WATERLOO, ON – For the first time in a decade, the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks men’s football team will play for the Yates Cup after the fifth-ranked team in the country defeated the No. 7 McMaster Marauders 21-19 in their OUA Semifinal matchup on Saturday afternoon at University Stadium.
Hosting a semifinal game for the first time since 2009, the Golden Hawks built up a 21-6 lead on the strength of quarterback Michael Knevel of Brantford, Ont., before holding off the Marauders late to advance to their first Yates Cup final since 2006.
“What a unbelievable performance by our guys today,” said Michael Faulds after recording his second career playoff victory as Laurier’s head coach. “This game felt a lot like the Guelph game, how we had a lead at half time. So it almost came all the way back against us, but obviously we made a great defensive stand and we made enough first downs towards the end of the game to run the clock out.”
Making his first career playoff start, Knevel showed little signs of nerves as he led Laurier through the air and on the ground. He connected with receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. of Ottawa, on a 63-yard touchdown for the game’s first major of the day before setting up Laurier’s second touchdown, a one-yard run by Osayi Iginuan of Hamilton, with a 65-yard dash late in the second quarter.
When all was said and done, Knevel finished the day 11-of-18 for 159 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 85 yards on three carries, earning him Porter Player of the Game honours.
“Knevel was unreal today,” said Faulds on his starting quarterback. “Even at the end there, we were like ‘Michael, you’re going to have to throw it’ and he threw it. He was calm back there, and using his legs. He hadn’t used his legs a ton this year, and we knew they hadn’t seen it on film, so he was able to turn that into a couple of huge runs today.”
Laurier’s defence, the backbone of their team all season, was once again at their finest on Saturday afternoon. The Hawks shut down the Marauders run game, holding them to just 39 yards on the day, and although they allowed McMaster quarterback Asher Hastings of Regina, Sask., to throw from 336 yards, they picked off the Marauders pivot three times while sacking him another three times.
However, their biggest play of the game came late in the fourth quarter when on a third and one rush, they stopped Hastings short near midfield, turning over the ball and allowing the Hawks to run out the clock.
“There’s so much strength inside, with Jalen and Emerson and Trevaughan, they just hit those gaps, and then Asher couldn’t go anywhere and then from the outside we came in and caved in and they couldn’t move anywhere,” said defensive lineman Kwaku Boateng of Milton, Ont., on the defensive stand. “It all goes to Coach V’s [VanMoerkerke] prep and then we just executed on the field.”
Despite the win, the game got off to an inauspicious start as Hawks starting running back Eric Guiltinan of London, Ont., went down with an injury just five minutes into the contest. That forced backups Levondre Gordon of Mississauga, Ont., and Iginuan into the spotlight to carry the load for the rest of the contest where they both stepped up.
On the same drive the Guiltinan went down, a 16-yard run from Gordon set up the game’s first score, a 28-yard field goal from Nathan Mesher of Waterloo, Ont., to give Laurier a 3-0 lead.
The Marauders would tie the game on a field goal of their own, a 27-yard boot from Adam Preocanin of Burlington, Ont., but the deadlock was short-lived as on the next possession, Knevel hit Gittens Jr. over the middle before the Hawks’ speedster outran a pair of Marauder defensive backs to give Laurier a 10-3 edge.
Laurier would stretch their lead to 10 midway through the second quarter thanks to a misplay by McMaster punt returner Aaron Baker of Scarborough, Ont. Baker bobbled a Mesher punt which was promptly scooped up Brandon Calver of London, Ont. Two plays later, Mesher connected on a 31-yard field goal attempt to give the Hawks a 13-3 lead.
Preocanin would pull McMaster three points closer but the Hawks responded on the next possession. On the first play of their drive after the McMaster field goal, Laurier surprised the Marauders with a quarterback sneak from Knevel. The 6-5 pivot took off for 65 yards before being caught and three plays later, Iginuan punched the ball in from the one-yard line, putting Laurier up 20-6 at the half.
The opening play of the second half saw Nathan McLean of Kitchener, Ont., send his kickoff through the endzone, giving Laurier what would turn out to be a crucial point, and their only point of the second half, staking Laurier a 21-6 advantage.
McMaster took control of the game from there, limiting the Hawks to just 53 yards of offence in the half, while putting the pressure on the home team.
Late in the third, the Marauders finally found the endzone as Hastings connected with Dan Petermann of Stoney Creek, Ont., on a nine-yard pass to pull McMaster to within eight points.
After Laurier’s defence held strong for much of the fourth quarter, including a crucial interception by Taylor Calverley of Pottageville, Ont., the Marauders finally broke through again as Max Cameron of St. Catharines, Ont., found the endzone on a 15-yard pass from Hastings to make the score 21-19.
Needing a two-point conversion to tie the game, Hastings pass went well wide of his intended receiver, maintaining Laurier’s lead.
McMaster’s final chance of the game came with two minutes to go in the contest. After starting on their own 33-yard line, the Marauders got one first down before the Hawks defensive line stood tall on 3rd-and-1, giving Laurier the ball back and the victory.
Outside of Knevel, other Hawks to shine on the afternoon included Gordon, who filled in admirably for Guiltinan as he ran the ball 22 times for 92 yards. Through the air, Gittens Jr. finished with three catches for 72 yards while on defence, Calverley, Isaiah Guzylak-Messam of Hamilton, and Ron Kinga of Guelph, Ont., had interceptions. Rashari Henry of Ottawa, contributed with two sacks while Calverley also led the tackle effort with a game-high eight.
For McMaster, Petermann was the main beneficiary of the Marauders passing attack as he had 15 catches for 131 yards while Dan Vandervoort of Barrie, Ont., had 11 receptions for 116 yards. On defence, Keldyn Ahlstedt of Whitby, Ont., had a team-high 6.5 tackles.
Laurier now turns their attention to their third playoff matchup against Western in three years as they prepare to square off for the 109th Yates Cup. The game is set for Saturday, November 12 at TD Stadium in London and will be broadcast live on CHCH.
NOTES: Laurier will play in their 22nd Yates Cup final…the Hawks have won seven of those appearances, defeating Western for four of those victories…Laurier and Western will be meeting for the Yates Cup for the 14th times…Attendance at the game was 2128