The defending Vanier Cup champions host the Calgary Dinos in Hamilton on Saturday in one of two Canadian university football semifinals, with the winner advancing to the championship game on Nov. 23 at Rogers Centre.
Marauders head coach Stefan Ptaszek says his team's 2012 campaign has gone according to script thus far — including last weekend's 30-13 victory over Guelph in the Yates Cup — but adds that Blake Nill's Dinos present the OUA champions with their biggest challenge to date.
"Up until this point, we've gone into every game with the feeling that we should win. 'Should' is the word. 'We should beat this team. We should continue to go on. We should win the Yates Cup,'" Ptaszek said this week. "It is a pleasure to be in a game where I think we could win and we could get this done and we could go to our second Vanier.
"But there's no way you look at this Calgary unit and say anybody should beat them. They're an absolute beast and we welcome the challenge."
McMaster (10-0) is led by fifth-year quarterback Kyle Quinlan, the OUA's player of the year and the MVP of the Marauders' 41-38 overtime victory against Laval in last season's Vanier Cup.
McMaster averaged 45.6 points, 582.5 total yards and 370 passing yards per game in 2012, each good for second in the nation behind only Calgary.
Ptaszek says the Marauders will only go as far as Quinlan takes them.
"In terms of making plays and being the leader on the football field, he is the guy our whole roster and coaching staff looks to," Ptaszek said. "He handles that role with a sense of calm and confidence that you don't usually see. He's a unique leader and we're lucky to have him."
Nill, meanwhile, says the Marauders are deserving of their No. 1 ranking.
"They have great speed, great size, and as a group their skill players are probably the best in the country," said Nill, who is in his seventh campaign with the Dinos after winning a pair of Vanier Cups in eight seasons as head coach at Saint Mary's. "We're preparing to play our best game of the year, and we're going to need to play our best game of the year."
Calgary (9-1) comes into the Mitchell Bowl ranked No. 3 in the country after last weekend's 38-14 win over Regina in the Hardy Cup — the Dinos' record fifth-straight Canada West title.
"It's tough to stack up conference strengths. Going undefeated in the OUA doesn't mean anything when we come up against a Canada West team," said Quinlan, who averaged 307 yards passing per game and threw a CIS-best 19 touchdowns. "We don't know what their conference strength is like but we know Calgary is a very talented team.
"They have CFL draft picks and all-stars at every position so we're looking forward to a great team coming in here."
In the other semifinal, the No. 2 Laval Rouge et Or host the No. 9 Acadia Axemen in the Uteck Bowl in Quebec City.
For the first time in CIS history, all four teams that made this year's semifinals advanced to the same stage last season. McMaster beat Acadia 45-21 in the 2011 Uteck Bowl, while Laval topped Calgary 41-10 in the Mitchell Bowl.
The battle of two dynamic offences in Hamilton this time around will be led on the Calgary side by quarterback Eric Dzwilewski, who along with Quinlan is up for the Hec Crighton Trophy as top player in CIS football.
The Canada West MVP, Dzwilewski led the nation with a 70.6 per cent completion rating, averaged 286 yards passing and threw a conference-best 15 TDs. He's complemented by running back Steven Lumbala and CFL draft picks Kirby Fabien, Carson Rockhill and Reed Alexander on the offensive line.
The Dinos led the country in points (47.5), total yards (592.1) and passing yards (374.6) per game, while raking third in rushing yards(217.5).
"Coach Nill has built this program and this team for one purpose and one purpose only and that's to win a Vanier Cup," Ptaszek said. "They have no weaknesses, it is a great group and a wonderful challenge for our kids."
Nill and Ptaszek have never faced each other, but the Dinos head coach led Saint Mary's to a 36-25 victory over McMaster in the 2002 Churchill Bowl in Hamilton as the Huskies went on to win their second of back-to-back Vanier Cups.
Calgary lost the Vanier Cup game in 2009 and 2010 and will be looking for the program's first national championship since the Dinos beat Western in 1995.
"(Nill's) kids play hard from start to finish," Ptaszek said. "They're always in good positions and he has a great staff and surrounds himself with good people. To represent the West five years in a row is spectacular and they're doing lots of things at the highest level."
No. 2 Rouge et Or vs. No 9 Acadia
History will not be on the side of the Axemen when they travel to Quebec City to take on Laval in the Uteck Bowl.
The Rouge et Or extended a pair of CIS-record streaks with their 40-17 win over Sherbrooke in last weekend's Dunsmore Cup. It marked Laval's 57th straight home victory and 10th straight Quebec conference title.
Acadia, meanwhile, defeated Saint Mary's 17-9 in the Loney Bowl to win the AUS crown for the second year running.
Laval is 6-0 lifetime against Acadia, including a 31-7 home win earlier this season and a 57-10 domination in the 2006 Uteck Bowl, the only previous head-to-head meeting between the two schools in the national semifinals.
The Rouge et Or are also 5-0 all-time at home in bowl games.
Despite the odds, Axemen head coach Jeff Cummins is undaunted by the task in a hostile environment.
"Our players are excited about going back and playing, plus we've been at Laval once already this season," he said. "The shock and awe (of 15,000 fans) won't be there as much. The guys have gone through it. They've seen it. We're excited about the opportunity."
Added defensive back Cameron Wade: "It's a huge advantage that we've been to Laval earlier this year so everybody knows what to expect. It's not going to be overwhelming."
The Axemen are led by fifth-year quarterback nominee Kyle Graves.
The Hec Crighton nominee leads a veteran group that includes receivers Michael Squires and Taylor Renaud, who both caught over 50 passes during the regular season.
On the ground, Acadia received a major contribution from AUS rookie of the year Thomas Troop, who rushed for 181 yards in the Loney Bowl victory over Saint Mary's.
"We have to be able to control the ball on offence and put together some first downs, move the football and change field position," Cummins said. "We need to move the chains a little bit and keep their offence off the field.
"The big thing is not turning the ball over. That's one of the things that's made them so successful."
The Axemen's defence has also been a key this season, finishing among the top six in the country in all major statistical categories, including points allowed (16.5), total yards (313.1), passing yards (193.4) and rushing yards (119.8).
The Rouge et Or have a new-look offence in 2012 following the graduation of a number of long-time starters — including running back Sebastien Levesque, quarterback Bruno Prud'homme and wide receiver Julian Feoli-Gudino.
Despite all the changes, they still managed to finish atop the RSEQ standings and produced the fourth-best offence in the country with 38.7 points per game led by first-year starter Tristan Grenon.
Laval once again led the nation with the fewest rushing yards allowed per game (57.8), was second in points allowed (12.7) and third in total yards against (298.2).
Despite all the success, Rouge et Or head coach Glen Constantin says his team's win over Acadia early this season means nothing now.
"We're somewhat familiar with them, but we have to keep in mind in was very early in the schedule," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind they've improved greatly since then."
Notes: Cummins, who spent part of his playing career with the Ottawa Rough Riders and met his wife in the nation's capital, said he would be interested in the head coaching job of the city's new CFL franchise, which is expected to hit the field in 2014. ... Laval had the previous record for the longest winning streak in CIS football. The Rouge et Or won 19 straight games between 2004 and 2005.