Though they are playing in the same game on Saturday, the Laurier Golden Hawks and Western Mustangs may have a different outlook on their OUA quarter-final matchup.
For Laurier and second-year head coach Michael Faulds, coming off a 1-7 season, Saturday represents a step in the right direction for the program and an opportunity for the young squad to get valuable playoff experience.
For the Western Mustangs, fresh off an 8-0 season and Yates Cup victory, playing in the quarterfinal is likely an unexpected wrinkle in the team's preseason goal of winning a Vanier Cup.
With several key starters returning from last year's Yates-winning squad, many touted the Mustangs as preseason favourites and expected another dominant run through the conference.
That, as we know, was not the case in 2014. Despite blowing out teams in its six victories, Western dropped two crucial games to two other OUA powerhouses, McMaster and Guelph. In no way did the Mustangs look out of place in those losses – both games ended with last-minute scores – but the fact Western was beaten at all by an OUA opponent came as a surprise to many.
Perhaps the biggest concern now for the Mustangs, though, is not losing out on a first-round bye, but having to head into the playoffs without starting quarterback Will Finch and a number of other key players.
Last year's MVP was banged up in the loss to McMaster on Oct. 4, missed the following week's game, returned on Oct. 18 in the loss to Guelph, and then was knocked out of the Mustangs season-ending victory against Windsor last Saturday.
With Finch out, second-string quarterback Stevenson Bone will start in his place.
Bone's only start this season came against the Golden Hawks, and he looked very capable of leading the Mustangs offence. In a 61-20 trouncing of Laurier, Bone completed 19 of 25 passes for 285 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, while rushing for 86 yards and one touchdown.
"(Bone) did a very good job last time," said Western head coach Greg Marshall. "He made the throws he needed to complete, and he wasn't afraid to stand in the pocket and take some shots. We're going to try and put him in good positions and a lot of that comes down to our defence and field position. We don't need him to play like Will Finch, we just need him to play like Stevenson Bone."
No matter who starts at quarterback, the purple horsemen still have one of the most talented rosters in the league on offence and defence.
Western's backfield combo of Garret Sanvido and Yannick Harou combined for 1266 rushing yards this serason, and when combined with a mobile quarterback like Bone or Finch, the Mustangs are a nightmare for rush defences – proof in point, Western rushed for 431 yards in its win against Laurier.
"It's a great running attack, but you have to find a way to at least make them think about throwing the football," said Laurier head coach Michael Faulds. "The first game we played against them, they literally could have ran the ball every play, so that's something we're focusing on this week."
Of course the Golden Hawks have their own weapon in the backfield.
Dillon Campbell, fresh off leading the OUA in rushing in 2013, put together a season for the ages. Campbell led the country with 1458 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, and the numbers may have been even gaudier had Campbell not been rested in games when Laurier had huge leads.
The Mustangs found a way to contain Campbell, though, holding him to an almost-human 111 rushing yards, the bulk of which came when the game was out of reach. It was Campbell's lowest rushing output of the season, though he did tack on another 86 receiving yards.
"We know going into every single week teams are going to try and come up with ways to shut him down," said Faulds. "Last time we tried to find other ways to get him the ball by leaking him out of the backfield and having him catch some balls."
Laurier finished the regular season on a three-game losing streak, but the losses are understandable as the Golden Hawks closed out their schedule against OUA's own murderer's row, with the team's final three games coming against Western, Guelph, and McMaster.
Protecting the ball will be key for Golden Hawks quarterback James Fracas. Despite throwing 13 touchdowns and posting the fifth best completion percentage in the league, Fracas was also picked off nine times and will be in tough against a defence known for creating turnovers.
Western boasts arguably the best defensive line in the country, leading OUA with 25 sacks, and finished tied for second in the conference with 11 interceptions.
It has been a rewarding season for Faulds and Golden Hawks, now they would love nothing more to play the role of David against an OUA Goliath in the quarterfinals.
"No one is expecting us to win this football game," Faulds. "Our guys can just play free."
Once Marshall's prized quarterback, Faulds will now stand across the sidelines in an OUA playoff game against his former coach, something both parties are excited for.
"I'm so proud of (Coach Faulds) and what he's accomplished, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not surprised. He's a great leader, an excellent football coach and an outstanding person," said Marshall. "It will be great coaching against him, but once the game starts you have to block everything off and focus on getting the job done."
Kickoff is at 1 p.m. at TD Stadium in London, so be sure to catch the action in-person or live on OUA.tv! The game can also be seen live locally on Rogers TV and Rogers Sports +.
Matchup by the Numbers
2010 – The last year the Golden Hawks won an OUA playoff game. Laurier defeated Guelph 42-10 in the quarter-finals before falling 32-31 to Ottawa in the semis.
2006 – The last year Laurier beat Western. The Golden Hawks defeated the Mustangs twice, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs.
657 – Receiving yards in 2014 for Western receiver Brian Marshall, the most by any receiver on Western or Laurier.