HAMILTON -- From 0-1 to the last ones standing, Laval took a different path to its ninth Vanier Cup.

To an outsider, all the Laval football titles and Carleton men's basketball championships loop together. In the case of the Rouge et Or, it isn't until they take off those metallic gold helmets that could keep a stadium lit in case of a power failure that one remembers there are still young student-athletes carrying out coach Glen Constantin's grand design and they are mortal. This season, Laval had one of its youngest squads since its nascence -- "15 new starters, only three fifth-year kids," Constantin noted -- and still managed to win the national championship by defeating Calgary 31-26 at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday.

All of those down-to-the-wire grudge matches against the Montréal Carabins might have provided that critical bit of resilience against well-prepared Calgary.

"It built our character and we got to give it to the University of Montreal Carabins," quarterback Hugo Richard, who received the Ted Morris Memorial Trophy as offensive player of the game, said. "They give us great games every single time. We never know how it's going to end. It's a great rivalry that drives Quebec football in the right direction. This season, playing them three times, it showed us that regardless of the score or the situation we can always execute and come out on the top.

It would have perfect from if Adam Sinagra had finished the job for Jimmy Underdahl, as well as Andrew Buckley and Erik Glavic.

Instead, the Calgary Dinos were once again the chins-up runners-up after a 31-26 defeat against the Laval Rouge et Or at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday. No sense in pointing out that a five-point final margin was as close as Calgary has come against Laval in five tries since 2008. Would you rather have lost 59-10 like in the 2008 Uteck?! Or that these Dinos, after losing stars such as NFL wide receiver prospect Rashaun Simonise, probably got more from the sum of their parts than any of their teams over the past decade that have accumulated seven Canada West titles, four Vanier trips and three Hec Crightons. It was still crushing.

"This year we didn't have the big stars, we lost a lot of guys to the CFL and the NFL and all of a sudden we didn't have that big name player," Calgary coach Wayne Harris Jr. said. "They relied on each other. This is the ultimate team game and that's what they were able to become. Play together and united. They did everything that we asked of him.

"You don't always get what you deserve at the end but that's not what it's all about. It's about the friendships that they've built with each other and the trust they've built between themselves."

Canadian football stands apart from the more followed four-down bastardization with its capacity to stick a shiv right under the ribcage just once for good measure. Following Laval's go-ahead touchdown, the Dinos turned the ball over on downs at their 44-yard line. One first down likely would have iced the game, but on third-and-one, DT Jack McEwen helped stack up Rouge et Or QB Hugo Richard for no gain. That gave Calgary one final shot, 87 seconds to traverse 75 yards.

They reached the 23-yard line with 39 seconds on the clock. Ultimately, Laval's defence, which had been porous to the count of allowing 553 yards, hung on and induced three incompletions in a row.

"It's an ode to our character that we had the kind of year we had," Sinagra said. "We battled hard, we worked for everything we got. That's what brought us here.

"There was plenty of time at the end. A minute-30 at the end, it's a dream. We should have scored."

Calgary was clearly well-drilled on facing Laval and it showed up all over the stat sheet except for the day's smoking gun, the Rouge et Or getting 21 points off of turnovers in the Dinos' zone. Chances are, if you had told someone Laval would have such a huge benefit, you wouldn't have expected a five-point final scoreline.

Calgary has a distinguished coaching staff, with former CFL head coach Tom Higgins serving as defensive coordinator. Omen-seekers no doubt were aware that Dinos offensive coordinator Ryan Sheahan and receivers coach Justin Chapdelaine were part of the 2009 Queen's team that defeated Laval in the Mitchell Bowl.

The Dinos reached Richard from all angles while racking up seven sacks, with Nick Statz -- a defensive back -- being the only defender with two. On the first offensive play of the day, Underdahl delivered an 86-yard touchdown to Michael Klukas behind coverage.

Underdahl led another touchdown drive the second time the Dinos got the ball. The third and fourth possessions were more ominous.

Underdahl was intercepted in his zone by Laval halfback Adam Auclair, creating a short field for a Rouge et Or touchdown that cut the margin to 14-7. Then came an early turning point: an illegal procedure penalty negated a 50-yard reception by Hunter Karl. On the do-over, Underdahl re-injured his knee after being spun down for a sack by Laval DT Vincent Desjardins.

Day and Dinos career over.

Underdahl was injured in October and there was initially speculation his season might be over, but he came in to stimulate the Dinos offence during the Mitchell Bowl win against St. Francis Xavier.

"Jimmy has been an emotional leader for us," Harris said. "He did so much on the bench to help Adam while he was hurt," Harris said. "He was playing on one leg. We knew he was going to have surgery; we had three guys playing today who are going to have surgery. Unfortunately it just took a twist and it flared up too much for him to play."

