It’s that time of year on the Canadian university football calendar where the big hardware is on the line. Eight teams remain on the road to the 48th Vanier Cup. Let’s get to the four intriguing CIS conference championship matchups beginning on the East coast and working our way across the country before finishing out West.
Jewett Trophy (Atlantic Conference Championship)
It’s not much of a surprise which two teams will compete in the Atlantic University Sport title game.
Since 1998, the AUS championship game has been dominated by Saint Mary’s and Acadia, with the former winning 10 over that spam, while the latter has claimed four, including last season’s title.
This year, Acadia will be vying for their first back-to-back AUS titles since 2005-06.
Saturday’s Atlantic final will be the fourth meeting between the East coast rivals this season. Acadia won all three regular season meetings, 21-16, 26-10 and 12-5, but as you can see the games were all close, rather low scoring affairs. Both teams have stingy defences, the Huskies finished fifth in the CIS allowing just 15.8 points per game this season with the Axemen right behind them in sixth giving up 16.5.
“There is such a familiarity with one another, it becomes difficult to beat somebody three or four times in a row, I don’t care who you are,” Acadia head coach Jeff Cummins said.
On the offensive side of the ball, Saint Mary’s leans heavily on the conference’s best rushing offence, that averaged over 200 yards-per-game during the regular season.
The Huskies use a two-pronged ground attack with a pair of second year rushers, Michael Dawes, 584 yards rushing in six regular season games, and Melvin Abankwah, 632 yards in eight contests, both power the Saint Mary’s offence.
“They’ve formed an identity as a power running football team,” Cummins said. “They’ve got two very good running backs and we have to be able to stop the run.”
Acadia has a solid rushing attack to compliment the conference’s best passing game. Fifth year senior quarterback, Kyle Graves was the only pivot to throw for over 2,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns, 14, in the Atlantic conference. Graves has the two best receivers in the AUS at his disposal. Taylor Renaud and Mike Squires each caught over 50 balls during the regular season and you can expect the duo to see plenty of targets in the AUS title game.
Saint Mary’s will not only be in tough against the best passer in the conference, also history, both recent and long term, isn’t on their side either. The Huskies dropped all three games to Acadia this season, managing just three total touchdowns in those matchups. Plus, the team with the bye and home-field advantage in the championship game has never lost since the format began in the AUS in 2002.
Coach Cummins Keys
1) “Turnovers, we have to win the turnover battle. We can’t turn it over and we have to create turnovers.”
2) “Stop the run. They have been able to run the football against their opponents quite well.”
3) “Take care of business on special teams. My opinion is that, traditionally special teams is one third of the game, but in the playoffs it becomes almost half. You have to be able to kick, punt and cover with success. In the return game you have to take the yards that are giving to you.”
Dunsmore Cup (Quebec Conference Championship)
After pulling off a stunning upset in the RSEQ semi-finals – Sherbrooke took out number four ranked Montreal – the Vert et Or will travel to Laval to take on the Rouge et Or in the Quebec conference championship game.
Sherbrooke and Laval met once before in the Dunsmore Cup, a 22-17 win for the Rouge et Or in 2010. Once again, the Vert et Or have a tough task in front of them. Laval has won nine-straight Quebec conference titles and are riding a CIS record 56-game winning streak on their home field.
“The last time Laval lost at home was to the Carabins and at that time I was the offensive line coach for Montreal,” Sherbrooke head coach David Lessard said.
“Obviously the crowd is a big factor. You get there and everybody is in to it. Let’s put it this way: It’s an NCAA vibe you get.”
“As a player and as a coach it can get to you. You have to block those things out because at the end of the day it’s just a football game.”
Laval crushed Sherbrooke 48-10 on September 29, their only meeting during the regular season, but that was the last game the Vert et Or lost, having run off five straight since. Sherbrooke seems to be peaking at the right time. However, if they turn the football over seven times like they did in their RSEQ semi win over Montreal, it could get ugly real quick against Laval.
For the Vert et Or to have a chance against Laval, quarterback Jeremi Roch, who ranked second in the country in passing yards and touchdowns, will need to be provided with time in the pocket and continue to make the right reads when throwing the football. Roch was intercepted just three times during the regular season.
“They do a good job of mixing up their defensive calls. It’s going to be very important for our kids to make good decisions during the play, not really knowing pre-snap what the defence might be because they do a great job of disguising everything,” Lessard said.
If Sherbrooke can put some lengthy drives together, quiet the crowd, avoid sloppy turnovers and convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns instead of settling for field goals, the Vert et Or could have a legitimate chance of dethroning the defending champs.
Coach Lessard’s Keys
1) “Protection of the quarterback. We need to be able to give him time to survey the defence and make some good decisions. Whether it’s by being creative in protection or running the football, both would greatly help our quarterback out.”
2) “Defensive line play. We need to have a strong performance from our defensive line because Laval is so balanced passing the ball and running. If we have a good defensive line showcase it’s going to help.”
3) “Cover teams. We’re pretty confident that our kicker is going to do a good job, but our cover teams need to be right up there and tackle those dangerous Laval returners.”
