Uteck and Mitchell Bowls: A head-to-head look

he stage is set for the U Sports football national semifinals on Saturday, when the last four teams still standing will battle for a berth in the ArcelorMittal Dofasco Vanier Cup on Nov. 26 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

The OUA conference champion Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks (9-1) and the RSEQ titlist Laval Rouge et Or (9-1) kickoff at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time in the Uteck Bowl at TELUS-UL Stadium in Quebec City.

The ArcelorMittal Dofasco Mitchell Bowl follows at 2 p.m. Mountain Time (4 p.m. ET), with the AUS champion St. Francis Xavier X-Men (8-1) visiting the Canada West monarch Calgary Dinos (8-2) at McMahon Stadium.

Both contests are scheduled to be televised live on Sportsnet 360 and TVA Sports (Mitchell Bowl on TVA Sports 2), with Sportsnet 360 kicking things off at noon with a 30-minute pre-game show. The doubleheader is also available online through Sportsnet NOW and TVASports.ca (authenticated users only).

At a time when parity in Canadian university football remains under the microscope, the conference finals produced three new champions for the third straight year as only StFX earned a return trip to the U Sports Final Four. One of the teams that saw their campaign come to an end last Saturday was the 2015 Vanier Cup champ UBC Thunderbirds, who couldn’t quite reproduce their Cinderella run from a year ago.

Three of the four league finals were decided by three points, two in favour of the visiting team. These results included Laurier mounting the largest fourth-quarter comeback in the 109-year history of the Yates Cup to stun Western 43-40. In Quebec, Laval used a trick play in the final minute of regulation to reclaim the Dunsmore Cup 20-17 over archrival Montreal. In Calgary, the Dinos captured the Canada West banner 46-43despite being outscored 33-10 by UBC in the second half of the Hardy Cup.

You can forgive Laval head coach Glen Constantin if he and his team have a feeling of déjà vu as they prepare to face Laurier for only the second-ever meeting between the two programs.

Back in 2004, just like this fall, the Rouge et Or finished second in Quebec with a 7-1 mark, then defeated Concordia at home in the RSEQ semifinals and the Montreal Carabins on the road in the Dunsmore Cup final to earn the right to host the Golden Hawks in the Uteck Bowl. Laval proceeded to beat their visitors from Waterloo 30-11 at TELUS-UL Stadium before triumphing against Saskatchewan in the Vanier Cup… in Hamilton.

First and foremost however, Constantin and his troops are thrilled to be back in the national semifinals after losing to Montreal in the previous two RSEQ championship matches. The back-to-back Dunsmore Cup losses both came in Quebec City, where the Rouge et Or were once considered invincible, winning a mind-boggling 70 straight games overall on home turf prior to the 2014 Quebec final.

“We’re very excited,” says Constantin, the 16-year Laval bench boss, whose program is a perfect 6-0 all-time in national Bowl games played at TELUS-UL Stadium and enters this year’s Final Four on a U Sports-best nine-game winning streak. “When you manage to get out of the Quebec conference, which is very competitive, you believe even more in your chances of going all the way. We’re definitely happy to get back to the Final Four.”

The last four RSEQ finals, which each pitted Laval versus Montreal, have been decided by three points or less.

In 2013, the Rouge et Or won 14-11 en route to capturing their record eighth Vanier Cup. In 2014, the Carabins won 12-9 in overtime, then went on to claim their first national title. Last year, Montreal won 18-16 and returned to the U Sports championship game before falling to UBC. Last weekend, Laval prevailed 20-17.

Constantin was the team’s defensive coordinator when Laval won their first Vanier Cup in 1999 and has since become the most decorated head coach in Canadian university football history with seven titles as the man in charge. He knows there is still a lot of work to be done before his club can add a ninth U Sports trophy to its record collection. While he recognizes Laurier represents a formidable challenge, he welcomes the contest against an out-of-province opponent.
“I think when you get out of your conference, it becomes less personal, in the sense that you don’t know the people you’re playing against. Those are still very intense games, but less emotional.

“Laurier is a good team, with a solid defensive front. On offence, they run the ball much more than what we’re accustomed to, including formations with three running backs in the backfield. We’ll have to adjust our preparation this week.”

Thankfully for Constantin, whose program has never gone three straight years without winning the Vanier Cup since he took over the reins in 2001, the Rouge et Or are once again one of the top defensive teams in the country this season. In conference play, the Laval D ranked second in the nation in points allowed (9.8 per game) and total yards (294.0), third against the run (91.8) and fourth against the pass (202.3).

The stingy unit is led by sophomore defensive end Mathieu Betts, who was voted the RSEQ’s outstanding down lineman this fall after he racked up a conference-leading nine quarterback sacks in eight league games despite being double-teamed on most plays. The Montreal native exploded on the university scene in 2015, meriting U Sports rookie-of-the-year honours thanks to his remarkable 12 sacks, just 0.5 off the single-season national record.

