The championship window has shut on the McMaster Marauders' first Vanier Cup-winning generation.
Behind 2011 winners like Joey Cupido, Steven Ventresca, Marshall Ferguson and Chris Pezzetta, the 2014 Marauder football program shoehorned their way into the Vanier Cup. There are handfuls of other players that contributed to the run, but these players were the leaders.
The 2014 Vanier Cup featured only one lead change after the 0-0 score was broken, and that change would prove to be the fatal one. McMaster lost 20-19 after a 13-yard field goal from Montreal’s Louis-Philippe Simoneau gave the Carabins the lead.
McMaster used a drive with three minutes left to march down and set Tyler Crapigna up for a 31-yard field goal attempt. Montreal’s Mathieu Girard broke through to block the kick and ended Mac’s chances to win their second Vanier Cup in school history.
Now, that play will probably be discussed to no end. McMaster had the ball with only half a yard to go, and Mac had already pushed the ball for a first down in two situations prior. The percent of kicks that get blocked at that distance is just above zero. If Mac makes the kick, they lead 22-20 and the Carabins have to move the ball down the whole field with 58 seconds left. The Marauders have one of the best passing defences in the country, so it is a gamble that made sense.
The counter-argument is that Mac moves the ball, gets the first down and runs the clock down. Maybe they score a touchdown; maybe they get a field goal but they likely end up with a lead and Montreal has even less time, if any. There is a possibility they don’t the first down, and Mac is in the same spot as if they have their kick blocked. There’s no definitive answer to that situation, but it is important to at least hear the logic.
And let’s not act like Montreal wasn’t a better team. In front of 22,649 fans – mostly Carabins supporters – they weathered a lackluster first half and took advantage of good field position. On the Carabins' game-winning drive, they were given a short field after Mac conceded a no-yards penalty on the punt return. Converting on the short field against Mac isn’t easy though, and Montreal set up a tee-shot for the win.
McMaster has made three Vanier Cup trips in four years, a respectable and significant mark. For the players, that does not mean anything, at least not right now. In the locker room, there was just red eyes and silence. The only breaks in the quiet were some murmurs and the sound of pats on the back as players and coaches embraced.
This group was not supposed to be here. Head coach Stefan Ptaszek said that his group isn’t as physically talented as the teams from 2011 or 2012, but they had more heart and toughness. You cannot cheat the football gods for this long, though. Without the ability to get the ball into the endzone, it is hard to win championships. Yet, McMaster came within a point of doing just that.
As this championship window closes, another may be opening. The team is deep and talented at skill positions, and the coaching staff has shown the ability to transition teams well. 2013 was a season littered with injuries to key pieces, a defensive co-ordinator change and they still made the playoffs. 2014 saw the insertion of a ton of young talent. Between Ptaszek, Jon Behie and Greg Knox, they make the pieces fit and any regression will be short lived.
That isn’t supposed to make this any easier – to lose on a blocked kick is rare and especially heartbreaking. But the McMaster Marauders looked adversity in the face and beat it time after time. For that, the Maroon family should raise their glass and cherish the ride.
Photo credit: Fraser Caldwell
McMaster knows the conference well, but not this opponent.
In the 2014 Vanier Cup, Mac will take on the Montreal Carabins, in Montreal. The Carabins, who compete in the RSEQ conference, have never played the Marauders. McMaster has played RSEQ powerhouse Laval in their two previous Vanier games.
The new opponent won’t bother Montreal, though. This whole scene is brand new for the program. It’s a storybook scenario for the Carabins: this is their first Vanier game and they get to play it at home in front of their fans. They topped Laval while neutering the Rouge et Or’s stud quarterback. Now, they can hop on a subway and hit up practice.
It won’t bother Mac, either. As offensive co-ordinator Jon Behie says, the team has been there before. But there are still inherent differences that come when you’re preparing for a non-OUA team.
“When you play out-of-conference, you don’t have a ton of context. You can’t really tell from film what you’re seeing,” said Behie. “When you see Western, and they just played Guelph and we have already played Guelph, there’s a measurable there for us.”
“We know the kids at Guelph – we recruited them too. We know Western’s personnel better. Instantly, you get better context. Now, we’re watching Montreal play Manitoba on film. There aren’t a ton of players that we know well and so we are trying to figure out who is stronger or weaker.”
