Hamilton, ON- Coming off a bye week, the McMaster Marauders football team was facing a tough but crucial stretch run. They had beaten the Waterloo Warriors a couple of weeks ago, getting a much-needed victory to move to 1-3 (they forfeited their win against York in week two).
Now, they were hosting the defending Yates and Vanier Cup champion Western Mustangs. The undefeated number one ranked Mustangs as well.
In front of an almost capacity crowd – full of McMaster and Western fans – the team in white and purple got out to an early lead.
They forced a McMaster safety before quarterback Evan Hillock found receiver Griffin Campbell for a catch-and-run 62-yard touchdown.
The Mustangs moved the ball down the field with explosive plays. On the other side, the Marauders couldn’t generate much offence of their own. Western stopped their running game, and passes were dropped and broken up.
Hillock threw another touchdown to Justin Nickson, and the visitors marched it down the field and scored from near the goal-line on three drives.
The rushing attack proved to be a notable difference. Western had 240 yards and three touchdowns – including 107 yards and a touchdown from Keon Edwards – while McMaster had 48 yards and one touchdown.
“I think their run game is one of the best in the country,” McMaster head coach Stefan Ptaszek said. “Our defence wasn’t losing first down in the first half and doing a decent job of stopping the run.”
Ptaszek credited the Mustangs’ quick passing game. Hillock finished by completing 21 of 25 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns. Campbell had 96 yards receiving, Nickson had 64, and Savaughn Maganaye-Jones had 85. The Marauders had 242 yards of total offence to Western’s 571.
“Offensively, our inability to establish the run and our inconsistency in our short passing game and we were two and out too much,” Ptaszek noted. “Against a good football team, you can’t put the defence in that situation.”
That one Marauder rushing touchdown came late in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided.
Backup quarterback Keagan Hall led the drive downfield and scrambled for a 12-yard run into the end zone. He’s thrown for two touchdown passes in his career, but it was his first rushing one.
Ptaszek called him a competitor and a fantastic college-skilled quarterback. “He’s a football player that happens to play quarterback, not a quarterback that happens to play football,” he added. “I think you saw that. He’s not afraid to get his fingernails dirty, and he wants to compete, and he loves the sport.”
The Marauders competed but were down 33-0 at halftime and 47-14 by the final whistle. “There was no plan I could have called that would have made a difference,” Ptaszek said. “Each of us has to do everything a little better.”
“The whole organization’s going to point a lot of thumbs this week,” he added. “What can I do better? What did I screw up as opposed to pointing any fingers?”
Heading into the game, Ptaszek said Marauders defensive coordinator Scott Brady had a good plan to put the defence in good spots to make plays.
However, they were worn down in the first half from being on the field. “Most game plans hinge on a few inches here and there, and if you’re on the field too much, they unravel pretty quickly,” Ptaszek noted.
Defensive back Josh Cumber said despite the score; the Marauders learned they can play with the Mustangs at a lot of levels. “Our front seven played incredible against the run,” he added. “We let up too many explosive plays.”
The Marauders emphasized stopping the run game beforehand. However, the Mustangs had many short catch-and-run plays.
“In terms of the explosive plays, we may have been expecting more stuff over the top rather than the short stuff,” Cumber added. “In that situation, it’s man on man; you can’t expect one thing to happen. You’ve got to be ready for anything.”
Cumber said the Marauders had a next-play attitude despite falling behind. “If you worry about the stuff that happened previously, then the stuff that happens in the future is going to get you too,” he said.
That attitude helped them as they made defensive stops in the fourth quarter and closed the margin of defeat.
Three years ago, the Marauders beat the Mustangs in London in the Yates Cup finals. Now, Western is leading the OUA and beat McMaster 47-14. Ptaszek said the gap between the teams isn’t as much as the score indicates. However, a key factor is the line of scrimmage.
“You need to have a critical mass to compete with this team, and if you do not, your margins become very tight,” he noted. “You need to be able to carve out a bit of a run game and add a little bit at the line of scrimmage, and then all the other things start to matter.”
Now, the team faces an important stretch run. Cumber said the Western game and every game going forward is a playoff game for them.
If the Marauders win two of their final three games – on the road against Guelph and Queen’s and at home against Toronto – they would finish 3-5. Ptaszek said there are a ton of scenarios where the Marauders can get in the playoffs with that record. He said the team still controls their destiny, as a 4-4 finish would get them into the playoffs.
Their next game is on the road against a Guelph Gryphons team also fighting for their playoff lives, also at 1-4. It’s also coming on a short week of rest from McMaster, while Guelph is coming off a bye week.
“We both must win, and so it should be an interesting battle of Highway Six,” Ptaszek said.
Featured Image: Western Athletics