Yates Cup (Ontario Conference Championship)
Two of the hottest teams in the country will square off in the 105th Yates Cup. The upstart Guelph Gryphons have ripped off eight-straight wins since an opening day loss to McMaster, including a crazy, improbable 42-39 come-from-behind overtime victory in the OUA semi-finals to reach the Ontario Championship game.
Meanwhile, the defending Vanier Cup champion Marauders won their CIS-record-tying 19th straight game over Western in the other OUA semi to reach their second straight Ontario Final and are looking to win their sixth Yates Cup in the last 13 years. Led by OUA MVP and Hec Crighton front-runner Kyle Quinlan
, the Marauders possess a dynamic offensive attack with quick-strike ability.
“You sort of have to pick your poison. Kyle has a good arm and he can run. We don’t want McMaster to beat us with the big play like Mike DiCroce did against Western,” Gryphons head coach Stu Lang said. “We want to make it difficult for McMaster to score, make them fight for every inch.”
Guelph had trouble with Quinlan in the regular season meeting with the Marauders. The fifth year pivot threw for 262 yards and three scores, while rushing for over 100 yards on 11 carries, all in just three quarters of work in a resounding 50-9 win. But Lang believes his troops have gained a lot of experience since Labour Day.
“A lot of people in our key positions have never played eight games, which is basically their rookie year,” Lang said “You look at John Rush our middle linebacker and Jazz Lindsey our quarterback, they didn’t play a lot in their first year so when the McMaster game came around they were only playing their fourth or fifth OUA game.”
McMaster roughed up the Gryphon offence way back in week one, holding them to 217 total yards and racked up five interceptions in the Marauders season-opening win. Lang and the Gryphons have watched the film and believe they have some new schemes in place to help give them a better shot this time around.
“They did what most people try and do to a young quarterback. They blitzed a lot and put a lot of people on the line to try to confuse Jazz,” Lang said of the regular season meeting with McMaster. “We’ve planned to prevent that and stop the onslaught of blitzes this time around. Plus we now have a number of plays that Jazz can check into to take advantage of the blitz.”
Guelph must avoid turning the ball over and giving the McMaster offence short fields to work with. And the Gryphons defence needs to continue to force turnovers. The Gryphons came up with a CIS-best 29 takeaways, 16 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries, during the regular season. Guelph must be on the plus side of the turnover ratio in order to compete with the top ranked Marauders.
Coach Lang’s Keys
1) “Play error-free football. In the Queen’s game we had a couple miscues that hurt us. We can’t make a lot of mistakes.”
2) “The offence is going to have to control the ball and eat up a lot of time.”
3) “We’ve had a lot of success creating turnovers and we must continue to do so. We’ve typically been ahead on the turnover ratio. That’s a big part of our success, being opportunistic.”
Hardy Cup (Canada West Conference Championship)
On the University of Calgary campus, they’re calling it the drive for five.
The Dinos are looking to become the first team ever in Canada West history to win five straight Hardy Cups – Calgary is currently tied with the Saskatchewan Huskies who won four in a row from 1934-1937. If history is any indication, it could be a record-breaking day for the Dinos, Calgary is a perfect 9-0 in Hardy Cup games played at home.
However, in order for Calgary to claim a fifth straight Canada West title, the Dinos will have to do something they haven’t done this season, beat the University of Regina Rams. Calgary was held to just nine points in the October 19 loss to Regina, quite a feat considering the Dinos led the CIS in scoring over 47 points per game.
“It was a couple things,” Rams head coach Frank McCrystal said. “To be quite honest I think they were off their game a little bit, for whatever reason. And defensively we have some veterans who are bright guys and are very well prepared.”
Marc Mueller, Regina’s starting quarterback, didn’t even suit up in the Rams regular season victory over Calgary, he sat out with an injury. McCrystal assured that his sixth year pivot is back to 100 percent.
“It brings confidence to everyone concerned. We know that our defence is playing well and we know we have our leader back on offence, the bench boss said. “Marc’s the guy that has the ball and generates offence.”
In the six games Muller started for the Rams, the offence averaged over 30 points, compared to the two games he missed due to injury, Regina managed just 13 per game. Which is part of the reason McCrystal believes it will be a higher scoring affair when Regina and Calgary meet for the first time ever in the Canada West championship game.
“We’re hopeful of having a little more success scoring,” he said, “ because it’s difficult to hold those guys to nine points.”
You can bet Dinos pivot Eric Dzwilewski is looking to erase the poor effort he had against the Rams in the regular season. It was the only game this year in which he failed to throw a touchdown pass and was pulled midway through the third quarter.
The Hardy Cup matchup is shaping up to be a contest that could very well come down to the quarterbacks. Mueller, trying to extend his career for another week, and Dzwilewski, looking to avenge his teams lone regular season defeat, probably wouldn’t want it any other way.
Coach McCrystal’s Keys
1) “We have to defend the run against Calgary. They run the ball very well.”
2) “We have to control the special teams. Our special teams are much improved from when we played them earlier this season.”
3) “Calgary’s defensive front seven is very strong. They’ve got some great people up front and they’re a group that we’re going to have to grind out some first downs against, hang onto the ball and make sure when we have our chances that we take advantage of them.”