The tension was incredible.
The McMaster Marauders had finally taken their first lead of their OUA semi-final midway through the fourth quarter. The visiting Guelph Gryphons – who had limped into the playoffs after a disappointing regular season – had an opportunity to erase the sins of previous eight games with one drive.
The Gryphs took over at their own 30-yard line with under a minute to go and trailing by six points. A half-dozen plays later they found themselves at the McMaster 12 with time for one, or maybe two plays. James Roberts fired a pass to the goal line in the direction of Kian Shaffer-Baker. Instead of finishing off the dramatic comeback and a notable upset, McMaster defensive back Keldyn Ahlstedt jumped the route and sealed the victory with an interception.
There was none of that drama in Ottawa.
On a cold and rainy day in the capital, cross-town rivals would meet in a rematch of a one-sided Panda Game. The Carleton Ravens handled the Ottawa Gee-Gees earlier in the month, cruising to a 43-23 win.
Things were even worse for the garnet and grey on Saturday.
After a mundane first quarter the Ravens took over. A 27-3 halftime lead ballooned to 45-3 by the end of the third quarter. A fourth-quarter touchdown made the final score 45-9, an outcome that surprised most, including Carleton's head coach.
"I'm always surprised in a playoff game when one team dominates another," Steve Sumarah told In The Huddle. "We were worried all week about the Derek Wendel/Mitchell Baines combination."
Amazingly that duo was almost a non-factor in the game. The pair connected just three times for a relatively meaningless 17 yards. For some perspective, Baines easily led all CIS receivers with 65 catches in eight games. His 984 receiving yards were 150 more than anyone else in the country, and almost 200 more than the Ravens' Nate Behar, who was second in the OUA in that category.
Carleton appears to be playing its best football of the season, which actually may be hard to determine because of the team's schedule. They opened the season against three playoff teams in the first four weeks, then wrapped up with Windsor, a bye week, and finally Waterloo. The coach is hopeful that they are peaking at the perfect time and it's not just a product of the easier schedule at the end of the season.
"I'd like to think so," said Sumarah. "In some ways we were happy we had a semi-final game. We didn't really want to go bye, Waterloo, bye."
The impressive win over Ottawa likely alleviated any concerns about how well Carleton is playing right now. They'll need to play well again this week to keep their dreams of a Yates Cup alive.
The Ravens are at Western.
The Mustangs are once again the alpha dogs, er, horses of the OUA. They averaged 49 points per game this season, and led the country in touchdowns, first downs, were second in rushing and sixth in points allowed. In other words, it was a typical Western season. They finished 7-and-1, but that one loss came against, you guessed it, Carleton.
It was Labour Day eve when the teams first met in what turned out to be one of the strangest games of the entire season. Midway through the second quarter the Ravens had a shocking 24-0 lead, but the Mustangs then went on a run of their own. They scored 31-consecutive points to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, before the Ravens answered with 14 in a row, sealing the win with a third-down stop at the Carleton 3-yard line in the game's final minute.
It was a spectacular game, and a much-needed win in terms of the Ravens confidence.
"They had outscored us 140-10 in our first two games," chuckled Sumarah. For the sake of accuracy, Western won 71-4 in the opening game of the re-hatched Ravens first season and then 70-14 last year for a total of 141-18, but the coach's point is taken – playing the Mustangs wasn't exactly good for morale.
The win this season was huge.Beh
"That was a big confidence builder for sure," said the coach. "We were very intimidated by them. You say the name 'Western' and it oozes championships."
They may not be intimidated now, but there is obviously a ton of respect for the purple ponies.
"It's a pretty daunting task to go into London and beat Western," admitted Sumarah. "Our biggest challenge is we have to see a nameless opposition. I'm worried our guys will look up and see the name 'Western' and that scares me a little."
Though Hallowe'en has passed, there's little doubt the Mustangs film sessions have been haunted by two players from the team that shares its name with a spooky poem by Edgar Allen Poe. The aforementioned Behar, a London native, will catch the attention of the secondary, while running back Jayde Rowe may have given the entire Western defence nightmares this week.
A Toronto native who transferred from the Regina Rams, Rowe's addition to the Ravens roster didn't cause a lot of people to become overly excited, including the coach. Rowe's name was mentioned during discussions leading up to this season's Uncovered e-mag, but Sumarah was not expecting what was about to happen.
Rowe led the country in rushing, averaging 137 yards per game. Last week against Ottawa he totalled 125 yards on just 15 carries, scoring twice. In the regular-season game against Western he piled up 161 yards and two TDs.
"Honestly, I didn't know what he could bring," confessed the coach. "I hadn't seen him in a couple of years. I've been pleasantly surprised, his football IQ is really high. He really is a good overall football player who understands defensive coverages."
There are at least a dozen enticing subplots heading into this semi-final. Fans across the country the game is as close and as exciting as the first meeting was back in early September.
The O Zone:
In the other semi it's McMaster versus Laurier. In terms of points allowed these are the two best teams in the OUA, while nationally only Montreal and Laval are better.
Both bring incredible pressure off the edge, so it will be interesting to see how each teams tries to protect the quarterback. What makes this matchup particularly intriguing is that they did not play against each other in the regular season.
They did meet in the first round of the playoffs a year ago, with Laurier eliminating the Marauders with a 29-15 win in Hamilton.
McMaster simply could not stop the run in that game, as Dillon Campbell exploded for 285 yards rushing, yet he remarkably didn't score. The Golden Hawks sacked Asher Hastings four times in that game.