Sinagra was 21-of-38 for 276 yards with one interception, commendable numbers, but the Dinos never reached the end zone again, kicking four field goals. Second-year running back Jeshrun Antwi also had 25 rushes for a career-best 177 yards as Calgary's offensive line, in the last game of a season where its positional depth chart has been a moving target, largely controlled the line of scrimmage.

Sinagra is also the Dinos punter. The true turning point might have come in that phase. Calgary was punting from its 49-yard line with 4:30 left when Laval backup cornerback Raphael Robidoux blocked Sinagra's punt. Christian Dallaire got a clean recovery and a return to Calgary's 15-yard line. Three plays later, Richard scored the decisive touchdown.

"I could see it coming," Harris said. "The mesh point for Adam was a little high and the backs (the personal protectors between the line of scrimmage and punter) were a little too deep. Their guy got a great vertical and blocked it.

"Another six inches and it's not a problem."

That's football. The margins are razor-thin and one never knows where they might come. One November, they will come Calgary's way.

The upside of a down year for Vanier Cup attendance is that Hamilton will be host for the 2017 title game, so they have a chance to figure out why so many of those seats are unoccupied.

Forget about how great a game Laval and Calgary engaged in; it is alarming that there was such a step backwards, with the lowest attendance in the event's history. Attendance as never announced, but there was no way that the glutei-in-seats count matched the record-low of 8,184 from 1997.

It was not just the luck of the draw that is having a Calgary-Laval matchup in a championship game in Southern Ontario. It's also not that people in Canada don't care about football; the size of crowds at conference championship games and rivalry games such as the Panda Game refute such defeatism. On Twitter,  #Vanier52 was trending more strongly than Michigan and Ohio State in Canada.

With a nearly wholesale change in leadership at U Sports Canada and seemingly little collaboration between the organizers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the attendance is not surprising. The glass-half-full take on stadium-nearly-empty is that everyone probably realizes more work could have been done. Whether there will be action remains to be seen. And hey, what should be the most important day in the university sports calendar, especially so with the rebranding, is at least going to get some much needed support from the Ontario government in 2017 (a $100,000 tourism grant to help with having some, any, promotional ramp-up throughout the season).

Full disclose: it is tough typing a blog post with two sets of crossed fingers on each hand. One always hopes against hope each national football semifinal will be good, since it is one of the few times all season that Canadian university football gets any sort of media platform.

As long as football is 12-on-12 and young adults are playing the games, there is always a capacity for surprise -- just ask a Western alumnus, eh.

The subtext for Saturday's semifinals, with Laurier going up to Laval and St. Francis Xavier carrying the AUS banner across three time zones to take on Calgary is all the talk and inaction about creating a level playing field nationally.

The second-last Saturday of the season seldom delivers on its promise, except to complete cynics. When it does -- Montréal and Manitoba trading haymakers in the 2014 Uteck; Saskatchewan ending Laval's three-peat ambitions in the 2005 Mitchell -- it's a Choose-Your-Own-10-Dollar-Word-Damnit thrill ride. Of course, a great team playing a perfect game in front of its fans (Saint Mary's two semifinal wins against Laval in 2001 and '07) is exhilarating in its way.

More often than not, though, the semis are just prologue. It is worth mentioning this since it will show how unexpected it will be if, indeed, Laurier defeats Laval and/or St. Francis Xavier shocks Calgary. I guess I'm writing this as a plea to the people involved that it would be more refreshing if there was more adult conversation about why the semis are often predictable, instead of feeding a false line about plucky underdogs.

The past does not necessarily predict the future, but down below are tables that show the national semifinals have seen greater winning margins over the last 15 seasons than in the previous two decades. Of course, a more sophisticated analysis would try to project whether this is likely to continue, but doing that would involve having data sets that include more meaningful interconference play. (You see what I did there.)

For what is worth, the 'average aggregate' (combined margin of victory) in the semis from 2001-15 was 45.93 points, with a median of 42.

In the previous 20 sets of semifinals (1980-2000, with 1983 excepted since the Atlantic conference forfeited), the average margin was 29.95 points, with a median of 27.

That represents a 50 per cent increase in the wrong direction, since the goal is presumably to have closer games. A greater mind can figure out The Laval Factor: their average point differential in 12 national semifinals is 12.25 points.

(The 2001 season was a good starting point, since that was the first season every Ontario team played in OUA. The Mitchell Bowl was called the Churchill Bowl through 2002; the eastern-most semifinal was renamed after Larry Uteck in 2003.)

