Guelph, Ont. – They may not have had a regular season encounter since 2017, but that doesn’t mean the Western Mustangs and Guelph Gryphons aren’t well acquainted with each other. Having gone head-to-head in two of the last four Yates Cup finals, including the most recent edition a year ago, these two teams will have plenty to prove when they once again face off as top-10 squads in the nation as this week’s OUA Marquee Matchup.
Backing these early top-10 ranks have been strong all-around starts on the gridiron. The two-time reigning Yates Cup champions have raced out of the gates with an undefeated 4-0 record and the 2018 finalists sit right behind them at 3-1. But while their records and results are impressive in the season’s opening half, they may be encountering their stiffest tests to date when they meet at Guelph’s Alumni Stadium.
As has been the case through much of his Mustangs’ career, a driving force behind the team’s success has been Chris Merchant (Calgary, Alta.) and his steady play under centre. The veteran pivot has once again used his multi-talented productivity to guide his purple ponies to continued success, combining both his mobility and his accurate arm to help Western put up nearly 37 points per game.
It won’t be easy for Merchant and company this week; however, as they’ll be going up against one of the conference’s most dynamic defensive units. Leading the charge for the daunting defenders is Alain Cimankinda (Ottawa, Ont.), who enters Week 5 as the OUA’s leader in sacks. This type of success is not foreign to Cimankinda, as his 13.5 career sacks rank him fourth in school history, and he’ll need to continue to be in top form when lining up against the reigning Yates Cup and Mitchell Bowl MVP.
While the third-year defensive lineman has taken down the opposing pivot 4.5 times this season, he isn’t the only Gryphon to thrive in the category, as the entire Guelph squad has given quarterbacks nightmares all season long. Through four games, they check in with a league-best 15 sacks, while also doing damage in other ways, including three defensive touchdowns in their four games.
Players and stats like this surely demonstrate that Saturday’s tilt will pit strength against strength, but another of the game’s most intriguing storylines resides in the running game. The Mustangs and Gryphons both rank in the OUA’s top-five in rushing yards per game – separated by just 7.3 on the season – but the totals haven’t come without their obstacles.
For the ‘Stangs, they have had to handle a great deal of turnover at the position after losing their top two rushers from a season ago. Trey Humes (Ajax, Ont.), however, has done well to take the reins, racking up 323 yards on the ground and averaging over 80 yards per contest thus far. His leading presence has been a welcome sight for Western and as the season moves along, the fourth-year back seems to be settling in more and more, having racked up 100+ yards in each of his last two games.
The No. 6 Gryphons, meanwhile, have seen consistent ground gains from their dual-threat QB Theo Landers (Maple Ridge, B.C.), but for the first time this season, are also being buoyed by a big performance from their backfield. Kaine Stevenson (Windsor, Ont.) made quite a name for himself after last week’s productive performance against the Warriors, as his 194 yards and three touchdowns gave Guelph all the firepower they needed to defeat Waterloo by a 39-13 final. The first-year’s efforts were a sight for sore eyes for the Gryphons, who hadn’t received a touchdown from a running back to that point in the season, but behind Stevenson’s coming out party, it will certainly add another component to the Gryphons’ 34.8-point-per-game offence.
While these two teams represent the victors and the vanquished in the 2018 Yates Cup, a great deal has changed for each side since then, and perhaps most notably for the latter, it is those toeing the sidelines. The team welcomed a new head coach, Ryan Sheahan, and the former Offensive Coordinator with the Calgary Dinos has brought in a trio of new coordinators for his staff. Certainly, with new coaches comes new approaches, new areas of focus, and new strategies, but whether these individuals were a part of the 2018 team or not, they will all still have their sights on taking down one of the true gridiron powerhouses in all of Canada.
Of course, the Mustangs will be looking for a repeat result as their 63-14 victory at last year’s OUA championship, which came behind a 19-for-22, 324 yard effort from Merchant, but it will have to come from a club that is continuing to learn week over week. Despite their OUA regular season winning streak that has stretched over two seasons, Greg Marshall and his No. 1 team knows there are still improvements to be made and things certainly won’t come easy when they hit the road for this highly anticipated top-10 clash at Guelph.
The action kicks off at 1:00pm on Saturday, September 21 from Alumni Stadium, but fans can also catch this week’s OUA Marquee Matchup LIVE on oua.tv.