TORONTO (U Sports) – In a battle of old foes returning to The Show after a brief hiatus, the nationally top-ranked Laval University Rouge et Or face-off against the No. 6 University of Calgary Dinos in the ArcelorMittal Dofasco Vanier Cup on Saturday in Hamilton.
Kickoff for the 52nd U Sports football championship game is set for 1 p.m. (Eastern) at Tim Hortons Field. The Steel City has played host to the event on three occasions in the past – 2004, 2005 and 2008 – each time at the now-defunct Ivor Wynne Stadium.
After months of hard work and 122 regular and post-season contests across the country… they meet again.
Saturday’s confrontation will mark the fifth time in less than a decade that perennial contenders Laval and Calgary battle on the national stage. So far, the Rouge et Or have had the upper hand, winning all previous head-to-head matchups, including 25-14 in 2013 (Vanier Cup in Quebec City), 41-10 in 2011 (Mitchell Bowl in Calgary), 29-2 in 2010 (Vanier Cup in Quebec City) and 59-10 in 2008 (Uteck Bowl in Quebec City).
For good measure, the 13-time RSEQ champions also prevailed when the two teams met in preseason action in 2013 (32-3) and 2014 (35-23), each time in the Quebec provincial capital.
For all their dominance in recent years however, few would have predicted a Laval-Calgary meeting in the Vanier Cup before the start of the 2016 campaign. Both programs looked to be in rebuilding mode back in August after losing countless standouts, either to graduation or the pro ranks.
Gone from the 2015 Rouge et Or are 11 starters, including six on defence. Amazingly, the list includes four offensive linemen, three of whom – Philippe Gagnon, Charles Vaillancourt and Jason Lauzon-Séguin – were selected in the first round of last spring’s CFL draft.
The Dinos are without 10 starters from a year ago, six of them on offence. Of the group, seven were all-Canadians last season, including two-time Hec Crighton trophy-winning quarterback Andrew Buckley, running back Mercer Timmis, receivers Rashaun Simonise and Brett Blaszko, centre Sean McEwen, linebacker Doctor Cassama, as well as kicker Johnny Mark, the all-time U Sports leader in career field goals and scoring.
Both programs were also coming off back-to-back conference championship losses on home turf, Laval falling twice to archrival Montreal, and Calgary bowing out against UBC last November and Manitoba two years ago.
Ask opposing coaches, however, and they’ll likely tell you that – as the old saying goes – teams like Laval and Calgary don’t rebuild, they simply reload.
This weekend, the Rouge et Or and Dinos will both make their 10th Vanier Cup appearance, trailing only Western (12) on the all-time list. Laval holds the record for national titles with eight, followed by Western with six. Calgary has been crowned four times – tied for third place with UBC and Queen’s – but hasn’t popped the champagne since 1995.
“The Vanier Cup is always our goal, as long as it’s realistic. This year, it was a tall order. I’m very happy with the efforts of our entire organization,” said 16-year Laval head coach Glen Constantin, who was the team’s defensive coordinator when the Rouge et Or won their first Vanier Cup in 1999 and has since become the most decorated head coach in Canadian university football history with seven titles as the man in charge. “We progressed from week to week and the guys believed in themselves. Every playoff win, every new experience becomes exponential for our players. Each moment with this team is special because we see this group of players grow on a daily basis.”
Since a season-opening loss to Montreal on home field back on Sept. 3, Laval has won a country-wide best 10 consecutive games, including a 39-14 RSEQ semifinal win over Concordia, a 20-17 road victory against Montreal in the Dunsmore Cup to partially erase the painful memories of the past two years, and a 36-6 domination of Laurier in the Uteck Bowl last Saturday in Quebec City.
“The fact we’re not facing a team from Ontario, it should help us get some support from the crowd,” added Constantin, whose program has never gone three straight years without winning the Vanier Cup since he took over the reins in 2001. “Also, a number of Rouge et Or players have played or still play for Hamilton in the CFL, so we hope it will encourage people to cheer for us.”
While the Tiger-Cats had one former Rouge et Or player on their roster in 2016 – two-time Vanier Cup-winning linebacker Frederic Plesius – they also boasted a pair of former Calgary standouts in running backs Anthony Woodson, whose younger brother Robert is currently a star defensive back with the Dinos, and Mercer Timmis, a native of Burlington, Ont., whose great grandfather Brian Timmis won four Grey Cups with Hamilton as a player and coach.
Like Timmis, current Laval receiver Félix Faubert-Lussier was selected by Hamilton in the 2016 CFL draft (fifth round – 39th overall) and took part in the team’s training camp. Unlike the former Dino however, the Montreal native postponed his pro debut for the chance to play a fifth and final university campaign. He was named MVP of the Uteck Bowl after he caught four passes for 86 yards and a touchdown in addition to going 2-for-3 on field-goal attempts in his first kicking assignment with the Rouge et Or… since the 2014 preseason game against Calgary.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more for my fifth year,” said Faubert-Lussier, the only current Laval player who dressed in the 2012 Vanier Cup win over McMaster, and one of seven who were in uniform for the 2013 triumph against the Dinos. “I spent last summer in Hamilton so I’ll be in familiar territory. It’ll be a big week of preparation, but I’m very happy because I’m exactly where I wanted to be.”