MarginUteck HUteck VMitchell HMitchell V

Consider the chart above a literally calculated act of someone who knows he would make a poor hype man for a major sports network. One season in the last 15 when both games were close (and in 2014, McMaster played to the level of Mount Allison, likely accounting for the 12-point margin) is kind of bad.

Averaging a pair of three-touchdown games for a decade and half is, at best, a reflection of the challenges of staging a national championship in a country with so much geography and so much institutional inertia about Nopuck sports. At worst, it shows a complacency with the status quo. There are probably a lot of other things to do to get more people to care about the Vanier Cup that do not involve lucking into some 40-38 games in the semis. Also, having one bad weekend in November is not a reason not to enjoy September, October and early November (the good regular-season matchups and conference playoffs).

There are 20 sets of semifinals from 1980 to 2000. That's good for these purposes, since it's an even number and '80 was the first season the O-QIFC -- Queen's, Carleton, Ottawa and the Quebec schools -- had its own trophy game. In that era  the Atlantic Bowl was at a fixed site in Halifax. For simplicity's sake, the three extant conferences are referred to by current abbreviations:

The average swings three points either way if you discard either of the anomalies, 1985 and '87.

MarginAtlantic HAtlantic VChurchill HChurchill V
*Played at SkyDome

If you hung in for all of this, you can jump to your own conclusions about whether this could be remedied or if it's just the reality of university sport. A solution is not as simple as "bring back the Atlantic Bowl, bring back the O-QIFC, add water and stir."

At least the trends show there is reason to be untethered from the conference-champs-only format. Now just reflexively being against the so-called The Usual can create its own set of problems (see: the result of the U.S. presidential selection).

The other subtext for Saturday

There is no chance the rights holder will mention this in depth on Saturday, perhaps beyond some cutesy graphic that shows that Calgary's administrative staff (4,964) is larger than the population of Antigonish proper (4,524).

Laurier was among the OUA schools that fired a broadside in 2014 about "the arms race in OUA football," which was also aimed at Laval and Montréal driving up the cost to compete. Now the Golden Hawks are getting their shot to play Laval, so that theme has been revisited this week.

St. Francis Xavier is probably the strongest rep AUS has had since the age cap (i.e., the "seven years to play five seasons rule") took full effect. I'm not sure how much stock can be put in the fact that St. FX hung in with Concordia, Quebec's third-best team, on Sept. 24. The effects of having a deeper roster and a bigger budget increase as the season progresses.

Anyway, here's hoping for a couple of 40-38 games.

Oh, and just to complete the Buzz Killington hat trick, one more table, which is more or less Ontario vs. Everybody. Well, actually it's how the OUA has fared over the years in semifinals against opponents from Canada West and Quebec.

All told, the conference is 2-11 in such instances. Each win was a home game.

2007Western ManitobaAway2052
1996GuelphSaskatchewanHome 933

* O-QIFC team
BOLD-won Vanier

Laurier's Kurleigh Gittens Jr. makes the game-tying touchdown receptions. (CHCH TV images)
Never forget: Western was ahead 40-19 in the Yates Cup.

Shelby Blackley was on-site for (these are working titles) what could either be called the Michaels Miracle after Laurier's head coach and quarterback, or the Great Mustang Meltdown.  If you are clicking here, you likely know that the Golden Hawks forged one of those only-in-Canadian-football comebacks in the Yates Cup, upending Western 43-40 with three touchdowns in the final 8½ minutes left and a last-play field goal by Nathan Mesher. The against-almost-all-probabilities rally sets up a Laurier-Laval Uteck Bowl next week in Ste-Foy, Que., while Calgary will host St. Francis Xavier in the Mitchell Bowl.
The anatomy of a comeback, sprinkled with fun facts (warning: facts will not be fun if you live in London, Ont.):
  1. For nearly 50 minutes, it went as many neutral (hah!) observers had anticipated/feared. With 10:14 left, Western led by 21 points. Laurier coach Michael Faulds used a timeout before a third-and-five play. Obviously, quarterback Michael Knevel converted that do-or-done play.
  2. Laurier led OUA in third-down conversions (58 per cent) during the regular season. They went 4-of-4 down the stretch, even though the average yards to go was 8.25. Brentyn Hall caught a 29-yard touchdown on third-and-18 for the first touchdown. Knevel scrambled to convert a third-and-4 on the drive that pulled Laurier to 40-33.
  3. The reverse! Western is power, power, power all day, apparently until it matters most.

