The Mustangs will wake up in Quebec City Saturday, ready to play the number one ranked team in the country, the Laval Rouge et Or, for the Uteck Bowl and a berth in the Vanier Cup.
It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever really is. Laval will be overwhelming favourites going in, but I think it’s going to be a lot closer of a game than most. If anything, it’ll certainly be entertaining.
Here’s a few selected notes going into the Mustangs’ most important game of the season.
When I spoke to Mustangs offensive lineman Matt Norman after Western’s win over Ottawa last Saturday, I mentioned to him that the game seemed to hinge on the battles at the line of scrimmage. Before I could even finish my thought, he chimed in:
“That’s the way it’s going to be for the rest of the season, man. That’s the way it goes in the playoffs. There are no blowouts when you get this far into the season.”
Every game the rest of the way, it seems, will be won and lost at the line of scrimmage and Saturday’s tilt with Laval is no exception. Western’s offence is predicated on the run game which will obviously depend on the Mustangs ability to open holes on the line.
That might be easier said than done, however, as the Rouge et Or have held opposition running backs to an average of just 40 rushing yards per game this season. That’s less than half the field. In the entire game.
The Mustangs offensive line gets a lot of deserved credit for powering Western’s number one ranked run game but Laval will present a new challenge. Laval’s defensive tackles and ends are big, mobile and aggressive. It’s the strength of their team.
But it was also the strength of Ottawa’s team and the Mustangs found a way to penetrate it. It’s tough to compare the lines of two teams that never play each other or any of the same opponents. But when you’ve got the number one ranked run offence going against the number one ranked run defence, you know you’re in for something good.
On the other side
And then there will be the battle between Western’s defensive line and Ottawa’s offensive line. Laval quarterback Bruno Prud’homme is at his most dangerous when he’s allowed to sit comfortably in the pocket and throw darts to his receivers.
He’s as calm and careful as a bomb diffuser with the football, completing 70 per cent of his passes this season and rarely turning the ball over. But he seldom rushes the ball and if the Mustangs can get after him he will be sacked. Sherbrooke was able to bring him down four times for a loss of 33 yards, a big part of their success against Laval last Saturday.
And then, of course, there’s the matter of halting Laval’s rushing attack, which is led by Sebastien Levesque, Pascal Lochard and Maxime Beland. Levesque is the most dangerous of the trio but he has battled through a knee injury this season and who knows what kind of condition he’ll be in for Saturday.
If he’s slowed even just slightly, it’ll take an important dimension away from Laval’s offence and allow Western to play more aggressive on the defensive line, instead of hanging back slightly, waiting for the rush.
Really, Laval’s offence isn’t terribly special this year. Their receiving corps is insanely deep but Julian Feoli-Gudino is the only game changer they have. Prud’homme is deadly efficient but a quarterback is only as good as his receivers and if Western’s secondary covers well — a big if — his options will be limited.
Arguably the Gee Gees offence that Western faced last week, led by Brad Sinopoli and receivers Cyril Adjeitey and Steven Hughes, posed a more formidable threat and Western was able to design a defensive scheme to halt that unit.
Western’s defence is good and reasonably healthy — it should be able to keep Laval off the board for the most part come Saturday. It’s scoring points that could be the issue.
It always comes back to Greg Marshall
So how exactly are the Mustangs going to score any points against the most intimidating defence in the country? The numbers speak for themselves. This team allowed just 6.4 points per game in the regular season, outscoring opponents 411-58. They held teams to just 221.3 yards per game in the regular season — 175.7 passing and 45.7 rushing. Those marks all put Laval amongst the top three defences in the nation.
But if anyone is going to find a weakness in this Laval defence, it has to be the shrewd Marshall. He was able to find holes in Ottawa’s highly touted defence last week and you can be sure he’s been pouring over hours of game tape in the past week looking for flaws in Laval’s defensive unit.
