U SPORTS Playoff Preview : Conference Semi-Finals
By Mike Still
This week, semi-finals from across four conferences will take place. The top two ranked teams in the nation in Western and Laval, winners of the 2017 and 2018 Vanier Cups respectively, are hungry to make it back to the championship game for the third year in a row, however there are a number of talented teams across the nation that are also looking to stake their claim. Below is a preview of what to expect.
Manitoba Bisons (4-4) @ No. 8 Calgary Dinos (6-2), Saturday 2 pm ET / 11 am PT
This will be the third meeting between these two teams in 2019, with each squad pulling out a 14-point victory in their previous meetings.
The Dinos won the first matchup 24-10 in week two on the strength of three interceptions and a fumble recovery, holding Manitoba without a touchdown for the entire duration of the contest while also getting a critical turnover on downs in the red zone. Manitoba earned some revenge two weeks ago, winning the turnover battle this time with two interceptions and a fumble recovery in a 43-29 win.
The key to victory for both teams will be to force turnovers, while giving the offence a short field.
Manitoba was able to accomplish this all season with defensive end Derek Dufault, a CFL draft pick of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats who led the conference with seven sacks, two of which resulted in fumble recoveries deep in the opposition’s territory.
The Bisons also had 11 interceptions, which tied for first with the Dinos. Leading the way in that department for Calgary was 2018 All-Canadian Deane Leonard, who tied for first in the conference with four interceptions, two of which he returned for majors.
Fellow All-Canadian Shae Weekes was the catalyst for Manitoba with three of his own, including a pick six, while rangy 6’4” corner Arjay Shelley – a three-year starter just like Weekes – also had three INTs.
In saying that, both teams have offences that are more than capable of taking over a game.
The Dinos are paced by fifth-year pivot Adam Sinagra, last year’s Hec Crighton winner. He was second in the conference in passing yards, with 2,014 despite missing one game and also tied for the conference lead with 13 passing majors.
A pass-happy team, he’ll have plenty of weapons to throw to, including last year’s conference rookie of the year Tyson Philpot, who came back last week after an early season injury, as well as his brother Jalen, who was second in Canada West with 767 receiving yards and four scores. Edmonton Eskimos draft pick Hunter Karl can also take over any game with his elusiveness and great hands.
Manitoba was second in the conference with 174 yards rushing per game and have three capable backs in Mike Ritchott, Victor St. Pierre-Laviolette and Logan Fischer who will all get carries. Ritchott was the lead back and finished second in CanWest with 458 yards.
Fourth-year Bisons pivot Des Catellier can also sling the rock, finishing with 1,743 yards and nine touchdowns. Five of those majors went to fellow fourth-year Macho Bockru, a stretch receiver who finished fifth in the conference with 493 yards.
Donnovan Bennett, Sportsnet: Manitoba Bisons
Marshall Ferguson, TSN 1150: Manitoba Bisons
Alberta Golden Bears (4-4) @ No. 7 Saskatchewan Huskies (5-3), Saturday 5pm ET/ 2pm PT
The defending Hardy Cup champion Huskies earned the right to host the other CanWest semi-final after winning the rematch against Alberta 22-9 last weekend. The Golden Bears had come out victorious 19-17 in the first contest between the two squads earlier in the year.
Hec Crighton favourite Adam Machart from the Huskies ran away with the conference rushing title, finishing with 1,330 yards and eight majors. His total also set a new program record for rushing yards in a season.
Machart ran for at least 130 yards in every game minus the home opener and went off for over 200 in two of the last three games of the regular season. If the Golden Bears want to pull off the victory they are going to need to contain the former Saskatoon Hilltop standout.
Machart’s 8.5 yards per carry average frequently set up Saskatchewan in second and short situations and opened up the passing game for first-year starter Mason Nyhus, who was a natural with 13 passing majors – good for a tie for first in CanWest – and 1,739 yards despite also missing a game.
Versatile receiver and former running back Colton Klassen was Nyhus’ favourite target with 456 receiving yards while third-year Sam Baker, known by his teammates as ‘the touchdown maker’, stayed true to his name with four majors and 236 yards in the last three contests after missing the first five games.
Alberta on the other hand, was known for their fast and physical defence under first-year coordinator coach Greg Knox, who was with McMaster previously as their head coach. They were second in the conference in sacks with 18, led by former Edmonton Huskies standout Jassen Brown’s four at the linebacker position. He was also one of four Golden Bears players to finish in the top ten in the conference in tackles (third, 49) along with fellow linebackers Josiah Schakel (second, 51) and Luke Sperry (sixth, 43.5) and hard-nosed defensive back Jayden Dalke (fifth, 44.5).
