Marauders seek elite status in OUA football

(Photo: Robin Leworthy Wilson Aerial Promotions)

(Photo: Robin Leworthy Wilson Aerial Promotions)

In most sports, losing the first game of the season doesn’t have an impact on the final standings. In football, with so few games, every game carries importance and the Ottawa Gee-Gees are getting a first-hand lesson in that cause and effect relationship. The Gee-Gees lost their Ontario University Athletics season opener, 51-24, to the McMaster Marauders, which ultimately became the first tiebreaker when the teams both finished 5-3 this season. Now, they’ll have to travel to the cold, wet and hostile confines of Ron Joyce Stadium to play the two-time defending Yates Cup champions in OUA quarter-final action on Saturday (Oct. 26).

The game will be broadcast live on Sportsnet East, Pacific and Ontario, 1 p.m.

Ron Joyce has proven a very tough place to play for the visitors, as McMaster holds a 24-5 all-time record on home turf, including a spotless 5-0 playoff mark. McMaster is putting its season on the line a little earlier than usual, as quarter-finals football hasn’t been played in Hamilton since the 2010 season.

This season injuries and graduation decimated the Marauders, who found themselves in a 2-3 hole at midseason, but rallied for three straight wins over Waterloo, Laurier and Carleton by a combined score of 139-11. Ottawa presents an upgrade in opponent, but if McMaster was looking to make a statement, conceding 11 points over three hours of football speaks loud and clear.

Health is going to be a huge factor for the Marauders in Saturday’s contest, as they battled a slew of injuries all season. All-Canadians Cornerback Joey Cupido (Hamilton) and offensive tackle Matt Sewell (Milton) were limited to one game each and top running back James Hill (Hamilton) has missed four straight to end the season, though Hill may dress for Saturday. Couple those injuries with the departure of all-Canadians Elliot Montag, Jason Medeiros and Ben D’Aguilar, and there were a lot of missing parts in the big maroon machine. McMaster’s injury woes are advantageous for Ottawa, but a healthy Marauder squad – like they were in week one – spells trouble for the garnet and grey.

“It’s ironic for Coach (Jamie) Barresi and the Gee-Gees that they were the only team that saw Matt Sewell, Mike DiCroce, Nick Shortill and Cupido all in the same game,” McMaster head coach Stefan Ptaszek said. “No one else has seen all of them and we hope that they have the misfortune of seeing them for the first time since week one.”

Ptaszek was careful not to be too optimistic.

“At 2:21 p.m. on Thursday, we’re pretty healthy. I’ve learned enough in this business that until Saturday at one, I can’t guarantee any of them will be ready, but all signs appear that we will have access to all of these kids.”

Returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence, Ottawa has its work cut out for them. However, the Gee-Gees are coming in hot, having won three straight over York, Carleton and Windsor and five of their last seven. The margin of victory wasn’t as gaping as McMasters, but Windsor is a playoff team and York finished outside of the bottom three. A 3-1 team at home, the Gee-Gees played .500 football on the road, although the two losses came against McMaster and the No. 1 Western Mustangs.

Offensively, Ottawa finished in the top three in yards per game, rushing and passing as well as total first downs. What the Gee-Gees lack on defence, they make up for by putting points on the board and keeping the ball in their hands.

“The key for us is just to keep our poise,” Gee-Gees head coach Barresi said. “We have to play with confidence, play the next play. These are really key things for us.”

The key matchup on Saturday will be between the quarterbacks as Ottawa’s Aaron Colbon (Ottawa) and McMaster’s Marshall Ferguson (Kingston) line up under centre. Both teams rely heavily on passing games and the arms of these young men. Colbon finished second in the OUA with 2,490 passing yards, a 65% completion rate and 20 touchdowns.

“The quarterback is a playmaker with his legs and his arms. He is all over the place doing great things week in and week out,” Ptaszek said of Colbon.

Marshall Ferguson (Photo: Robin Leworthy Wilson/Aerial Promotions)

Marshall Ferguson (Photo: Robin Leworthy Wilson/Aerial Promotions)

His counterpart, Ferguson, finished with nearly identical numbers, passing for 80 fewer yards (2,410), with a 63% completion rate and 21 scores. With 199 completions on 314 attempts, no one threw the ball more than Ferguson. Two more snaps would have set a passing attempts record and five more completions would have also set an OUA mark.

Both quarterbacks threw over 300 yards in the season opener, but what separates them is how they perform on the ground. Colbon finished 11th in the OUA with 435 rushing yards – 36 more yards than McMaster’s leading rusher – and can scramble if he doesn’t like his options in the air. Ferguson only picked up 39 yards, but his reluctance to leave the pocket could leave him susceptible to Ettore Lattanzio, who led Canadian Interuniversity Sport with 10 sacks.

Strong passing and strong receiving stats go hand in hand, so it’s no surprise to see McMaster and Ottawa receivers in the upper echelon of the league. Ottawa’s Nicolas Dagher (Beirut, Lebanon) leads all receivers in this game with 657 yards, but teammate Andrew Mullings (Ottawa) has eight touchdowns. McMaster rookie Daniel Vandervoort (Barrie) led the Marauders with 594 yards and eight touchdowns. Former first team all-Canadian Michael DiCroce (Hamilton) has been healthy this season after missing the entire OUA regular season in 2012. In total, five Marauders have 200-plus yards receiving, while the Gee-Gees have five players over 300 yards.

While the passing game is closely contested, the Gee-Gees hold the edge on the ground. Colbon’s 435 yards were second to second team all-star Brenden Gillanders (Orleans), who led the team with 740 yards and two touchdowns. Gillanders numbers are down slightly from last season, but the Human Kinetics major finished with the second most yards in the OUA. McMaster counters with Kasean Davis-Reynolds (Mississauga), who led the team with 399 yards running the rock.

Defensively, McMaster holds an advantage in yards and points allowed per game. The Marauders have the best pass defence in the OUA statistically, allowing an average of 222 yards. McMaster also leads the OUA in interception returns, as they have 205 yards and three touchdowns after the turnover. As for the rushing defence, McMaster allowed 137 yards per game to Ottawa’s 178 and were able to limit the Gee-Gees to 108 rushing yards. Ottawa’s defensive numbers may be a little skewed after an 83-27 loss to Western.

McMaster’s Aram Eisho (Hamilton) leads all players with 45 tackles this season while Steven Ventresca’s (Hamilton). Ottawa counters with Lattanzio and Marc-Antoine Laurin (Gatineau, Que.), who leads the team with 34.5 tackles.

Observers have been patient with McMaster this season, waiting for the team to get healthy. Even when they were 2-3, the Marauders did not drop out of the CIS Top 10. If they lose with a reasonably healthy lineup on Saturday, there will be questions about McMaster’s elite status. A convincing win would do the opposite.

“It’s a year where we thought we could legitimately compete with the OUA elite and this game will define whether or not we were right,” Ptaszek said. “One of us is going to underachieve this year because we both have semi-final and Yates Cup talent. We have to earn our way to the semis and beyond. One team is going to be done in the quarter-finals, but that’s the way it is.”

McMaster and Ottawa kick off the 2013 OUA playoffs Saturday at Ron Joyce Stadium. Tune in to Sportsnet U: OUA Saturday football, live on Sportsnet Pacific, East and Ontario at 1 p.m. for all of the live action.