    With 1:36 left and second-and-six on their 27. Coach Greg Marshall's Mustangs called a handoff to Alex Taylor with slotback Myles Rombough looping for a reverse pitch. Any play with multiple handoffs is risky at the best of times, never mind when it is tight-sphincter time and the opponent has momentum and a feeling of nothing to lose.

    Hawks DB Isaiah Guzylak-Messam stripped the ball from Taylor as he was trying to pitch it and made a fumble return to Western's three-yard line. On the next play, Knevel threw a teardrop back-shoulder fade to Kurleigh Gittens Jr. for a tying touchdown.
  4. Even if the ball had got to Rombough, a converted running back, the play depended on  Mustangs QB Chris Merchant to block 260-pound lineman Rashard Henry. That seems ... sub-optimal. (Replay also shows Henry did not overpursue the play.)
Western versus Laurier. Greg Marshall versus Michael Faulds. Teacher versus student. Veterans versus rookies. Consistent returners versus newcomers.

Whichever way you write the narrative, Saturday is surely going to be a show. At least, we hope.

The Laurier Golden Hawks — along with the assuming support of nine other OUA teams — will be looking to knock off the Western Mustangs. You may wonder, "well, Guelph knocked them off their pedestal last year. It's a new season."

Saturday, Western will have hosted the Yates Cup five times in the last nine years. Not exactly the parity we want to be speaking about.

But this time around, it's not the Guelph Gryphons or the McMaster Marauders accompanying them in the final. It's a team that hasn't seen the Yates Cup final in 10 years, and hasn't held it in 11.

It's also a team that has a coach that turned them around from a 1-7 team to a 7-1 team in four seasons, and one of the top-ranked CIS USport players, and was named OUA Coach of the Year Thursday.

I wrote for The Cord that win or lose, Michael Faulds and the Hawks have exceeded expectations. It's true — they got through the McMasters and the Guelphs and the Ottawas and the Carletons of the OUA. They finally figured it out — at least this far.

But winning will put a stamp on this season and finally give the OUA something that doesn't include "Western" to promote.

The matchup, however, leaves a lot of questions and uncertainty.

  • The Mustangs and Golden Hawks have battled for the Yates Cup 12 times in the past, including eight conference finals as well as four division finals between 1974 and 1978, when the trophy was shared by the East and West division winners. 
  • Western currently leads the series 8-4
  • The game will be the second of the season. On Oct. 1, Western defeated Laurier 45-26
  • The two teams are meeting in the post-season for the second straight year as the Mustangs downed the Hawks 32-18 in semifinal action last November in London 

  • Western had 44 touchdowns during the 2016 regular season, top in the OUA. Right behind them was Laurier, who scored 43 touchdowns for the first time ever. 
  • Western had 4,358 yards of total offence in the regular season, first in the OUA. Laurier had 3,904 yards. 
  • Western and Laurier were around the same for rushing yards — Western having eight extra yards — but Western had more passing yards (2,377) than Laurier (1,754).
  • Laurier's defence had 16 interceptions in the regular season and 62 disruptions (combined total of fumble recoveries, interceptions, sacks), which was first in the OUA. Western had nine interceptions — fifth in the OUA. 
  • Laurier averaged 108.6 yards of penalties per game, the third-most in the OUA. Western had 94.4 yards per game in penalties.
  • On their 16 interceptions, Laurier accumulated 444 yards, the best in Ontario. On Western's nine interceptions, they accumulated only 62 yards — third-last in the OUA.

  • Both teams dealt with quarterback competition. Michael Knevel took over for Julien John as the Hawks' pivot, and Chris Merchant took over starting duties as the season ramped up. 
  • However, Western often switches between quarterbacks Merchant and Stevenson Bone. Bone is often put in the game for QB sneaks.
  • Laurier's Eric Guiltinan went down against McMaster and no update has been given for him. His status is questionable for the final.
  • But, as Morris Della Costa wrote for the London Free Press, injuries are common among the 'Stangs. The list of Mustangs players who left the field at various times include running back Alex Taylor; offensive linemen Gregoire Bouchard and Sean Jamieson; receiver George Johnson; defensive tackle Rupert Butcher; defensive end John Biewald; and yes, even quarterback Chris Merchant was on the turf several times writhing in pain.


Western's offence is fully loaded. Laurier's defence is beyond words. Western needs to stay healthy. Laurier needs to stay healthy. Laurier needs to look to depth and defence. Western needs to capitalize on their depth. 


The last few times these teams have met, the season matchup has been a blowout while the playoff matchup came down to the wire. Too close too call, but discipline and consistency will win the game. Sloppy play will cost the team a ticket to the national semifinal.

Follow @shelbyblackley on Twitter for live coverage of the Yates Cup. 

