Fans of hard-nosed football will love this year's Mitchell Bowl.
The sixth-ranked Mount Allison Mounties and No. 3 Marauders will bring very similar styles to McMaster's Ron Joyce Stadium on Saturday for the Vanier Cup semifinal. Both teams have relied on smash-mouth defences and solid running games throughout the Canadian university football season and promise to bring more of the same to the Mitchell Bowl.
"We want to be violent. We want to make sure we hit you," said Mounties head coach Kelly Jeffrey said in an interview this week. "We want to be disruptive in terms of taking the ball away as much as possible. We want to be disciplined, we want to have sound schemes that don't give up big plays.
"If we can do those things, that's basically the heart of our defensive philosophy."
That approach has worked for Mount Allison all year. The undefeated AUS champions had the best defence in Canada this season, allowing an average of eight points per game and ranking third in both total yards allowed (324.0) and against the run (98.1).
The Marauders are strong defensively as well. The 9-1 OUA champions allowed 17.75 points per game, the best in Ontario and fifth-best across the country. OUA defensive player of the year Nick Shorthill has been dominant at linebacker, helping McMaster place second against the pass (201.4) and the run (132.1).
"Defensively we've got several guys that we lean on and have come up huge in our playoff run to date," said Marauders head coach Stefan Ptaszek. "Nick Shorthill, (defensive backs) Scott Martin, Steve Ventresca and Joey Cupido are four of the best in the country and we're going to continue to lean on them."
Both teams have relied on productive ground attacks all season, with Mounties tailback Chris Reid earning AUS rookie of the year honours after leading his conference and placing second in the country with 987 rushing yards.
"He's explosive, he's got great burst," said Jeffrey of his star running back. "Maybe not the sprinter some guys are, but certainly he's got very good burst and quickness that can make guys miss in a small area.
"Once that little guy gets behind that big O-line he's hard to see and contain."
McMaster relies on two running backs in its schemes, with Wayne Moore averaging 70.3 yards per game in the regular season for a total of 492. Although he only averaged 61 yards per game in the regular season, Chris Pezzetta rushed for 143 and 144 yards in the Marauders first two post-season games.
"Establishing our run with that big O-line and Chris Pezzetta and Wayne Moore, our two running backs that are going to get the bulk of the work, is critical," said Ptaszek of Saturday's matchup.
An emphasis on the run could be necessary on Saturday, with a wintry blast hitting southern Ontario and western New York for most of the week. McMaster had to move its practices from Ron Joyce Stadium to Redeemer University College in nearby Ancaster, Ont., to make use of an inflatable dome covering the school's football field.
Forecasts have the temperature rising to just above freezing on game day with a chance of rain.
"If there's some elements of weather it's always important to run the ball well," said Jeffrey. "If we can then pop a few big plays offensively I think that'll be important to help change field position and set up scores."
Although McMaster is only 1-3 when hosting Vanier Cup semifinals, Ptaszek is confident that playing in the Marauders' home stadium will play to his team's advantage.
"'No place like home' is especially true for a student-athlete that's working through midterms and has finals not too far away," said the McMaster head coach. "Just staying in our routine and all the national exposure that our student-athletes are going to get over the week, it helps us stay grounded and remember that there's actually a football game to be played at the end of this week.
"Having the 13th man in the stands is a huge advantage."
The winner of the Mitchell Bowl will advance to the Vanier Cup in Montreal on Nov. 29. They will play either the Manitoba Bisons or Montreal Carabins, who face each other on Saturday in the Uteck Bowl.
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