In The Huddle: The final four

Photo by Brandon Vandecaveye
Photo by Brandon Vandecaveye

Burlington, Ont. (by Mike Hogan) - The Waterloo Warriors and Guelph Gryphons punched their tickets to the semifinals a week ago, and after looking at how their respective seasons stacked up heading into the start of their playoff push – something you can relive in last week’s In The Huddle their semifinal combatants are up next.

WESTERN MUSTANGS (8-0)

While the days of the weekly blowouts may be a thing of the past, the Western Mustangs took care of business again this season. They haven’t lost a regular season game since Week 2 in 2016, a streak of 30 consecutive wins.

Offensively, they’re led by quarterback Chris Merchant, who’s first career start was the first game of the 30 straight wins. His great track record – both from an individual and team perspective – have put him in the conversation as one of the best QBs in the country, and in Saturday’s semifinal, he’ll go toe-to-toe another pivot in that very same conversation.

Merchant set a career high with 2,378 yards, a hair under 300 per game. He rushed for 438 more, adding six touchdowns, also a career high.

Playoff games aren’t new to him, as he’s led Western to two Yates Cup titles and a pair of Vanier Cup games, winning one of them and being named the winner of the Ted Morris Trophy as MVP in the process.

If In The Huddle had a vote, it would go to Merchant as the OUA’s MVP.

It’s tough when a program loses a pair of great backs like Cedric Joseph and Alex Taylor at the same time, but most programs don’t possess Western’s depth. Trey Humes stepped in and the ‘Stangs didn’t miss a beat. He finished fourth in the conference with 705 yards, breaking the 100-yard mark four times, including a 109-yard performance against Waterloo on October 5. He also just fumbled once all season.

There’s a pretty good trio of receivers at Merchant’s disposal. Brett Ellerman led the team in the three major categories with 39 catches for 621 yards and five TDs. Cole Majoros and Malik Besseghieur complete the big three. Ellerman lit up the Warriors this season with a nine catch, 177-yard, two-touchdown afternoon.

The offensive line allowed 18 sacks, divided equally between the first and second halves of the season. Laurier and Guelph notched five apiece in their games against Western, while the o-line pitched shutouts against McMaster and Windsor. The team finished fourth in rushing yards. This group was a work in progress from the beginning of camp and has gelled together nicely.

Western was third in the conference, allowing 21.8 points per game. They were first against the run, giving up just 106.1 yards per contest, but tenth against the pass, with opponents throwing for 300 yards per game. This stat is misleading, as teams were constantly trailing the Mustangs and forced to pass against them for most of the game. Despite that, they only sacked the opponent 14 times, with Waterloo being the only team that recorded fewer.

Nicolas Theriault has been the team’s most successful at making plays in the opponent’s backfield. He co-led the team with 2.5 sacks and added 5.5 tackles for loss. Bleska Kambamba had a pair of picks, the only player on the team with more than one. Myles Manalo led the way with 33.5 tackles.

Marc Liegghio is destined for All-Canadian status this season. He led the OUA by connecting on 22-of-24 field-goal attempts (92%), while hitting all of his 31 conversion attempts. His 47.5-yard punting average led the conference by over seven yards per punt.

The Mustangs were the least penalized team in the league by over ten yards per game, averaging just 61 yards per outing.

McMASTER MARAUDERS (6-2)

The Marauders answered some major questions in the offseason, and the result was a No. 2 seed in the conference.

Stefan Ptaszek returned to the program and the head coach picked up where he left off. The offence showed dramatic improvement from a year ago, much of it due to their quarterback.

Andreas Dueck emerged from a battle with Jackson White to see who the starter would be. Dueck won the job and the Marauders have benefitted from his great play. He’d finish second in the country, averaging 304 passing yards per game. He was first in U SPORTS with 200 completions, 26 more than Alberta’s Brad Launhardt, and third nationally with 15 TD passes. He flirted with 400 yards twice, including a 34-17 loss at Western. Against Guelph this year, he passed for 344 yards and a touchdown in the season opener.

Dueck doesn’t really have a “go to” receiver; he’s got three of them. Tommy Nield, Xander Tachinski, and Michael Bazzo were the top targets, but don’t sleep on Tyson Middlemost. He was just behind the other three statistically, but led the group with four TD receptions. He had a five catch, 72-yard performance against Guelph in the opener.

The passing prowess has hurt the running statistics, as McMaster finished seventh in the conference, averaging 128 yards per game. It’s not that the Marauders don’t have the talent to run, as Jordan Lyons and the versatile Justice Allin are more than capable of big games and huge plays. Allin averaged 7.2 yards per carry, Lyons 6.3 yards.

McMaster’s o-line is good, but is also blessed with a quarterback who gets rid of the ball in a hurry. They gave up a dozen sacks this year, just four in the final four games, including none versus Toronto and Carleton. They don’t rush as much as most teams at Mac, but when they do, they’ve been effective, averaging 5.8 yards per run, tied for fourth in the OUA.

Opponents scored just 19 points per game against Mac, with only Guelph allowing fewer. They allowed just 327 yards per game; only Laurier was better. Mac allowed a conference low 210 passing yards against, while leading the conference with 14 interceptions.

Noah Hallett led the team with four picks and Josh Cumber added three more. Mac totaled 27 sacks, with Tyler Munro’s four pacing the pack on that front. Nate Edwards led the Marauders with 45 tackles.

Adam Preocanin had a good year both kicking and punting for Mac. His punting average was 39.1 yards, while he connected on 18 of his 22 field goal attempts, an 82-percent success rate.

McMaster was fourth in time of possession, keeping the ball for 30:55 per game. In the red zone the team was just okay, converting 52 percent of their trips into touchdowns for an eighth-best mark in the conference.

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