Three of the four conference finals are rematches: Calgary-UBC for the second year in a row, Mount Allison-St. Francis Xavier for a third and Laval-Montréal for a fourth.

What happened to all that parity chatter? Western is also hosting the Yates Cup for the fifth time in nine seasons, which is roughly the same rate as during their halcyon days.

Not to be more of a buzzkill, but it is hard to get excited about seeing the same thing. The larger point is that the effects of the 'arms race' in university ball become apparent once the knockout games begin. The smaller one is that the pet idea about adding a wild-card week to the national playoffs needs to be refreshed.

The idea is pretty simple. The conference runners-up who were the highest in the final poll of the regular season become wild cards. They play two conference champions in the national quarter-final, and the two conference winners who were highest in the poll get a bye before hosting the Mitchell and Uteck semifinals. Basically, it is the CFL playoff format and it is also increases the inventory of games to offer to media partners and sponsors from three games to five.

At this writing, we're looking at a distinct possibility of a rehash of 2010, when Laval and Western played a nailbiter of a Uteck Bowl and Laval coolly crushed Calgary in an unwatchable Vanier Cup. The two best teams played a week too soon.

This season, the two best teams, Laval and Montréal, are playing two weeks too soon. The survivor likely plays the third-best team in the Uteck Bowl.

Here is how the eight teams left would be seeded, based on the Top 10 poll taken at the end of the regular season:
  1. Laval (RSEQ)
  2. Montréal (RSEQ)
  3. Western (OUA)
  4. Laurier (OUA)
  5. Calgary (Canada West)
  6. St. Francis Xavier (AUS)
  7. UBC (Canada West)
  8. Mount Allison (AUS)

In this hypothetical, the Laval-Montréal loser is going to be the 5 seed and the Laurier-Western loser will be the 6 seed. Having the fallback is not going to strip out the emotion of a championship game, since defeat still means having to regroup very quickly to go out of province for a playoff game -- a terrifying notion for any OUA program located west of the 401 turnoff for Madoc.

Let's presume the higher-ranked teams each win on Saturday. Here's our bracket:
  • Montréal is going to Wester,n for a quarter-final; Laurier plays St. Francis Xavier in the revived Atlantic Bowl. Laval and Calgary are the bye teams.
  • One concession to tradition might be assigning the two byes in rotation in the manner of the Uteck and Mitchell hosting. I am not opposed to that. There is a scenario where a 4-4 team wins their conference and ends up getting a bye while, say, an 7-1 or 8-0 team has to play, but other university sports have seeding criteria for nationals that put all the weight on conference playoffs and very little on the entire body of work. The efficacy of that something-for-everyone approach is debatable, though.

    The problem of having the best teams meet too soon would still occur, though. That is the problem to be solved.   

Point being, there is a better way.

The worst Vanier Cup in pertinent memory, in terms of the crowd and the game, was 2004 in Hamilton. The Wikipedia entry summarizes it well. Now may we never speak of it again.

The game will surely be better than the touchdown-free turnover-fest Laval and Saskatchewan, loosely speaking, played 12 years ago. The crowd was announced at 14,227 that clear Saturday afternoon ... and one hopes that won't look good by comparison in 20 days' time.

Hometown rooting interest McMaster is out; you know that since the Mac was the only OUA semifinalist with a press release up within a hour of the games ending on Saturday, but that is a post for someone else. There is also a distinct possibility of losing the boost from having an OUA team involved, since the Yates Cup winner (cough, Western) will have to win the Uteck Bowl against Laval or Montréal.

Suffice to say, one might want to be braced for the possibility of a very small crowd at Tim Hortons Field on Nov. 26.
The coaching matchup is going to be the built-in storyline for the Yates Cup, but what's more to the point is wondering what chance Laurier rates of beating Western on the road in November.

The Mustangs continued a characteristic Greg Marshall late-season run with a clinical and convincing 51-24 win against the Carleton Ravens. Laurier, in a game that almost projects as a microcosm of an Ontario University Athletics season full of parity, shaded McMaster 21-19 in the other semifinal, meaning Hawks honcho Michael Faulds will go to his first Yates as a HC after going 2-2 in them as Western's quarterback from 2005 through 09.

Convenience sample: in 2015, Western defeated Laurier by 50 points in the regular season and by 14 (with a backup quarterback) in the semifinal. They won by 19 in the regular-game, so ipso facto?

Western's offence, with quarterback Chris Merchant settled in, is working at ludicrous speed. Nothing is guaranteed in football but one can almost start skipping ahead to wondering whether they can finally match up well against a non-Ontario team in the Uteck Bowl. Will what wins in OUA work in Laval or Montréal on Nov. 19?

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