This year’s path to the Canadian university football national championship, the Vanier Cup, saw remarkable twists and turns along the way. In particular, the teams playing in Saturday’s Uteck Bowl, one of the two national semifinals, weren’t even determined until Tuesday, thanks to the Atlantic University Sport conference initially cancelling its Loney Bowl conference championship over an eligibility issue for the Saint Mary’s Huskies and declaring the Axemen the winner, the Huskies taking the conference to court and forcing AUS to hold the game, and Acadia eventually prevailing in that game with a thrilling 45-38 overtime win. However, that meant the Axemen had only a few days to prepare to face the Ontario University Athletics champion Western Mustangs in Saturday’s Uteck Bowl, and that didn’t go so well for them, as Western posted an incredible 81-3 win.
That result marked the largest margin of victory and the most points scored in Uteck Bowl history. Western also posted 472 yards on offence to Acadia’s 61. And that gap could have been even bigger, as the Mustangs put in backups in the second half; quarterback Chris Merchant left with a remarkable stat line of 10 completions on 11 attempts for 200 yards and two touchdowns, plus six carries for 54 yards and two touchdowns. The possession results further suggest Western took their foot off the gas a bit:
— Rick Zamperin (@rickzamperin) November 18, 2017
It shouldn’t be presumed that this was all about the rest, as there was a big divide between Western and Acadia beyond that. The Mustangs have been highly ranked all season, posted a perfect 8-0 mark in conference play, and were ranked second nationally heading into this one following a 75-32 crushing of the Laurier Golden Hawks in last week’s Yates Cup (the OUA championship). By contrast, the Axemen went 6-2 during the season, were outside of the Top 10 for much of the year, and were ranked seventh heading into this game.
There’s long been plenty of debate about the quality of AUS football (which only has four teams) and if the conference deserves a national semifinal slot; the last AUS win in a national semifinal came when Saint Mary’s beat Laval in the 2007 Uteck Bowl, so this was the 10th-straight loss for the conference. But the short rest and limited time to prepare may well have exacerbated things, and made this much more of a blowout than it would have been otherwise. As Neate Sager wrote at The CIS Blog earlier this week, that’s the real problem with how this court battle played out:
Three days to heal up to play a very physical, much more rested Western Mustangs team reeks of a ritual sacrifice, but that’s not for a court to decide.
…The devil is in the details; but sometimes it’s in the practical reality that is outside the purview of the court. The ruling puts the winning team in a scenario of playing twice in five days since the Uteck Bowl against Western is scheduled for Saturday. That’s an unfair strain on NFL players, just ask Richard Sherman, never mind student-athletes. The ideal recovery period after a football game is six or seven days. Now it’s been pared to three. It is still outside of a 72-hour rule that Football Canada has on the books (i.e., no team can play twice within 72 hours), but it cuts it awfully close.
That’s the real scandal. The blame for that falls squarely on AUS and U Sports for the heavy-handed extralegal scramble drill that was conducted last Thursday after Saint Mary’s began seeking its injunction in Ontario.
This is also unfortunate for the Mustangs, who have a bit of a mark hanging over the win as a result. It’s still a thoroughly impressive showing from them, and they likely would have won this regardless of the amount of rest Acadia had. But the way this played out means even a dominant win is a little less remarkable. Of course, the advantage of the Canadian university playoff system is that style points and rankings don’t matter, and Western will get to play for the national title in next week’s Vanier Cup (against the winner of the Mitchell Bowl between Calgary and Laval, which is currently underway). And this may lead to further discussions of attempts to build a national schedule, improve quality of play beyond the top teams, and not give AUS a guaranteed semifinal spot, and that could be positive. There also might be more robust discussion of and clarification of eligibility rules to prevent something like this from happening again. But for now, the court saga ends with a blowout.
[Photo from the USPORTS Twitter account]