Behie’s point offers great insight into the coaching struggle of a Vanier-bound team. Between Behie, head coach Ptaszek, defensive co-ordinator Greg Knox and a handful of other coaches, they are trying to figure out a number of different variables at once while also picking up on schemes that they do not typically see. Mac isn’t without their own personal struggles though – the team has only scored one offensive touchdown in their last two games.
“It’s tough because ultimately, the goal is to win the game, and we’ve won our games. Are we happy with where we’ve been the past two weeks? No, not at all,” said Behie. “I simply think we have to better. We have to do better than one touchdown, I know that and our guys know that.”
Make no mistake, the Marauders seem like a conservative offence because they are one. Behie says they do not want to turn the ball over or give the opposing team good field position because their defence has been playing so well.
“There’s some people who still have [our old play style] in their mind, where we aired it out like we did in 2011 and 2012,” said Behie. There were some deep shots taken in the Mitchell Bowl that hit the receiver but were not caught. Behie agrees that if those are caught then the conversation about the offence is different.
Regardless, this is the game plan right now: hold on to the ball, give the defenders rest and if you can’t score points, pin the opponent deep in their own territory. No one is saying it is the most inspiring brand of football to watch, but it is inarguably effective.
The question becomes how effective Marshall Ferguson and the rest of the offense will be against Montreal.
The front seven of the Carabins is among the best in the country. Mount Allison was given similar praise last week, but they had inflated stats because of an easy schedule. The Carabins have played seven games against ranked teams.qMontreal has sixth-round CFL pick Mathieu Girard on the defensive line, as well as two other players that Behie says will be CFL prospects. In seven games against ranked opponents, the Carabins have allowed 135.3 rushing yards per game. Five of those games came against teams who finished in the top ten for rushing yards per game.
Where they struggle is defending the pass. In seven games against ranked opponents, they allowed 302.5 yards through the air per game. Six of those seven games were against top ten passing offences, and Mac finished second in passing yards per game this season. If the Marauders can get their passing game figured out, they will be in great shape.
Montreal’s offence has come around too. It hasn’t been consistent to start the year, but they figured it out as the season went along.
29 points against Manitoba is an impressive mark, but they needed 421 passing yards to get there. That will be a problem for the Carabins, though. Mac’s passing defence is peaking at the most important part of the season and shutting down passing attacks. If the Carabins get in an early hole and have to pass, the Marauders will be playing with house money.
The offence doesn’t inspire confidence, but the defence – led by defensive backs Joey Cupido and Steven Ventresca, linebacker Nick Shorthill, as well as linemen Mark Mackie and Mike Kashak – is one of the most dominant groups to don the Maroon and Grey in any sport.
How this all comes together is the difference maker. Mac has not been consistent, but they look good now. This is different than the 2011 and 2012 Vanier Cup games: the Marauders control their own destiny. If McMaster weaves everything together – something more likely than not – the Vanier could be coming back to Hamilton for the second time in school history.
Using defence and a strong running game, Mac bested the Mount Allison Mounties 24-12.
The score line does not reflect how one-sided this game was. McMaster’s line play made the difference and put the Marauders through to their third Vanier game in four years. Outside of Laval, Saskatchewan made three Vanier trips in four years from 2003 to 2006.
Winning a Mitchell Bowl is a weird scenario, akin to knowing that you get a high mark in a course but the class is pass or fail. There’s a trophy that says they won something, but the feeling of accomplishment isn’t there. The players were not overly eager to hoist the trophy or take a ton of pictures with it. It’s a ticket to the Vanier, which is the real goal.
It was the quintessential McMaster football performance. In the past, Marauder teams may have been a bit more predictable in that you knew who was going to be making the big plays and lighting up the scoreboard. This isn’t a bad thing — that group has a Vanier Cup ring that says otherwise. But Mac is deeper and it is clearly more difficult to plan for. When Sportsnet broadcasts games, they put the names on the back of player jerseys. So many players contributed today that the change was a welcome one.
Mount Allison put up a good fight, but you could see how one conference has outgrown the other. Mac sacked Mountie quarterback Brandon Leyh nine times and hit him at least 19. Mount Allison’s offensive line got blown up on the first two plays of the game, one resulting in a pass that hit the back of a receiver and the other ending in a sack. They could not open holes for rookie running back Chris Reid either — he finished with 53 yards on 11 rushing attempts. Reid finished third in the CIS for rushing yards per game, tallying up 123 per contest.
