With the Vanier Cup only hours away, starting at 7:30pm and shown on TSN, The CIS Blog offers a scatter-shot preview discussion of the Big Game featuring Fraser Caldwell and Kevin Garbuio.
Our fearless leader and resident statistical wizard Rob Pettapiece has set the spread for tonight's game:
Laval vs. McMaster (-11.5)
With that bit of business out of the way, let's get down to it...
FC: It may sound like somewhat of a cop-out for those who listened to the podcast before the bowl games and heard me give essentially the same answer then, but I think this game is decided in the trenches.
Both offences will face the best defensive lines that they’ve seen all season. Arnaud Gascon-Nadon is the best single lineman in the country, and absolutely had his way with the Acadia Axemen a week ago. He works exceptionally well with partner Samuel Hebert on the strong side—as TSN’s Duane Forde noted on several occasions during the Uteck Bowl.
Holding Gascon-Nadon back is a task that falls to Marauder tackle Matt Sewell, McMaster’s hulking 6’8”, 340 pound behemoth who is believed to be the most CFL-ready offensive lineman in the country. If you need a “Match-up to Watch” for a television graphic, this would be it. It will truly be a case of unstoppable force versus immovable object.
Laval’s offensive line doesn’t get the same sort of attention—apart perhaps from centre Pierre Lavertu who was honoured as a First-Team All-Canadian on Wednesday—but they routinely beat Acadia’s defenders a week ago. The group’s success in clearing-out in front of (third string!) running back Maxim Boutin is evident in his eventual total of 213 rushing yards while averaging eight and a half per carry.
Whether it’s Boutin handling the rushing duties, or the apparently healthy Pascal Lochard and Guillaume Bourassa, I don’t foresee the Rouge et Or having the same success along the ground in the Vanier Cup. McMaster’s front seven is an entirely different beast from Acadia’s, and has been suffocating rushers throughout the playoffs.
Just ask Steven Lumbala.
KG: I guess filling the role of the AUS guy puts me in the position to say, "Well, they beat us worse than they did," so I am going to play with the hand I'm dealt with.
I think offensively I like McMaster more than I like Laval. Boutin is probably the only skill player Laval has that I would take over a Mac starter if we go 1 RB v 1 RB, 3 WR v 3 WR. The star power on Mac's offence is well known. Kyle Quinlan winning the Hec now puts him in the argument for greatest CIS QB of all time. If he beats Laval in back to back seasons for the Vanier he'd have my vote. His numbers speak for themselves and Laval knows what he can do.
I was at the Uteck Bowl last weekend in Quebec City and what stood out to me most was Laval's depth. Fraser, you mentioned Gascon-Nadon's performance last week and seeing him bend down the line of scrimmage was stunning. It is hard to believe he wasn't nominated for his third straight J.P Metras Award. I mean, he could have submitted 10 clips of him just bending down the line and wrecking any zone run the opposition attempted (I'm talking about the outside zone Thomas Troop ran in the second quarter and was tackled for about a three yard loss on the opposite side of the field).
But here's the thing about Laval and everyone in the CIS knows it: when Gascon-Nadon was listed as questionable this past week no one was thinking 'oh wow, that's a huge loss for the Rouge et Or.' The depth Laval has at all positions is remarkable and injuries do not affect them like they affect most teams in the league.
Now Fraser, I know you being a Mac guy may argue that the Marauders lost their starting running back, Chris Pezzetta, for the season in training camp and at one point were down to their fourth stringer and still found success, or that they did not feel the loss of Michael DiCroce. I'd argue that Quinlan and that massive offensive line have more to do with that than the players they are plugging in. Quinlan makes everything tick. In Laval, it does not rely one person or one coach; they have talent. Their system? It's simple. They have athletes who do not make mistakes. They ran literally two run plays on offence—that's it, two. Inside and outside zone. From different formations obviously but you get the simplicity of what they do.
On defence, it's the same thing. They keep it simple and essentially their philosophy is, “Our athletes are greater than your athletes, our football players are going to do what we ask them to. Beat us.” They play the players they trust and their recruiting is so strong that they can rotate players in when needed. At what other school could a coordinator get fired, after winning two games and the team not miss a beat? (That firing was not performance based. At least I'm sure it wasn't.)
FC: I agree with your assessment of Laval here, Kevin. The Rouge et Or play with simple confidence—a confidence born of success. It makes for a fluid system on both sides of the ball, and as you point out, the ability to mix and match personnel when needed.
It’s a hyper-efficient system, and it sees the Rouge et Or past the vast majority of their opponents who are too accident-prone or unskilled to match them. But it’s also a system that masks individual deficiencies. That’s where I think things deteriorate for Laval against McMaster.
The quarterback position is where this is most clearly evident for me. Tristan Grenon has done an admirable job under centre this season, but nothing that I see from him demonstrates that he’s more than a “game manager” or, as I prefer, a “system quarterback”. He was very effective against the Axemen because he was consistently operating within his system and the most favourable conditions.
Acadia could do nothing to stop Boutin, which not only gave Grenon plenty of short-yardage situations on second down, but also allowed him to pass on first against a defence that was flooding the box and gambling to halt the ground game.
The Marauders will allow the Rouge et Or no such luxuries tonight. Their run-stopping credentials against top opposition have already been proven, and that same team speed and mixture of blitzes that kept Calgary off-balance throughout the Mitchell Bowl can do the same to Laval.
It will take a much more adventurous night from Grenon to make up the difference. Is he capable of that against this secondary? I’m not convinced.
On the other side, Kyle Quinlan, this year’s Hec Crighton winner, has the tools and the responsive offence to identify and adapt to meet challenges on the field.
That’s the real beauty of what the Marauder offence did against Calgary. The Dinos’ pass-rush did its job in the Mitchell Bowl by keeping Quinlan inside the pocket. The problem: Quinlan decided to stand in and sling where he’s typically pulled the ball down this season. Not only did he throw, he kept the dizzying assortment of head-fakes, ball-fakes and jukes on shuffle and effectively froze the Dinos whenever they thought they were getting a bead on him.
Calgary’s blowout loss has caused many commentators outside Canada West to suggest that the Dinos were overrated this season.
I think the scariest thing is: they weren’t.
KG: Prediction time: I know Mac is favored to win and they have buses full of students coming and all but how can anyone ever count out Laval?
I said last week during the podcast that I liked Calgary's depth over Mac and looked like a putz. But in this battle of titans, I really like what Laval is bringing to the table. It is hard for me to bet against them and their history. But not only that, they have an uncanny sense of rising to the occasion. I think if the game is close at the half Laval takes it.
The Marauders really need to get a big lead at the half because as we saw last year, no team adjusts like the Rouge et Or. But this year, I don't think they slip up at the end.
FC: I think this will be McMaster’s sternest test—and while I don’t envision anything like the 45-6 beating that the Marauders laid on the Dinos last week, I see very few scenarios in which this game falls in Laval’s favour. I think the spread of 11.5 points is fair, and I will pick McMaster to cover it.