The No. 3-nationally ranked McMaster Marauders will attempt to make it to the Vanier Cup for the fourth time in school history when they take on the No. 6-ranked Mount Allison Mounties on Saturday afternoon at Ron Joyce Stadium in Hamilton for the CIS ArcelorMittal Dofasco Mitchell Bowl.
After knocking off the Guelph Gryphons 20-15 on Nov. 15 in the OUA Yates Cup presented by Pioneer, the Marauders are seeking a third Vanier Cup appearance in four years, after making back-to-back trips in 2011 and 2012 – the Marauders captured the school's only Vanier Cup championship in 2011 with a thrilling overtime win against the Laval Rouge et Or.
It has been one of the most successful football eras in McMaster's history, and Marauders head coach Stefan Ptaszek has appreciated each one of his team's three Yates Cup championships in his tenure for different reasons.
"I always say that championship seasons are sort of like your children – you don't love one of your kids more than the other, you just love them all," said Ptaszek. "This is a unique experience that has been very different from 2011 or 2012. This team has come from underneath the radar to capture Ontario, and did so rather decisively. This is nothing we saw coming and we've played as close to our potential as any group I've ever worked with."
Against Guelph, the Marauders were carried by their defence, a unit that allowed the fewest points per game in the OUA regular season, and made a statement in the biggest game of the year.
The Marauders picked off Guelph quarterbacks five times in the Yates Cup – Guelph threw five interceptions the entire regular season – including one that was run back by defensive lineman Mike Kashak for the Marauder's only touchdown of the day.
Two of the five interceptions were made by all-star cornerback Joey Cupido, who now has 14 postseason interceptions in 14 postseason games. He took home the Dalt White Trophy as the game's most valuable player.
While the McMaster offence struggled in the Yates Cup, Coach Ptaszek knows that a win is a win, and against tougher opponents with inclement weather, putting together a truly dominating performance is nearly impossible to do.
"At this point in the year, it doesn't matter how we get there, we'll take it," said Ptaszek. "The defence played their best game of the year when we needed them the most. There are some very talented teams left, so you're going to struggle in all areas of the game at times."
Through the fortune of the CIS bowl rotation, McMaster will have home-field advantage on Saturday against a Mounties team that dominated the AUS conference this season.
Mount Allison, located in Sackville, N.B., allowed the fewest points of any CIS team (64) and went undefeated in the regular season. The offence boasts CIS' second-leading rusher Chris Reid, who finished with 987 yards this season, second behind Laurier running back and OUA MVP Dillon Campbell.
Both schools come into the Mitchell Bowl with limited familiarity of their opponents, making preparing and practicing more difficult than facing a divisional rival.
"Context is such a big part of game plans – figuring out how your athletes matchup with their athletes – and we just don't have that (in the Mitchell Bowl)," said Ptaszek. "It's tough to tell and compare our conference to their conference, so it's a little bit unnerving. Whenever I get a little a worked up about it, I just remind myself that (OUA) is one of the healthier conferences in all of Canada, and all the challenges and tribulations of just getting out of the conference has us well-prepared for what we might see."
For McMaster to compete with one of the best rushing offences in the country, another strong effort will be required from the Marauders own running back Chris Pezzetta, who both literally and figuratively carried the offence against Guelph.
With quarterback Marshall Ferguson struggling, Pezzetta was a consistent force, carrying the ball 23 times for 144 yards, picking up crucial first downs when his team needed him the most.
Ferguson completed 23 of 34 passes for 191 yards, but was picked off three times without throwing a touchdown pass. His number-one target was Daniel Petermann, who finished with seven catches and 67 yards.
Should the game come down to a field goal, the Marauders boast one of the best kickers in the country with Tyler Crapigna. The CIS all-time leader in field goals connected on 3/3 attempts in the Yates Cup, and his punting was also valuable in pinning the Gryphons deep in their own end on several occasions.
The Mitchell Bowl kicks off at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 22 with an opportunity on the line to play for Canadian university football's ultimate prize. The winner gets to prepare for the 50th Telus Vanier Cup next Saturday in Montreal, while the loser goes home to reflect on a successful season that ultimately came up short.
Tickets are available through the McMaster Marauders website, and the game will also be broadcast live on national television on Sportsnet 360, and live on CIS.tv.
Mitchell Bowl by the Numbers
5 – Players on the Mount Allison defence with at least three quarterback sacks in the regular season. McMaster's sack leader was Conner Mackay with five.
2 – Vanier Cup appearances for Mount Allison, both resulting in losses. The team was defeated by Guelph 22-13 in 1994, and by Laurier 25-18 in 1991.
2012 – The last time the McMaster Marauders won the Mitchell Bowl. Advancing past the Calgary Dinos with a 45-6 win, the Marauders made a second consecutive Vanier Cup appearance against the Laval Rouge et Or, but could not defend the title they won in 2011, losing 37-14.
3˚C – The forecasted temperature at kickoff, with a 30 per cent chance of precipitation that could make it an even more difficult afternoon for the two offences.