Mac did not escape from the game unscathed. On the first rush of the game, running back Chris Pezzetta seemed to injure his knee on a non-descript play and did not return. That knee has suffered two ACL tears between 2012 and 2013. Officially, Pezzetta was listed as questionable to return with a lower-body injury. Running back Wayne Moore took a hard hit in the third quarter but returned, while receiver Josh Vanderweerd suffered a hit to his head and did not play for a few series.
It was the defence and special teams that gave Mac the win, causing the injury to Pezzetta to be minimal. Mark Mackie logged three sacks and won the Most Valuable Player award. Tyler Crapigna had three field goals and two punts inside the 20-yard line. One of those caused a safety after the Mount Allison possession.
The scene afterwards was the polar opposite of the Yates Cup celebration. Players lined up behind the stage, Sportsnet did the bowl presentation and the team moved on. It was pouring rain, so that would have forced people to get off the field pretty quick. But there was no real celebration because the players and coaches didn’t think they have anything to celebrate.
Next week, they might. McMaster takes on the Montreal Carabins in Montreal, after the RSEQ representative topped Manitoba 29-24 in the Uteck Bowl. With a deep roster lead by players with Vanier experience, Mac has a real shot at bringing the championship back to Hamilton.
Photo Credit: Sarah Janes
Perhaps no team would be more suited to play in an overtime shootout for the Vanier Cup than the McMaster Marauders.
Armed with an MVP wide receiver, an All-Canadian field goal kicker, a talented group of slotbacks, a powerful running back and a quarterback who had permanently entered Beast Mode, the Marauders had a bevy of weapons to march 35 yards into the end zone more times than their opponent could match.
That, and a diverse playbook devised by a man many have described as a football genius behind the scenes.
Observers of this year’s Mac team will no doubt be familiar with offensive coordinator Jon Behie’s arsenal of jet sweeps, behind-the-back handoffs and other tricky plays that have led many to herald the former player as an offensive mastermind.
Behie, a man who considers himself a Marauder lifer and a “McMaster football historian,” credits the skills of his players for the offence’s success rather than his own creativity and influence. But with aerial precision demonstrated by Kyle Quinlan and co. last Friday, it’s clear Behie’s fingerprints are all over the blueprint Mac used to cause utter destruction to the vaunted Laval defence.
The Marauders threw for 496 yards and gained nearly 700 for the game, moving the ball against Laval seemingly more successfully than any team this decade. The variation in playcalling, especially with Quinlan’s powerful arm,
“The pass game has always been my thing. Moving guys around, it’s like a chess match. It’s been fun to draw it up.
Since the turn of the century, Behie has been heavily involved in McMaster football, first as a recruit and fan, then as a quarterback and receiver and now as the offensive coordinator of the most potent offence in the CIS this year.
“I went to every game starting in 2000. This is the only place I applied and I wanted to be here,” says Behie. “I immersed myself in it and I just haven’t left.”
The Burlington native says his passion for offensive innovation has been around since the first time he ever picked up a football, and that he always had an eye on helping to direct a team.
“I remember drawing up plays and talking with coaches in high school,” says Behie. “I’ve wanted to coach for as long as I can remember, and I can remember in my first, second and third year wanting to get into coaching and teaching.
“It was kind of ‘right place, right time’ and the circumstances were lucky that they are what they are here at Mac.”
Behie says playing quarterback and receiver from 2002 to 2006 for McMaster helped foster his creativity for the passing game, something that has flourished with Quinlan, Mike DiCroce and the other talented players in the receiving corps making plays.
“The pass game has always been my thing. Moving guys around, it’s like a chess match. It’s been fun to draw it up.”
Behie is right to send credit for the Vanier win towards Quinlan, whose astonishing performance led him to call his the fourth-year pivot the best to ever play for McMaster.
“What he did was unbelievable. He couldn’t have done anything more; statistically; ‘wow’ factor; winning. It was all there.”
But his own brand of creative offence and his dedication to the team’s development has also been an integral part of McMaster’s rise to becoming the king of Canadian university football.
“It’s always about the program. It’s never been about one year’s team. And that’s why I do this every day and care so deeply about it,” says Behie.
Four days after the victory over Laval, the Vanier Cup sat in Behie’s office, but the drive to win another one was clearly already on his mind. He was heading off with head coach Stefan Ptaszek to scout recruits at the Metro Bowl in Toronto.
For Behie, the process of accomplishing what the Marauders did in 2011 again in 2012 is already underway.
“We’ll do everything we can to try to get another another Yates, another Uteck and another Vanier,” he says. “Hopefully we don’t have to wait 47 years