Schakel and Brown both had sacks, while Brown also recorded an interception in Alberta’s mid-season victory over the Huskies, however it’s important to note that Nyhus was not in that contest due to injury.
Offensively, former quarterback Ben Kopczynski led the conference in receiving yards with 799 as the favourite target for former Edmonton Huskies pivot Brad Launhardt, who had his best season at the U SPORTS level. He finished first in CanWest in passing yards with 2,328 and also had multiple game-winning drives, including one against the Huskies in week four.
Saskatchewan counters with a defence that can also fly around, led by Edmonton Eskimos draft pick Evan Machibroda’s five sacks, the same total as speed rusher Nicholas Dheilly. The back end is paced by third-year Nelson Lokombo, who tied for the conference lead with four interceptions, two of which he returned to the house.
Donnovan Bennett, Sportsnet: Saskatchewan Huskies
Marshall Ferguson, TSN 1150: Saskatchewan Huskies
Mount Allison Mounties (3-5) @ Bishop’s Gaiters (4-4), Saturday 2pm ET/11am PT
Since 2010, four different AUS teams have won the Loney Bowl, showcasing the competitiveness of the conference. Things kick off this weekend with Mount Allison and Bishop’s, with the winner going on to face undefeated Acadia, the No.5 ranked team in the nation.
The Mounties are looking to win their first AUS title since 2014, but to do so will have to top a Bishop’s squad that’s been revigorated under third-year head coach Cherif Nicolas, who has brought the program back to the playoffs for the first time in six years and first since joining the AUS in 2017.
The teams are 1-1 against each other this year, with Bishop’s winning the first contest 27-23 in week three, and Mount Allison coming out victorious in the rematch two weeks ago, 35-13.
The Mounties are coming on hot at the right time, winning three of their last four games while also giving Acadia a scare last week in a 33-31 loss.
Their pass defence has been simply outstanding, giving up an average of just 192 yards per game, along with a conference-leading 19 interceptions. First-year defensive back Lucas Cormier – who has great size at 6’2” and 205 pounds – has been huge down the stretch, with four of his conference-leading five interceptions coming in the last four weeks of the regular season. Fellow first-year Daniel Bell (6’2”, 200) wasn’t far behind with three picks, one of which he returned to the house.
Offensively, fifth-year receiver Josh Hicks opted to return for his final year after earning a Bachelor of Commerce degree, and was massive for Mount Allison. He led the AUS with 739 receiving yards – 300 of which came against Acadia last week – and has 2,154 yards in his career with the program.
Hicks also had over 100 yards in both contests against the Gaiters this year and will need to be kept in check by standout defensive backs such as Nicolas Cartagenise (tied for second in interceptions with four) and Aarron Franklin (20 tackles, two interceptions) if Mount Allison wants to advance to the AUS championship.
Bishop’s – winners of two of their last three – counter offensively with freshman pivot Charles Aubry out of Laval. He was second in the conference with 1,563 yards, his favourite target being fifth-year Nathan Walker, who had 453 yards receiving, and over 1200 all-purpose yards.
Running back Louis-Philippe Gregoire, a fearless ball-carrier at 5’10”, 200-pounds, also finished second in the conference in rushing yards, with 630. He was contained in both regular season matchups against the Mounties but is capable of making a big play at any time.
Donnovan Bennett, Sportsnet: Mount Allison Mounties
Marshall Ferguson, TSN 1150: Bishop’s Gaiters
No. 9 Waterloo Warriors (5-4) @ No. 1 Western Mustangs (8-0), Saturday 1pm ET/10am PT
This matchup is the game with the most intrigue, as the conference’s top two scoring offences duke it out.
Western, who’ve made it to the Vanier Cup two years in a row, are led by fifth-year pivot Chris Merchant. He threw for 2,378 yards this year and went shot for shot with Waterloo quarterback Tre Ford during the Mustangs’ 45-42 win in week six, throwing for 349 yards and three scores.
His years of playoff experience are invaluable at this time of year, as are those of 6’5” fourth-year receiver Brett Ellerman, who went off for 177 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season bout between the two teams.
Ford – the OUA MVP a year ago – more than did his part in the Warriors three-point loss, throwing for 252 yards while rushing for 101 yards and two scores. He was unbelievable last week in Waterloo’s 44-21 quarterfinal win over Ottawa– the program’s first playoff win in two decades – with 339 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, and is sure to be on his game again as the Warriors seek to end Western’s near three-year winning streak against OUA teams.
