BURLINGTON, Ont. – Roughly nine weeks after Guelph gave Western all they could handle in a 41-34 Mustangs overtime win in Week 2, the two teams will finally have their much-anticipated rematch in this weekend’s semifinal in London, Ont.
The No. 1 ranked Western Mustangs strung together an undefeated regular season in 2017, knocking off a number of formidable foes en route to their unblemished campaign. But if not for a comeback victory in their Week 2 tilt with Guelph, the team would be looking for redemption rather than a repeat. The Gryphons jumped out to a 16-3 lead over the ‘Stangs, thanks to a Zeph Fraser touchdown reception and a trio of Gabe Ferraro field goals. Despite bringing a 10-point cushion into halftime, however, the Mustangs were poised and ready to battle back after the break.
Just a few minutes into the second half, Chris Merchant called his own number for a 6-yard run, cutting the lead to just three. A pair of safeties sandwiched yet another touchdown run for the Mustangs’ QB, this time from 14 yards out, to give the hometown squad a 24-16 lead after three quarters. Not to be outdone, however, back-to-back touchdowns from the Gryphons, including Fraser’s second TD on the day and a monstrous 81-yard touchdown run from Johnny Augustine, catapulted Guelph back into the lead, before Merchant connected with Malik Besseghieur late in the fourth to tie things up at 34.
A nine play drive in overtime, capped off by a Stevenson Bone 1-yard touchdown run, pushed Western to 2-0 at the time, and the rest as they say is history. The purple and white were able to reel off another six wins after that, including wins over fellow semifinal combatants Laurier (29-13) and McMaster (29-14), respectively. Not only did they secure an undefeated season, but they did so in convincing fashion, averaging nearly 50 points on over 600 YPG.
Looking to put an end to their unbeaten streak is a Gryphons team that turned a corner since their Week 2 loss, having really come into their own in the final half of the season. After a heart-breaking start to the campaign for Guelph, surrendering back-to-back overtime losses, the team picked up wins in five of their final six contests, with perhaps the biggest coming in Week 8 against a formidable Laurier squad. This momentum led the Gryphons into their quarterfinal matchup feeling strong; something they parlayed into a 30-8 victory over the Gee-Gees.
The Gryphons got off to a dream start in the first quarter of their tilt last week, which saw a pair of touchdown passes from James Roberts (31-yard TD to Jacob Scarfone and 10-yard TD to Jordan Terrio) help build a strong 20-0 cushion after one 15 minutes of play. From there, much of the scoring came from the two record-setting kickers, as Guelph’s Gabe Ferraro would add three more field goals to his total, bringing him to five on the day, while the Gee-Gees’ Lewis Ward connected on a pair of his own. Despite the more closely contested final three quarters, the opening frame offence from Guelph proved to be the difference en route to the team’s 30-8 win.
This quarterfinal victory helped clinch a rematch that should have fans on their edge of seats.
One of the biggest components of any offence is under centre, and after making his return to the lineup last week for the first time since Week 5, Gryphons’ QB James Roberts will look to be a difference-maker once again. Roberts threw for 286 yards and 2 touchdowns against Western in Week 2, and when healthy, was one of the top QBs the province has to offer. On Saturday, he’ll be going toe-to-toe against another of the province’s best, as Chris Merchant has been a thorn in teams’ sides all season long. It should be an intriguing matchup to say the least, as the two are separated in their season averages by less than five passing yards per game, just 0.6 yards per attempt, and a mere 0.3% in completion percentage.
Beyond the quarterback matchup, both teams boast a potent collection of offensive stars that have big play potential every time they step on the field. One of the biggest threats on either team is Mustangs’ RB Alex Taylor, who was one of the most electric rushers in the conference, with an average of 118.7 YPG. Joining Taylor in the backfield, meanwhile, is the league leader in rushing touchdowns, Cedric Joseph, and in combining this two-pronged attack with the running ability of Merchant, it’s no surprise why the Mustangs led the league in rushing by almost 100 yards per game.
The Gryphons, meanwhile, will counter with Johnny Augustine, who put forth a terrific season of his own. The fourth-year back trailed only Joseph for rushing touchdowns, while collecting over 86 yards per game on the ground. Joining Augustine on the offensive attack are receivers Jacob Scarfone, Zeph Fraser, and Kian Schaffer-Baker, with the former two totaling nearly 250 yards in the air back in Week 2. The Mustangs air attack is led by the duo of Harry McMaster and Malik Besseghieur, as the pair combined for an average of nearly 150 YPG.
Looking to stop the Mustangs’ electrifying attack is a Guelph defence that stood tall this season. The Gryphons gave up an average of 22.7 PPG, thanks in large part to their ability to put pressure on the quarterback, while also ranking in the top three in several defensive categories, including yards allowed. This feat will be put to the test in their semifinal matchup.
Tasked with corralling the talented Guelph offence, meanwhile, is a Mustangs’ defence that ranks atop several statistical categories. Western led the OUA in points allowed (13.1 PPG) and were the only team in Ontario to keep their opposition to less than 300 YPG on average, proving that they are about as well-rounded a club that the nation has to offer.
So will the Mustangs will look to overpower the Gryphons on their way to a third consecutive Yates Cup appearance or will Guelph finish off what they started way back in Week 2?
The winner of Saturday’s semifinal will advance to the 110th Yates Cup on November 11, at 1:00 pm live on CHCH.