The 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, scheduled for Nov. 25 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.
The Mitchell Bowl follows the Uteck Bowl at 2 p.m. Mountain (4 p.m. Eastern), with the RSEQ champion Laval Rouge et Or (9-1) visiting the Canada West monarch Calgary Dinos (9-1) at McMahon Stadium in a rematch of last year’s Vanier Cup, won by Laval at Tim Hortons Field.
Viewers can watch both the Uteck Bowl and Mitchell Bowl live on Sportsnet 360, with coverage beginning at 12 noon ET with a 30-minute pre-game show. The doubleheader is also available online through Sportsnet NOW.
If Saturday’s games produce half of the drama witnessed during the conference finals – all won by the home side – fans across the country are in for a treat.
Calgary escaped with a 44-43 Hardy Cup victory over UBC thanks to a U SPORTS-record 59-yard field goal on the final play of regulation, and Laval downed Montreal 25-22 as, for the fifth year in a row, the Dunsmore Cup final between the RSEQ archrivals was decided by three points or less.
Laval’s domination of Calgary since the two perennial contenders first battled in 2008 has been well documented. Thanks to a 31-26 come-from-behind victory in last year’s Vanier Cup, the Rouge et Or lead the all-time head-to-head series 5-0, including a convincing 41-10 Mitchell Bowl win in the only previous duel at McMahon Stadium, in 2011.
Of course, the Dinos can take comfort in the fact they’re not the only team that has struggled to solve the Laval mystery. The Quebec City powerhouse hasn’t lost to an opponent other than Montreal since the 2011 Vanier Cup against McMaster, which remains the record-setting program’s only setback in 10 appearances in the U SPORTS championship match.
Laval and Calgary have had similar results so far in 2017, both finishing atop their league standings with 7-1 marks before notching emotional wins over their respective archrivals, Montreal and UBC, to claim yet another conference banner. But the way they’ve achieved success has been somewhat different.
As has been the case for the better part of the past two decades, the Rouge et Or have dominated mainly thanks to a suffocating defensive unit that ranked first in the nation during the regular season in points allowed (9.6 per game), finished second in overall defence (304.8 yards per game) and against the run (99.4), and was fourth against the pass (205.4).
The high-flying Dinos, meanwhile, can go toe-to-toe with the best of them on offence. They finished second in the country in both points scored (42.5 per game) and passing yards (347.6), while taking third place in total yards (507.0).
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"We’ve had success in all three phases of the game this year, and that’s probably why we’re in the national semifinals," said Laval’s Glen Constantin, the leader among active U SPORTS head coaches with a mind-boggling 164-30 career overall record in 17 seasons at the helm, including 9-4 in Bowl games and 8-1 in Vanier Cup finals. "I am particularly pleased with the way our defence has played in recent weeks. We feel we have managed to develop a good synergy between our line and our secondary, which allows us to make big plays both against the run and the pass."
Led by defensive end Mathieu Betts, the Dunsmore Cup MVP with two sacks and a forced fumble, Laval has registered an impressive three shutouts in its last six contests. On offence, fourth-year quarterback Hugo Richard, the 2016 Vanier Cup MVP and now a two-time RSEQ player of the year, completed a U SPORTS-best 70.3 per cent of his passes in league play and threw only three interceptions in 269 passing attempts.
"Outside of our conference, Calgary is the team we’ve faced the most in the last 10 years, so we’re starting to be familiar with them," continued Constantin, whose troops also hosted the Dinos in preseason action in 2013 and 2014. "Despite the fact we’ve had success against the Dinos, we must always be well prepared because they are an excellent football team, very well coached. It’ll be a big challenge, especially since we have to cross the country to play them on their home turf. I’m expecting a great game."
"It will be a big challenge for us to be able to keep our focus while traveling out West," added Betts, last year’s J.P. Metras Trophy recipient as the nation’s outstanding down lineman. "Obviously, these are never easy games. The preparation is very important because we’re not as familiar with their trends and their players. It’ll be the exact opposite of the Quebec final, as we played Montreal three times this fall."
In his third season at the helm, U of C head coach Wayne Harris Jr. likes what he’s seen from his team since the emotional Hardy Cup win against UBC, which ended on the miraculous 59-yard kick by new YouTube sensation Niko DiFonte, who also became the first player in Canadian university football annals with six field goals in back-to-back games.
"We spoke to it Sunday, said we’ve had our celebration and now it’s time to refocus on our next game," commented Harris, a long-time Calgary assistant coach who claimed his first Bowl victory as sideline boss a year ago against StFX, at McMahon Stadium. "That’s what’s important right now – they’re into that, they look focused, and now we’ll start preparing like we do for any opponent."
One player who has been focused all season is second-year pivot Adam Sinagra. In his first full campaign as the Dinos’ starting quarterback, the product of Pointe Claire, Que., passed for 2,447 yards and 18 touchdowns in eight league games before adding 801 yards in two post-season contests.
"Every year is a new year, but we have an experienced group of players, a lot of whom have played Laval twice," added Harris, who hopes his team can add to Canada West’s stellar 19-3 home record in national Bowl games. "It’s getting the younger guys understanding that it’s again a full 60-minute commitment, and that’s what it’s going to take to beat one of the best programs in the country. We can’t let our guard down for a second."
Senior linebacker Micah Teitz is ready for this latest chapter of the Calgary-Laval rivalry.
We’re confident – we have a great game plan from the coaches, and we’re going to go in and play our best game.