Playmaking receivers such as All-Canadian Tyler Ternowski and Gordon Lam are sure to factor into the Waterloo offence as well, along with bruising back Dion Pellerin.
There’s also plenty of intrigue on the defensive side of the ball. For Western, the regular season contest featured a critical forced fumble by veteran defensive lineman Tony Rossi in the final minute of play that led to the game-winning field goal. Rossi was part of a Mustangs defence that was tops against the rush at 106.1 yards per game.
Waterloo’s unit gave up 35.4 points per game, just above Windsor for last, but is also capable of making big plays at key times. This was evident in the quarter-finals when defensive back Daeshaun Jupiter-Deane recorded a critical end zone interception while the team registered four sacks. Two of those came from fourth-year linebacker Kurtis Gray, who also had a pick six.
The performance of the Warriors back end, led by Tyrell Ford, Lautaro Frecha and Jupiter-Deane, who combined for ten interceptions in the regular season, will likely be a storyline all game long.
Donnovan Bennett, Sportsnet: Western Mustangs
Marshall Ferguson, TSN 1150: Western Mustangs
No. 3 Guelph Gryphons (7-2) @ No.4 McMaster Marauders (6-2), Saturday 1pm ET/10am PT
The Gryphons have made plays defensively all season, allowing just 17.8 points per game – the best in the conference. Their opponent McMaster is as good as any at producing offensively though, and beat them 25-10 in the season opener.
Guelph’s defensive line has been unstoppable all year, and will need to maintain their responsibilities against versatile McMaster pivot Andreas Dueck, who finished second in the conference with 2,431 yards. His growth as a quarterback and the play of a Marauders defence that was just behind the Gryphons at 18.9 points per game allowed should make for an excellent rematch.
The Gryphons led the OUA with 32 sacks, including seven from fourth-year Alain Cimankinda and six from second-year 6’8” matchup nightmare Tavius Robinson. That pairing at defensive line also combined for four of the Gryphons’ six sacks in a 22-7 quarterfinal victory over Carleton last week.
The biggest play of the game however, came from rookie defensive back Siriman Harrison Bagayogo. The 21-year-old starter at halfback recorded a massive punt block in the dying minutes to complete the come-from-behind victory.
Theo Landers (1695 passing yards, 495 rushing yards), who’s blossomed under first-year head coach/former Calgary Dinos offensive coordinator Ryan Sheahan, could be the x-factor offensively for Guelph. But he’ll have his work cut out for him when he faces a McMaster defence that led the conference in interceptions, with 14. Four of those interceptions came from East-West Bowl standout Noah Hallett.
Donnovan Bennett, Sportsnet: McMaster Marauders
Marshall Ferguson, TSN 1150: McMaster Marauders
Concordia Stingers (2-6) @ No. 2 Laval Rouge et Or (7-1), Saturday 1pm ET/10am PT
As has been the case for the past two decades, the Laval Rouge et Or fielded an incredibly talented team on both sides of the ball, capturing first in the RSEQ for the third straight year and 14th time in the last 15.
The defending Vanier Cup champs matched up twice against Concordia in the regular season, outscoring the Stingers 115-6 in the two victories. Their defence allowed more than 20 points just once all year, led by long and athletic defensive backs Adam Auclair and Emile Chenevert, who both had interceptions against Concordia this year.
The Stingers will need an inspired performance from senior pivot Adam Vance, who threw for 206 yards in the first contest between the two teams, but was held to under 100 in the second. Fellow fifth-year James Tyrrell was Vance’s favourite target in the week two game, recording 97 yards on five catches.
Donnovan Bennett, Sportsnet: Laval Rouge et Or
Marshall Ferguson, TSN 1150: Laval Rouge et Or
McGill University (3-5) @ No.6 Montreal Carabins (6-2), Saturday 2pm ET/ 11am PT
The Carabins enter this week’s RSEQ semi-final on the heels of two straight losses, including an upset two weeks ago by Sherbrooke, but have allowed just five touchdowns all season.
Among their impressive defensive showings were two victories over McGill by a combined score of 55-7. The consistency of players such as six-foot-three defensive back Marc-Antoine Dequoy, and six-foot-five, 250-pound defensive lineman Benoit Marion (three sacks in two games against McGill) have been critical to Montreal’s success.
McGill counters with 5’10” junior pivot Dimitrios Sinodinos, who threw for a combined 375 yards in two games against the Carabins, but was also sacked seven times.
Donnovan Bennett, Sportsnet: Montreal Carabins
Marshall Ferguson, TSN 1150: Montreal Carabins
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