Battle of the basement for Yates

Second down conversions key to victory

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Western men's football

Jonas Hrebeniuk

SHOULD I STRIKE MY HEISMAN POSE? After an 0-4 start to the season, the Mustangs' football team defied all odds and reeled off six straight wins. They find themselves in the Yates Cup provincial championship game this weekend in Guelph.

The Mustangs’ football season may not have started the way they would have liked, but tomorrow Western has a chance for redemption on Ontario football’s biggest stage.

The Mustangs travel to Guelph to battle the Gryphons for an Ontario University Athletics title in the 100th Yates Cup Championship game. After an 0-4 start to the season, the Mustangs have galloped to six straight wins, catching fire at just the right time. Literally.

On the way home from Western’s 23-16 semi-final win over the Ottawa Gee Gees in the nation’s capital, a tire on one of the team’s buses burst into flames, which begs the question: Are the football gods trying to say something about this Mustangs squad?

“I don’t know,” said Western’s head coach Greg Marshall. “We were watching ‘We Are Marshall’, so luckily it was just a tire.”

Unlike the blaze on the bus, the Mustangs will be looking to keep the fire burning this weekend in Guelph.

At the conclusion of the regular season, all of Western’s wins came against non-playoff teams, so the Gryphons will fly into the Yates Cup boasting a win against the Mustangs this season. That win came at Guelph’s Alumni Stadium back on Sept. 22, when Guelph’s second-year running back Nick Fitzgibbon crossed the goal line four times to lead the Gryphons to a 31-17 win.

“We’re not surprised we’re in the final because we believed in ourselves the whole way,” Gryphon defensive end Grant MacDonald said. “But we’re kind of surprised to be hosting [the game].”

This is the first time in OUA history the teams occupying the last two playoff spots locked up berths in the championship game. Western hasn’t won a Yates Cup since 1998 and Guelph has been titleless since 1996.

Both Western and Guelph had slow starts to the season, and both reeled off consecutive wins on the road to make it to Ontario’s centennial Championship.

“We beat them in the regular season, but Western’s been on a roll,” MacDonald said. “At this point there’s not a lot to say. We know it’s the biggest game of the season and you’ve got to have your best game in the biggest game.”

If the Gryphons see this as a huge game, then for the Mustangs it is colossal. Western has played its “biggest game of the season” every week since its loss to Guelph in late September. Saturday’s final will be the seventh straight week the Mustangs have faced elimination.

“We’ve had the right attitude in the last few weeks,” ’Stangs running back Randy McAuley said. “We’ve been resilient, and we’ve really been patient with ourselves. We all know what has to be done.”

Coming into his fifth season with the Mustangs, McAuley was expected to be a leader and has lived up to the billing. The Londoner’s 13 trips to the end zone were the most in the country, and McAuley has scored more career touchdowns than anyone in Western history.

If McAuley is serious about leading his team to its 27th Yates Cup title, he will have to deal with a determined opponent. The Gryphons’ run defence is tied for first in the nation, giving up an average of just 82 yards on the ground per game.

“The key to this game for us is to convert on second down,” Marshall said. “You’ve got to be able to run the ball sometimes in second and short. [Converting those] will be huge for us.”

A win tomorrow and Marshall will get another close look at the Yates Cup, a trophy he is familiar with.

During his playing days with the Mustangs he won three straight titles from 1979-1981, and as head coach of the McMaster Marauders, he brought home four consecutive titles, the last coming in 2003.

“It’s a football game. Don’t get too wound up about it. We’ve got to go out there and execute and think clearly,” Marshall said.

“It’s a long season. Your body is starting to get tired, you start breaking down a bit, but stay with it. That’s what I told our guys, just focus on what we have to do.”

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