The Mustangs will be on the road this weekend against the Gryphons. Saturday afternoon’s game will be the first time the two teams have met since last year’s Yates Cup.
Western University won the Ontario University Athletics championship 63-14 last season. Guelph University will no doubt be looking to avenge their defeat and, In order to exact their revenge, they will likely turn to to their ground game.
In the Yates Cup, the Mustangs struggled to control Jean-Paul Cimankinda, a rookie running back at the time. The half-back ripped off 153 yards and a score during the championship match.
Cimankinda will not be active for Saturday’s game, but the newest Gryphons rookie rusher, Kaine Stevenson, projects to be just as impressive.
Stevenson has racked up 339 yards and three touchdowns on 61 attempts this season. Last week, after rushing for 194 yards and three touchdowns against the Waterloo Warriors, the rookie was crowned OUA Offensive Player of the Week.
Quarterback Theo Landers has also been quietly productive in the running game this season. The fifth-year veteran has put the ball on the ground a whopping 37 times, for an impressive 244 yards. For reference, Landers trusts his legs about as much as Quarterback Chris Merchant, who has rushed the ball 41 times this year.
However, while both enjoy fleeing the pocket and finding open space, Landers has not been as productive as Merchant while throwing the ball.
Guelph’s signal caller has completed just 56.5 per cent of his passes for 710 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Also, unfortunately for the Gryphons, the Mustangs essentially cut off Landers’ air production in last year’s championship game. The quarterback threw for just 69 yards and a 44 per cent completion percentage.
While the Mustangs may be able to control the passing game, they will need to be extra vigilant on special teams.
Over the past two home games, head coach Greg Marshall has been unimpressed with his team’s kick coverage. After the home opener in early September, the coach was blunt in his analysis.
“We just gotta cover the ball a little bit better,” explained Marshall. “We can't kick the ball so deep and then, you know, have them return it 20 yards. Might as well just kick it out of bounds.”
Unfortunately for Marshall, the Gryphons may make this area of the game look even worse.
Guelph’s kick return average, 40.1 yards, currently leads U Sports. As well, their total return yards, 481, sits second in the league.
Pitted against a potent returning team, the Mustangs may look to add some new wrinkles to their kick coverage before Saturday afternoon.
Western's Marc Liegghio is, arguably, the best kicker in the entire league. And, theoretically, his ability to boom the ball off the tee should be a boon for the kick team – allowing them to pin the opposing returners deep. However, as Marshall continues to be disappointed by his kick coverage, the team may opt for height and sacrifice some distance this week in order to give the coverage team time to get downfield.
Finally, on the defensive side of the ball, the Gryphons will look a little bit different from last year.
Luke Korol led the Guelph defence (and U Sports) last year with 92 tackles. Illustrating the fifth-year’s absurd production last year, the top two players on the Gryphons tackle leaderboard — Jared Beeksma and Job Reinhart — are currently on pace to combine for 92 tackles. That was Korol’s total last season.
Guelph has added some force on the defensive line, as both Alain Cimankinda and Tavius Robinson are Top 5 in U Sports for sacks this year, with 4.5 and four, respectively.
Saturday’s contest promises to be exciting. Both teams were recently listed on the U Sports Top 10 and the Mustangs could quickly fall from their top position with a weekend loss. However, if Western can solve their special teams problems and continue to dominate on offence, they should remain the top dog.