The Rouge et Or offence is led by another former U Sports rookie of the year (2014), junior quarterback Hugo Richard, who overcame three early turnovers in the Dunsmore Cup final to finish with 392 passing yards against Montreal’s nationally top-ranked defence. Richard was on the receiving end of the game-winning touchdown pass from freshman receiver Jonathan Breton-Robert with 21 seconds left on the clock. Breton-Robert had previously caught 10 balls for 161 yards and a major, and was named the game MVP.

While he hasn’t faced Laval since becoming Laurier’s head coach in 2013, Michael Faulds is well aware of his next opponents’ winning tradition. In his playing days, the former Western quarterback visited TELUS-UL Stadium for three straight years in preseason action, from 2007 to 2009, with the Quebec powerhouse coming out on top every time. Faulds’ only Vanier Cup appearance as a player, in 2008 in Hamilton, also ended with a loss to the Rouge et Or.

If there is one thing Faulds doesn’t lack however, it’s confidence. In only his fourth season at the helm, the young leader has guided the Golden Hawks to their first Yates Cup victory since 2005, when the team went on to claim the second Vanier Cup in school history thanks to a thrilling 24-23 decision over Saskatchewan… in Hamilton.

“We have taken a major step this year winning the Yates Cup and especially having to go through two perennial powerhouses in McMaster and Western to do it. As cool as it is to make it to the Uteck Bowl and play in the mecca of Canadian university football against Laval, we are definitely not satisfied,” says Faulds, whose team returns to La Belle Province for the second time this fall, three months after dropping a close 37-33 preseason decision against Montreal on Aug. 20. “Since we opened camp on August 13th, our two goals were to win a Yates Cup and a Vanier Cup, so we are eight quarters away now from meeting our own expectations.”

Last Saturday’s Yates Cup triumph on the road against heavily-favoured Western was one for the ages. Facing a team they hadn’t beaten in 13 tries dating back to 2006, including a 45-26 loss in conference play earlier this fall, the Hawks overcame a 40-19 deficit with 24 unanswered points in the final eight minutes of the contest to prevail 43-40. It was Laurier’s first playoff win in London since 1991… when the school claimed its first Vanier Cup title.

In only the seventh start of his OUA career, Michael Knevel, a fourth-year pivot in his first season with the team, was named game MVP after he threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns, with all his TD passes coming during the furious fourth-quarter comeback. Nathan Mesher was a perfect 5-for-5 on field-goal attempts, including the game-winner from 26 yards out as time expired. Starting for injured veteran Eric Guiltinan, sophomore running back Levondre Gordon chipped in on the ground with 164 yards and a major on 18 carries.

“I’m probably the only one crazy enough to think it could actually happen,” Faulds said on Saturday after capturing his first Yates Cup as a coach to go along with the two he won as a player. “We knew if we could hang around just enough, we’d have a chance in the fourth. If we could hold it to two scores, we’d have a really good chance. Once they got the third touchdown, to go up three scores, I thought it was probably slim to none, but that’s why we’re here now. We did enough to get it done.”

One player who impressed Faulds in the historic win was his 6-foot-5 quarterback, who at one point was away for football for over a year due to a serious wrist injury.

“The thing I’ve noticed about him since day one is that he doesn’t get nervous at all. No matter how big the situation is, he just simply doesn’t, and from that, you can see the guys around him get more and more confidence.”

While the passing game played a huge role down the stretch against Western, the Golden Hawks’ identity remains running the ball on offence and an aggressive approach on defence.

Despite the loss to graduation of running back Dillon Campbell, a former Hec Crighton Trophy finalist, after the 2015 campaign, Laurier led the country in rushing during the regular season with 281.4 yards per game before adding 458 in two playoff contests. On the other side of the ball, the Hawks led the nation with 36 sacks and six defensive touchdowns in eight league games, and finished second with 16 interceptions.

Their stellar defensive unit includes the likes of linebacker Nakas Onyeka, the 2016 OUA defensive MVP, and defensive end Kwaku Boateng, who was listed in September as the top U Sports prospect for the 2017 CFL draft. Onyeka was 16th overall on the CFL Scouting Bureau list.

On the other side of the country, Saturday’s ArcelorMittal Dofasco Mitchell Bowl will mark the first-ever meeting between StFX and Calgary.

The X-Men were the only team to repeat as conference champion last weekend, winning back-to-back AUS banners for the first time since 1982 and 1983. The Dinos return to the national Final Four after dropping the previous two Canada West finals on home turf at McMahon Stadium, against Manitoba in 2014 and UBC last November.

To say StFX dominated in the Maritimes this fall would be a major understatement. The X-Men went 7-0 against AUS opponents in league play – winning all but one game by 15 points or more – before convincingly defeating Mount Allison 29-8 in the Loney Bowl. They led the Atlantic conference in most statistical categories, including points scored (37.4 per game), points allowed (16.1), as well as total yards on both offence (484.5) and defence (336.0).

The only blemish on StFX’s record is a 17-11 road loss against RSEQ rival Concordia in interlock play on Sept. 24.

