with Laurier Defensive Coordinator Ron VanMoerkerke’s defences for years. The Western coach is not expecting major surgery in this week’s Laurier game plan.
“He’ll always put in small wrinkles,” Marshall said of VanMoerkerke, “Changing who you are, learning something different in a week is tough. They have a solid scheme they’ve used against us for the last three years.”
“They might run more pressure and more run blitzes,” he continued. “But we can throw too. If they load the box and put an extra defender in, we won’t be afraid to throw.”
Last year’s Yates Cup final was a classic. Laurier fans will remember it as one of the greatest games in U SPORTS history, while Western supporters will likely not acknowledge the game ever happened.
**WARNING** The next part of the article will be spent recapping the 2016 Yates Cup. For Western fans, you may want to skip the next few lines and catch up in a bit.
The first half was close. Even fans who watched that game likely have forgotten that Laurier led 19-13 at the half before Western exploded for four TDs in the first 19 minutes of the second half.
Marshall’s team led the game 40-19 with just eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Remarkably, the Hawks scored 24 points in those final moments, including a last-second FG by Nathan Mesher to win the Ontario title 43-40.
It was the greatest comeback, or the greatest collapse, in the 109-year history of the Yates Cup depending on which shade of purple you’re partial to.
If you were to think one coach would talk about last year’s game more than the other you’d be correct, though neither coach has dwelled on it.
“We talked about it a little bit,” Faulds told OUA.ca. “I’ve been telling this group that Western is a motivated group. Also, if we fall behind we have to believe that we’re never out of it.”
Coach Marshall was a little more succinct when asked if he talked to his team about last year’s game.
“No,” he said abruptly before adding, “No. They were there. I’m not sure our guys need any motivation. I don’t want them to get overemotional or over motivated.”
His team has been dominant since the beginning of the season. Have they improved since Week One?
“Quite a bit,” said Marshall. “We’ve gotten better every week. Chris (Merchant) is just in his second year and he’s gotten better every single game. Our defensive line has improved every single week.”
It’s a fantastic team. Which one word would Faulds use to describe Western?
“Explosive,” said Faulds. “And that could be on both offence and defence. We know how good their running game is and if you concentrate too much on that you risk big pass plays. Defensively they give up nothing. We couldn’t finish drives when we played them in the regular season.”
Marshall used a different word when asked to describe the Golden Hawks.
“Physical,” replied the coach, “Up front they bring it. Special teams run hard and are physical. On offence they run hard and will bring four running backs and fullbacks and extra linemen. They’re talented athletes.”
These are the two teams that most expected to be here. Naturally, turnovers will be a major factor in the game as will field position. Five times in the first half Western began a drive with the ball in Guelph territory. Laurier can’t let that happen this week.
This has the potential to be another classic.
This is the final In The Huddle of the season. As always I’d like to thank all of the coaches around the league who have given me their time to provide the readers of this column a tremendous amount of insight. Chris Verlaan at the OUA edited the columns on a weekly basis and has been an invaluable resource. Thanks to Gord Grace and everyone at the OUA who asked me to return for another year. Mostly I thank you for reading this column. It always makes me smile when somebody mentions that they’ve read it. OUA fans are a dedicated group and I’m happy to be a member of that group. Thanks again and enjoy Saturday’s game.