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.”