And it will be very interesting to see what Marshall has saved for this game. Surely he didn’t want to play all of the cards in his hand last Saturday against Ottawa, wanting to save some variety for the Rouge et Or this Saturday.
Maybe it’ll be the return of the screen pass to Nathan Riva. Maybe it’ll be a wildcat offence similar to the one the Montreal Carabins used with running back Rotrand Sene to catch the Laval defence off guard. Maybe it’ll be a three or four man backfield with plenty of confusing motion similar to what Queen’s used at times this year, with wide receivers taking hand offs and option routes to the left and right.
You can be sure it’ll be something.
Greg Marshall has to know that crashing the ball up the middle with Jerimy Hipperson and Nathan Riva all afternoon won’t be surprising anyone. Marshall knows he has to catch Laval off guard with something. What that something is and whether it works, remains to be seen.
The Big Finish
Most, it seems, are expecting the Laval Rouge et Or to walk all over the Western Mustangs this Saturday. And looking purely at the stats — why wouldn’t you?
Western has been good but they haven’t been Laval good. And Laval’s history at home, in Bowl games and against run heavy teams is more than well documented. It doesn’t exactly bode well for the Western Mustangs.
But this is university football, so you might as well take all the past stats and streaks and previous matchups and throw them to the wind.
What matters is the two teams that are going to take the field on Saturday and those two teams are nothing like the Western and Laval teams that met in the 2008 Vanier Cup or even the teams that started this season as the favourites in their respective conferences.
Defensively, these are the two best units in the nation. The edge has to go to Laval because of their ridiculous numbers, but Western’s defence has arguably played better offences throughout the season.
Offensively, Laval has a simple strategy that often pays off in spades like in their 56-1 trouncing of Bishop’s in the QUFL semifinals. But it sometimes doesn’t go as planned, like in Saturday’s Dunsmore Cup where the Rouge et Or barely beat Sherbrooke 22-17.
The Mustangs rely heavily on the run and generally use the streaky arm of Donnie Marshall sparingly. They haven’t met a defence who can stop their run attack. Even for all of Laval’s success in stopping the run this season, that was usually against one good running back. The Mustangs can line up two — three if you include the elusive Marshall — which presents a challenge unlike what Laval has faced.
Special teams is a wash — both teams have excellent kickers and good coverage units. Western’s Andrew Thibaudeau is a dangerous returner but if Laval refuses to kick to him like Ottawa did in the Yates Cup, he’ll be limited in what he can do. Meanwhile, Guillaume Rioux has been consistent, if not particularly dangerous, for the Rouge et Or and typically picks up at least 10 yards on punts and 20 on kick returns. Neither team really has an edge there.
Coaching? We’ll give it to OUA coach of the year Greg Marshall by a nose. Laval head coach Glen Constantin has four Vanier Cups under his belt but he did them with better teams than Marshall has ever had. Laval’s offence has almost been boringly good this year and it isn’t in Constantin’s nature to take too many risks or gambles. Meanwhile, Marshall’s offence has been a work in progress all season but it’s seemed to evolve and shift every week. Marshall also has the tendency to roll the dice and call the high risk, high reward plays that gave him the riverboat gambler nickname. That gives Marshall the slight edge.
The stadium, of course, is purely in Laval’s favour and won’t be friendly towards the visiting Mustangs. Several of the Mustangs have played exhibition games there but this is no exhibition game. This is the national semifinal and the atmosphere will be beyond charged.
The Mustangs trained all week with loud speakers blaring towards the practice field and sorted out a series of hand signals and physical cues in the likely event that communication is limited at field level. But you can never prepare for playing football in front of 13,000 rowdy spectators.
The point of all this? This game will likely be a lot closer than most think. A Laval victory is far from assured as is a Western upset. If it comes down to the final three minutes, as it did in both the Yates and Dunsmore Cups last weekend, it should come as a surprise to no one.
This is going to be one hell of a game.