Stu Lang does a lot for Ontario University Athletics football, what with his revitalization of the Guelph Gryphons and his donation to fund a new stadium at Queen's. That noblesse oblige now extends to butterig up the Western Mustangs.
The Gryphons earned the OUA's second-place bye and home field vs. Western for Saturday's semifinal by the margin of a 49-46 win over the 'Stangs on Oct. 18, where the seasoned Jazz Lindsey passed for 513 yards and authored two scoring drives inside of the three-minute warning. That edge in experience at quarterback, home field and an extra week to prepare be damned, apparently; the Guelph coach's pregame posturing posits that the Gryphons are underdogs.
"We're facing a team that has won 30 Yates Cups; we've only won three," Lang says. "[Western coach] Greg Marshall himself has been personally responsible for 18 [as a player, assistant coach and head coach].
"We know we have a battle. We certainly don't consider ourselves favourites in any way. It's also very difficult to beat a team twice in one season. We have a huge job in front of us on Saturday. The battle will be won or lost on the offensive and defensive line, the so-called 'pit area.' Western has always had a tradition of big, strong, fast O- and D-linemen. Everything begins there. And Western makes that difficult for us. They've got a couple of future CFL all-stars on their defensive line."
The kicker for Marshall and the Mustangs from that game three weeks ago is that they stymied negated Guelph's feature back by holding Robert Farquharson to 23 rushing yards. Yet they still collapsed defensively.
"Assignment-wise, there's a lot of things that we broke down on the last time we played Guelph," Marshall says. "Give Guelph credit, they did a good job that day of exploiting our weaknesses and some of our better players didn't play well. We're going to have to be balanced on defence. We can't go into the game thinking we can stop the pass and the run will just miraculously disappear."
"We're familiar with going there," Marshall added. "We think our guys will be more than comfortable going down there to play."
The Ottawa-McMaster semi is also a back-so-soon rematch. The No. 10 Gee-Gees beat the No. 3 Marauders two weeks ago to claim a playoff berth, although the result was widely downplayed since McMaster pulled quarterback Marshall Ferguson and others at halftime to minimize the injury risk.
"It's a confidence they've earned," McMaster coach Stefan Ptaszek says. "They beat us flat-out; I don't care who was in the game. The halftime score of 12-11 [before Ottawa went on to win 38-18] was flattering. They played us tough to start to finish. We did take out some of our scarce resources but the bottom line is they were the better football team for 60 minutes. For us, a 7-0 football team learned how fragile their existence is, how if they fray even a little bit, we're in big trouble. That was a big lesson for our locker room."
Both OUA games are being webcast on OUA.TV on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. Here's 5 storylines to be aware of for Saturday:
Will Lindsey thrive again — Long labelled a scrambler, Lindsey turned a corner with that big day vs. the Mustangs. On the season, though, the fourth-year pivot was just eighth in the OUA in completion percentage. He'll also have pass rushers such as Western's Ricky Osei-Kusi chasing him around.
"Everyone has kind of seen Jazz as an athlete who likes to run around and make plays, but we've really driven home the fact that he's good enough to be a quarterback at this level," Guelph offensive coordinator Todd Galloway says. "His understanding of the offence is continuing to improve and he's starting to see things better.
"From the game last time, we've got to be able to stay on the field longer and run the ball better," Galloway adds.
The growth of Stevenson Bone — The Mustangs only managed one offensive touchdown in their 25-10 quarter-final win over Laurier with a young quarterback at the controls. Bad weather, a fired-up defence and injuries to veteran pass catchers Brian Marshall and George Johnson, though, dictated that Stevenson Bone wasn't asked to extend himself.
"You can't just say, 'Stevenson, go out there and make good decisions,' " Greg Marshall says. "You have to give him the right plays and right system but it really comes down to experience. It's really easy for me to sit in the room and draw up plays and say, 'this is where you should go with the football.' It's way different when you have 4-5-6 guys coming at you and lots of different coverages.
"Jazz is better this year because of what he went through last year. Stevenson is the same. He's young. We have to put him in good situations and give him a little bit of extra time."
Have the 'Stangs healed — The one great equalizer, injuries, contributed to Western losing McMaster (35-32 on Oct. 4) and Guelph. Marshall isn't saying much other than, "They'll all be good and ready to go," which is about all one would expect to be hear.
"Western does what Western does," Guelph defensive coordinator Kevin MacNeil says. "They put in the next guy and he's typically better than most teams' first guy. They're a great team and do lots of things on offence."
Elements come into play in Hamilton — Ottawa coach Jamie Barresi was a quarterback in his youth and McMaster's Ptaszek was a record-setting receiver once upon a time. Each likes putting the ball up early and often. Fall weather is often less than friendly to the air game, so which teams plays better ball-control might win.
Both have had a running game by committee, with Ottawa relying on rookie Bryce Vieira and McMaster platooning Wayne Moore (492 yards in the eight-game regular season) with Chris Pezzetta (488).
"We're going to have to lean on our big boys up front, We do want to establish more run. It did fray in Week 9. If we're one-dimensional against a talented group like Ottawa, we're in big trouble. Establishing the run is very critical if you want to go more than a couple rounds in playoffs."
The Gee-Gees were much more pass-first in 2013, Barresi's first season. They got exposed a bit in a 41-7 first-round loss to, you guessed it, the Marauders.
"I went into that game thinking that we were going to be able to throw the ball," Barresi said. "It was a very bad day, very bad rain, et cetera, not to take away from the play of the Mac defence. The run is the big thing at this stage of the year. You have to win the battle of attrition. Weather conditions determine a lot. We're not playing in the bubble."
Ottawa quarterback Derek Wendel was interception-free on a windy day during the 46-29 quarter-final win in Windsor, throwing for 264 yards on 28-of-40. The Marauders, with veteran pass defenders such as Joey Cupido, — and Steven Ventresca often baiting teams to test them deep, pose a formidable challenge to a first-year starting quarterback.
"They're really good, They're experienced, they've seen a lot of things," Barresi says of the Marauders defeners. "Derek has to be focused. I've put a lot of pressure on him in meetings. I've put a lot of pressure on him on the practice field. And I put pressure on him in the games. I'm with the quarterback the whole time. I have high expectations. That's the biggest thing. I give McMaster credit for having a great defence but Derek has to perform."
Whether that first game really matters at all — The season finale granted Ptaszek a chance to essentially scout the Gee-Gees in person on Oct. 25. The focus on stopping Ottawa nosetackle Ettore Lattanzio, the OUA sack leader, often left lanes open for other blitzers. Mac is vowing to be more prepared.
"We got a lot of context about how good Lattanzio is and that changes game plans," Ptaszek said. "It's less of a cat-and-mouse game. This is a talented group that Ottawa has."
One downside to a first-place finish is having a week where a team's insensity and tempo can dissipitate. It has been six years, though, since a first-place team was eliminated at home in the semifinal.
"Football is toughest in weeks 7, 8, 9 of our regular season when everyone has their midterms, which are just starting to wrap up," Ptaszek says. "Our student-athletes have got a chance to get caught up on school and are healthy as we can be. There's a lot of benefits in having the time.
"The risk is in not being OUA playoff speed ready. Ottawa's faced live action a lot more recently than we have."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.