The X-Men heard all about it last year, before and after their 36-9 home loss to UBC in the Uteck Bowl. Since 2004, only one AUS team – Saint Mary’s in 2007 – has advanced to the Vanier Cup, and the conference’s last national title dates back to 2002.

Could this be the year the drought ends? StFX has the horses, there is no doubt about it.

Starting with fifth-year quarterback Tivon Cook, the former walk-on who was named the conference MVP after he set or tied single-season school records for passing yards (2,537), touchdown passes (21), completions (174) and completion percentage (69.3), ranking in the top six nationally in all four categories.

Jordan Socholotiuk was second in the country in rushing yards with 1,056 in eight league contests, becoming the first AUS running back to reach the 1,000-yard plateau since 2007. Despite missing one game, receiver/returner Kaion Julien-Grant led the nation in all-purpose yards (1,558) and finished third in receiving yards (804). On defence, veteran defensive end Kyle Forde tied for second across the country with nine sacks.

Socholotiuk, who hails from Fort McMurray, was one of seven Alberta natives on StFX’s Loney Bowl roster, including three from Calgary.

One person who definitely likes the X-Men’s chances on Saturday is head coach Gary Waterman, in his eighth campaign at the helm.

“Winning the Loney Bowl for the second straight season, this time on our home turf, was a great accomplishment for the X-Men football team,” says the back-to-back AUS coach of the year. “We’ve had the same mantra all season, which is that the most important game of the year is the next one on the schedule. Even after clinching home field advantage with two weeks left to play, we focused on each contest individually, which ultimately led to a perfect in-conference record against some strong AUS opponents.

“It happens to be that the next game on our schedule is now the Mitchell Bowl against a tough Calgary team, and we are going to continue preparing the way we have all season. We learned some hard lessons last year in the Uteck Bowl, and we will surely draw from that experience as we head out west for the game.”

Tough might actually be the perfect way to describe the 2016 Dinos. Resilient would be another.

As if losing countless key pieces following the 2015 campaign – including two-time Hec Crighton-winning quarterback Andrew Buckley, standout running back Mercer Timmis, top receiver Rashaun Simonise and record-setting kicker Johnny Mark – wasn’t enough, Calgary has had to deal with a depleted roster for the past few weeks after being hit hard by injuries late in the season.

Starting pivot Jimmy Underdahl has missed the last four games, including both Canada West playoff contests. The Dinos are also down to their third-string tailback on the preseason depth chart with injuries to both Quentin Chown and Bryce Harper. Receiver Austen Hartley, the team’s leader with 110.2 yards per game – the third-best average in the nation – also missed the conference final.

Their absence has provided opportunities for the likes of rookie pivot Adam Sinagra, who is 3-1 as a starter and was voted MVP of the Hardy Cup after passing for 366 yards and three TDs against defending Vanier Cup champion UBC. Second-year running back Jeshrun Antwi also chipped in last weekend with 96 yards and a pair of majors on the ground.

After being named U Sports coach of the year last November following his first season at the helm, Calgary bench boss Wayne Harris Jr. definitely proved his 2015 national award was well deserved.

“We’ve faced adversity all year. How you handle that measures your character. I know the character of these guys – they’re a hard-working group of guys that never, ever quits,” says Harris, whose team has been involved in five games decided by less than a touchdown so far this fall. “I’m extremely proud of this group – they’ve worked hard all season long to achieve this goal, and we still have goals in front of us we are trying to achieve.”

One of those close games was of course the crazy 46-43 Hardy Cup win over UBC and former head coach Blake Nill, who a year ago ruined the Dinos’ bid for a perfect season with a 34-26 upset victory in the Canada West championship match at McMahon Stadium. Last Saturday, Calgary held what looked like a comfortable 36-10 after 30 minutes but saw the T-Birds and star quarterback Michael O’Connor – the 2015 Vanier Cup MVP – come back with 33 second-half points.

“We have talked about that right from day one, before we started training camp, that nothing was going to come easy this year and we would have to fight for every point and every win that we get. We’ve talked about finishing every play and every game – we’ve gotten behind in games but they’ve stuck to it. Part of that is our conditioning and being able to execute going into the fourth quarter.”

Despite the numerous challenges they faced this season, the Dinos managed to top their conference in both points scored (36.8 per game) and allowed (20.9), while also leading the league in rushing offence (195.9 yards per game), fewest yards allowed (395.4) and rushing defence (107.4). Their talented defensive unit is highlighted by fourth-year halfback Robert Woodson, the 2015 Canada West defensive MVP and the No. 12-ranked prospect for the 2017 CFL draft.

They now hope to improve to 5-1 all-time in Bowl games against AUS opponents and advance to the Vanier Cup for the first time since 2013.

“We’re going to go through and break down film, try to get the best idea of who their guys are and their style of play – where we can create mismatches and what we can take advantage of,” says Harris of his team’s preparation for StFX. “It’s a lot of film work for the coaches, getting a game plan into our players’ hands, and letting them play fast. If we’re able to do that, we have a better chance of succeeding.”

Source: usports.ca

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