Montréal, Quebec –After 12 weeks of U SPORTS football action, we’re finally within spitting distance of the Vanier Cup. Four teams still remain for this week’s national semifinals, the Uteck Bowl and the Mitchell Bowl to determine who will go to Kingston, Ont. on Nov. 25.
On one side of the isle is the Uteck Bowl, featuring the three-time reigning OUA champion Western Mustangs and the 2023 Dunsmore Cup champions of the RSEQ in Quebec, the Montréal Carabins.
The Mustangs missed out on a shot to play for the Vanier Cup at their home turf by losing to Laval in the 2022 Mitchell Bowl and opened 2023 looking to get right back to this spot. The Carabins, essentially have been a coinflip away from this spot every season, going back and forth with the Laval Rouge et Or, winning the provincial title in 2021 before losing on a walk-off rouge last season.
Let’s break down how these two teams square off ahead of Saturday’s matchup.
After defeating the No. 3 Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks 29-14 in the Yates Cup, the top-ranked Western Mustangs head to their second Uteck Bowl in three seasons. They’ll have to travel to unfamiliar territory, as no player, coach or staff member on Western’s roster has ever stepped foot on CEPSUM Stadium — the University of Montreal Carabins’ field — in a Mustangs uniform.
Even without home field advantage though, the Mustangs as battered and beaten as they have become this season look to be in a strong position.
Western has not lost a game since the 2022 Mitchell Bowl and considering everything they have been through this year that’s kind of incredible. Offensively the Mustangs saw their ground game get decimated as the season wore on, first by the loss of Keanu Yazbeck to a broken fibula in their 66-24 win against Toronto in Week 7 before losing 2022 OUA MVP Keon Edwards to injury in their 33-30 win over Laurier in Week 8.
Yet in almost prototypical Western fashion, it simply became next man up as freshman replacement Evan Dolby proceeded to pick up 57 yards and a touchdown in the Mustangs’ 47-20 win over Queen’s in the Yates Cup semifinal before adding another 120 yards in the Yates Cup.
The Western run game will be up against their toughest challenge though in a Montréal defence, led by the RSEQ Most Oustanding Defensive Player in linebacker Harold Miessan that only gave up 93 points on the season.
“I really believe that the key to Montréal’s success this year is their ability to play defense and provide their offence with opportunities and field position,” Western head coach Greg Marshall said in the Uteck Bowl Press Conference. “They have a great punter, they cover kicks well, they pin you in and the defence does not give up a lot.”
That defensive pressure will put more weight onto the shoulders of Western pivot Evan Hillock. Hillock in his third season as a Mustang broke every personal best throwing for 304.9 yards per game and pickup up 19 touchdown passes, the most in the OUA.
Hillock’s growth and ability to adapt to more opportunoity has definitely stood out to his coach.
“He [Hillock] has definitely improved,” Marshall said. “That just comes with another year of experience; certainly, we’ve thrown the ball more, and that’s been out of necessity and using your team’s abilities.”
Facing off against one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Jonathan Sénécal, Hillock will have to be at his best to help Western get back to the Vanier Cup.
It was ride or die with Jonathan Sénécal in the Dunsmore Cup and even despite his struggles in their 12-6 win over Laval it’ll be ride or die until the end of the season for Montréal.
A 3rd year quarterback, and the 2023 RSEQ Player of the Year, Sénécal finished with a league-high 15 touchdown passes while throwing for 2215 yards, second all-time in Carabins history. While he wasn’t the problem against Laval he was definitely average by his standards throwing 18-26 for 175 yards.
Still a first quarter pick-six fron Kaylyn St-Cyr and some badly timed penalties for the Rouge et Or helped Montréal get back to the Uteck Bowl for the first time since losing to Saskatchewan in 2021.
That means another chance for Sénécal to show why he’s been one of the top quarterbacks in the country and the Mustangs recognize that.
“He’s (Sénécal) special,” Greg Marshall said. “He has the ability to make all the throws, he reads the field, he knows when to throw the football, he’s dangerous with his legs, he’s a great runner a great competitor.”
“You are not gonna shut down him the entire game, you just hope that you slow him down a little bit.”
For the Carabins the mission this year has been pretty simple, win like they haven’t been able to the last couple of seasons.
“We finished our 2021 season with a tough loss to Saskatchewan in the last minute of the game, we suffered a tough loss last year in the Dunsmore Cup on the last play of the game,” Carabins head coach Marco Iadeluca said. “Most of the players we have on our team have been part of those two teams so I think from the off-season from the get-go…we had a mission from day one and we wanted to get to those games and finish them differently.”
The Carabins looked to be on their way to a perfect season before collapsing in a 16-14 loss to Concordia in Week 8. They rebounded though by beating Sherbrooke by 54 in the semifinal, setting up their eventual win vs Laval.
The Uteck Bowl is a tale of two teams trying to finish off what they couldn’t do in previous seasons. The Mustangs to get back to the Vanier Cup for the first time since winning 2021 and the Carabins looking to return for the first time since losing in 2019.
With the fact that the conference that gets to play the AUS representative, (this year Canada West) has made the Vanier Cup for 16 consecutive seasons entering Saturday, some say that the other bowl matchup is really more like another Vanier Cup in its own right and this matchup is no different.
If Montreal is looking to get back to the Vanier Cup for the first time since 2019, they’ll have to take full advantage of being at home and bring as much pressure to Western quarterback Evan Hillock as possible. For the Mustangs, they just have to keep their cool in this new environment and maintain their second-half dominance they’ve shown all season.
The semifinal game kicks off in Montreal on Saturday at 12 p.m. EST.
With files from Richard Coffey