MONTREAL - Marshall Ferguson was the backup when Kyle Quinlan led the McMaster Marauders to their only Vanier Cup title four years ago in Vancouver.
Now Ferguson is the starter and Quinlan is quarterbacks coach for the team that has the daunting task of trying to beat the hometown Montreal Carabins in front of an expected sellout crowd of 23,500 in Saturday's Vanier Cup at Percival Molson Stadium.
"The 2011 experience will stick with me forever," Ferguson said. "The winning made it special, but that group of guys was unique and cared for each other more than any group I've been around.
"This team, the bond we have, closely rivals what we had then."
The Ontario champion Marauders and Quebec champion Carabins will play each other for the first time in a battle of two teams with smothering defences.
The onus will be on the quarterbacks, Ferguson and Montreal's Gabriel Cousineau, to put up points on what is forecast to be a chilly but sunny afternoon.
The Marauders will be in their third Vanier Cup game in the last four years, having lost in 2012. Montreal, coached by former Edmonton Eskimos coach and general manager Danny Maciocia, has reached the Canadian university football final for the first time.
McMaster has not skipped a beat since Ferguson took over last season. The fifth-year social sciences student completed 163 passes for 2,058 yards and 15 touchdowns this season as the Marauders went 10-1.
They were impressive numbers for most quarterbacks, but Ferguson was disappointed in his 63.2 completion percentage.
"I know when I've played well and it's somewhere around 70 to 75 per cent completion percentage, and throwing for 300-ish yards," he said. "I have these standards in my mind because you know what your defence and your offensive line and your running backs need out of you to get a victory."
Now he has one game left in his university career and wants to make it count. That means staying out of the clutches of Montreal's defensive aces — linebacker Byron Archambault and defensive back Anthony Coady.
"It's nice to have the finality of knowing that, regardless of what we do Saturday, it's the end," he said. "You never want to say that's your goal because you never want to lose your last game.
"We have zero interest in doing that. But it's just the idea that I know when it ends. There are a lot of guys, fantastic football players, who are at home now setting their PVRs for the Vanier Cup. It's very special, and we're excited to play here."
Cousineau, a fourth-year business student, has not yet decided if he will return for one last season.
The Montreal native was part of a history-making Carabins team this season, which won its conference for the first time, ending the powerhouse Laval Rouge et Or's 11-year run. The Carabins also stopped the Rouge et Or's home winning streak at 70 games dating to 2004.
After dropping a 40-13 road decision to Laval in the opening game, the Carabins beat them at home in the regular-season finale and then topped the two-time defending Vanier Cup champs again 12-9 in overtime in Quebec City in the conference final.
The Carabins survived another close one last week with a 29-26 win over the Manitoba Bisons in the Uteck Bowl. Cousineau passed for 421 yards, breaking the team's one-game record set by Alexandre Piuze, who is now his quarterbacks coach.
"He taught me so much," Cousineau said. "It helped me evolve."
Maciocia said Cousineau learned mental toughness at the junior college level. His old team at Montmorency College won only four games in three seasons.
"Gabriel's come a long way," said Maciocia. "We knew he was athletically gifted. We knew he had a strong arm and could use his feet.
"But we also knew we had to spend a lot of time with him. We had to slow down the game for him. This year, he's committed himself through the off-season, spending a lot of time with the coaches and getting to understand what we're doing schematically.
"Now he's playing the position in slow motion. He's seeing things he couldn't see a couple of years ago."
He certainly has an arm, as he showed in the second play from scrimmage against Manitoba when he hit favourite target Mikhail Davidson with an 89-yard TD pass.
But he also had three passes picked off by the Bisons. On Saturday he'll be up against McMaster back Joey Cupido, who has 14 picks in 15 career playoff games.
The Marauders have seven interceptions in three playoff games this year, including three by safety Allan Dicks.
"They're a very good, well-coached team," added Maciocia. "We realize we're going to have our hands full, but we didn't think we'd get to the Vanier Cup and have a pushover."