Stunning might be the best word to describe Canadian university football’s conference championship Saturday.
Montreal started the proceedings by going into PEPS Stadium and shocking Laval — two-time defending Vanier Cup champs — 12-9 in overtime. Then, McMaster held off a last-minute drive from Guelph to capture the Yates Cup. Manitoba finished the day by knocking off a heavily-favoured Calgary team on the Dinos’ home turf. These results showed us that some parity may have returned to CIS football.
Headlining the final outcomes had to be Montreal’s tight victory over Laval. National titles are the minimum expectation every year for the Rouge et Or, so not even winning the Dunsmore Cup will be a major disappointment. The Carabins ended Laval’s 11-year run as Quebec champions and Montreal managed to snap their rivals’ CIS record 70-game home win streak in the process.
There is much to be gleaned from conclusions that happened on the weekend, so let’s get to what we learned.
Big red run machine stalls
Indeed Laval is beatable in its own backyard and Montreal proved its blueprint from the regular season was no fluke. The Carabins pressured, hit and kept freshman quarterback Huge Richard guessing all game long. Montreal dropped him for three sacks, recorded an interception, and forced and recovered a fumble against the first-year pivot. Montreal stuffed the Laval run game, too. Maxime Boutin and Guillaume Bourassa were held to 12 and 15 yards respectively.
Not many teams are capable of shutting down Laval’s rush offence. That’s always the No. 1 priority for opposing defences when facing the Rouge et Or, but it’s much easier said than done. Although, Montreal -- led by linebacker Byron Archambault and his team-leading 7.5 tackles -- did the job and made Laval one-dimensional. And it was the key to victory and the Carabins claiming the Dunsmore Cup for the first time in school history.
Trophy games and turnovers don’t mix
All three teams that lost on Saturday turned the ball over more than their opponent. It might be obvious and cliché, but it shows that taking care of the football is of the utmost importance come playoff time.
Interceptions cost Guelph and Calgary dearly. For the Gryphons, quarterbacks Jazz Lindsey and James Roberts combined to throw five passes to the other team in the Yates Cup - the same number Guelph pivots had thrown all regular season. Meanwhile, Canada West MVP Andrew Buckley was picked off four times in the Hardy Cup after tossing that exact amount all year leading into the Can West title game.
In Ontario and out west, the winning team took interceptions back to the end zone for game-changing plays. McMaster defensive lineman Mike Kashak grabbed a screen pass and rumbled 30 yards for a touchdown to give the Marauders a lead they would not relinquish. For Manitoba, Jonathan Jones snatched a Buckley pass and took it back 20 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at seven, and the Bisons never trailed again.
Points could be at a premium as the CIS post-season goes forward, with Montreal and McMaster boasting stingy defences; they were so good that they didn’t even need offensive touchdowns in order to come out with conference title wins. Danny Maciocia and Greg Knox used multiple fronts, packages and schemes to keep opposition offences under wraps.
Mac RB healthy, running strong again
Marauders running back Chris Pezzetta seems to have regained his form from McMaster’s 2011 run to Vanier Cup glory.
Mac’s five-foot-10, 225-pound rusher had 463 yards rushing in four games on the way to the Marauders’ National Championship three years ago. Between now and then he suffered and recovered from two major knee injuries, neither of which has seemed to bother Pezzetta in 2014. And he’s really looked like his old self during the current push towards another Vanier.
Pezzetta ran for 143 yards in McMaster’s OUA semifinal win and 144 yards in the Yates Cup to help McMaster advance to the CIS final four. No. 20’s work running the ball has allowed the Marauders to control the tempo of the game, giving the talented defence rest and chewing up the clock. Expect McMaster to continue to ride the strong -- and healthy -- legs of Pezzetta.