The Dinos roster, by comparison, includes 19 players who dressed for the 2013 Vanier Cup but five of them – defensive back Robert Woodson, receiver Austen Hartley, running back Quentin Chow, fullback Zach Jenkins and offensive lineman Braden Schram – were among seven injured starters from this year’s squad who missed last Saturday’s 50-24 win over StFX in the Mitchell Bowl.
One player who returned from the injury list in time for the national Final Four was fifth-year quarterback Jimmy Underdahl. After missing four straight games, the Calgary native entered the Mitchell Bowl after the halftime break, promptly stretched the Dinos’ lead from 18-14 to 32-14, and was voted game MVP after going 11-for-16 for 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Calgary’s quarterback situation adds some intrigue to Vanier Cup week as rookie Adam Sinagra had been nothing short of brilliant in relief of Underdahl, going 4-1 as a starter (including the Mitchell Bowl win), including a 47-17 Canada West semifinal victory over Saskatchewan and a 46-43 Hardy Cup triumph over UBC to avenge last year’s season-ending defeat at the hands of the Thunderbirds. There is little doubt the John Abbott College grad from Pointe-Claire, Que., would love to see how he would fare against the Quebec champions.
“Reaching the Vanier Cup was a goal we set out at the beginning of the year – we are happy to be where we want to be at this point in the season, but there are still goals ahead of us,” said second-year Calgary head coach Wayne Harris Jr., who has been involved with the Dinos for nearly 40 years as a player, alumnus and coach, including as an assistant coach with the 1995 national championship squad. “We’re pleased we still have one football game left to play.
“It’s really the same story for success that we’ve had all year – playing smart and fast. You have to stay disciplined and win the turnover battle. These are two very good football teams, and the team that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins.”
Harris Jr. is well aware of his program’s recent history with Laval as he was part of the Dinos coaching staff for all previous games against the Rouge et Or on the national stage, first as linebackers coach and then as defensive coordinator.
“We haven’t had much success against Laval, but in our last game against them we had our opportunities,” added the 2015 U Sports coach of the year, who guided the Dinos to a perfect 8-0 regular season last fall in his head coaching debut. “Again, it’s about mistakes – we faltered at the end, making a couple of mistakes in the fourth quarter that led to the defeat. These are two great teams, and we’re looking forward to a very good game.”
Like his coach, Underdahl is excited about the opportunity that lies ahead but won’t be satisfied unless the Dinos reach their final goal on Saturday.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to be going back, and knowing it’ll be my last university game, I wouldn’t want it to end any other way,” said Underdahl, who backed up former Dinos great Andrew Buckley but didn’t see the field in the 2013 Vanier Cup. “There are two teams left, just happy we’re one of them. It’s huge that we have 19 guys who have been in the big game before and won’t be distracted by the week, the whole Vanier Cup experience. We’ve played in that game against Laval – going in we’ll be focused and treat it as a business trip. We’re there for one thing: to win a national championship.
“This season has just shown how our whole team has that ‘next man up, nobody ever quits’ attitude. We’ve shown it the entire year, sticking together as a team and finding ways to get it done.”
On paper, Laval looks to have the advantage on defence going into the Vanier Cup, while Calgary’s offence was more explosive in the regular season and in the first three playoff rounds.
In league play, the Rouge et Or ranked second in the nation in points allowed (9.8 per game) and total yards (294.0), third against the run (91.8) and fourth against the pass (202.3). They are led by sophomore defensive end Mathieu Betts, who had 12 quarterback sacks a year ago en route to winning national rookie-of-the-year honours and added nine more this season on his way to being named the RSEQ’s most outstanding down lineman.
While Calgary’s defence – under the guidance of new coordinator and long-time CFL coach Tom Higgins – didn’t rank as high nationally, the Dinos still finished atop their conference in points allowed (20.9), total yards (395.4) and rushing yards (107.4). However, they allowed 288 yards through the air per game (17th in the nation) in the pass-happy Canada West. Fourth-year halfback Robert Woodson, who is hoping to return to the lineup on Saturday, was the Canada West defensive MVP in 2015 and is the No. 12-ranked prospect for the 2017 CFL draft.
On offence, both teams scored at the same pace during the regular season (36.8 Calgary vs. 36.1 Laval) but the Dinos – despite their injury woes – have exploded in the playoffs with a whopping 143 points in three games (47, 46, 50). In conference play, Calgary was more productive both on the ground (195.9 yards per game vs. 168.8) and through the air (311.5 vs. 291.9).
Underdahl was very effective as the Dinos starting QB before his injury, averaging 303.7 passing yards with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions in six league games. Sinagra was equally impressive in his five starts – including three in the playoffs – throwing 11 TD strikes against only one interception during his late-season run.
Their counterpart on the other sideline, Hugo Richard – the 2014 U Sports rookie of the year – is a dual threat who led the Quebec conference in rushing touchdowns this fall (8) and is coming off one of his best games of the season in the Uteck Bowl, where he completed 16 of 24 passes for 191 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in addition to 82 yards and a major on the ground.