Laurier's Levondre Gordon tries to elude McMaster's Eric Blake during OUA football semifinal playoff action Saturday afternoon at University Stadium. Gordon rushed for 121 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown in the Golden Hawks' 19-6 win. Photo by David Bebee, Record staff
WATERLOO – So, we will return, most of the characters intact, to the scene of last year's stirring Yates Cup confrontation.
It was Nov. 12, 2016 when the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks rallied from a 40-19 deficit with eight minutes left at London's TD Stadium to stun the Western Mustangs 43-40 and earn the Ontario university football championship.
The No. 5 nationally ranked Hawks, thanks to a gritty, windswept 19-6 semifinal playoff win over the No. 7 McMaster Marauders on Saturday, will now defend that title against, who else, No. 2 Western.
This coming Saturday, Nov. 11. Almost exactly one year later. Same opponent. Same venue. Same time, 1 p.m.
Round two. As Western coach Greg Marshall presumed would be the case when he declared the Mustangs' 29-13 win over Laurier on Sept. 30 of this season, the Hawks' Homecoming game, as merely round one in this ongoing rivalry.
As did the Hawks.
“After Homecoming we thought, 'OK, we'll see them again,” Laurier coach Michael Faulds said Saturday after beating Mac. “And now we're in that position. You can't win the Yates unless you get back there.”
This will be the second straight year and 14th time overall that the longtime rivals have met for the Yates Cup. Western leads the series 8-5, though the Mustangs have lost their last two Cup meetings with Laurier, in 2005 and last year, and last two overall, both at TD Stadium.
“It's Western,” said Laurier defensive back Godfrey Onyeka, who led the Hawks' stout defence in tackles Saturday with six solo and two assists plus an interception. “We always seem to wind up playing Western. I feel like a lot of people don't give us a chance against them, but we'll surprise some people.”
The Mustangs, now 9-0 overall and the only unbeaten team in Canada, cruised into the upcoming confrontation with a 66-12 semifinal rout of Guelph. Things were less tidy for the 7-2 Hawks before 1,678 in attendance at University Stadium. Yet while Western has obliterated six of its nine opponents on the scoreboard, only being challenged in relatively tight regular season wins over Laurier, McMaster (29-14) and Guelph (41-34 in overtime), the Hawks' more seemingly pedestrian route to the Cup final may prove more valuable, Faulds suggested.
It's arguably only in their last two games, both wins over McMaster in a 40-15 regular season ending blowout and Saturday's playoff triumph, that the Hawks have fully meshed offence with defence to produce total team victories. It all seemed to come together after a surprising 24-14 loss at Guelph in the second-last regular season contest.
“The reality is that during a season you are going to have highs and lows,” Faulds said. “Our two lows were Homecoming against Western and against Guelph. But those games have made our team more battle-tested."
Laurier players were talking teamwork after Saturday's triumph thanks to the adversity they overcame.
For one thing, the Hawks were once again without their regular starting quarterback, Michael Knevel. Knevel suffered a concussion late in the Guelph loss and, after a first-round playoff bye week, was initially expected to be available Saturday. But in the end Knevel, listed as day to day, missed the game in favor of Tristan Arndt, who as he had in the regular season win over Mac managed the offence effectively while completing 17 of 26 passes for 189 yards with no interceptions.
And while the uniforms were the same, a different McMaster team, 7-2 overall after a bruising 12-9 quarterfinal win over Queen's, showed up determined not to be embarrassed again at Laurier. The result was a tactical defensive struggle where only one touchdown – a four yard run by Laurier's Levondre Gordon to give his team an early 7-0 lead – was scored. The rest of the points came from four field goals and a convert by the Hawks' Nathan Mesher and two three-pointers by McMaster's Adam Preocanin.
The Hawks could have produced more points. Three times, from late in the second quarter to early in the third, Laurier had the ball deep in McMaster territory only to emerge with one Mesher field goal when 21 potential points via touchdown were available. Faulds looked at it as a glass half full situation. He chose, in one instance, to eschew a field goal and gamble on third down from the Mac one-yard line. The Marauders held, but the Hawks won that battle of field position and kicked a field goal on their next possession.
“It's also about managing the game,” Faulds said. “If it's a shootout, you play it one way. If it's a defensive struggle like it was . . . you play it differently according to the score.”
Laurier never trailed, nursing margins of 7-0, 7-3, 10-3 and 10-6 for long periods of the game, and killed the clock effectively late in the contest on runs by Gordon, who rushed for 121 yards on 21 carries, and key catches by Kurleigh Gittens Jr. and Daniel Bennett. And while McMaster remained within striking distance, the Marauders never truly threatened to grasp the game thanks to Laurier's defence.
“The defence did a good job of picking us up when we needed it,” Arndt said. “They played really well.”
Laurier limited McMaster to 287 yards net offence compared to the Hawks' 339, with Scott Hutter adding another interception of Marauder quarterback Jackson White, a Jacob Hespeler high school grad who completed 16 of 38 pass attempts for 160 yards. McMaster's biggest pass play was a 20-yard completion, on a fake, from punter Preocanin to Will Hudson but Laurier held the Marauders to Preocanin's subsequent 23-yard field goal.
The teams combined for 290 yards in penalties in the flag-filled affair, with Laurier whistled 14 times for 150 yards and Mac 17 for 140.