In normal circumstances, it would be hard to believe a football game from 22 months ago would have an impact on one scheduled for Saturday.
But if it was a big one and you lost it and it just happens to be the last one you got to play before the pandemic, then, yeah, it would certainly gnaw at you quite a bit.
There is a not-so-subtle revenge tone to the Western Mustangs’ prep work for the Ontario University football season opener against McMaster at revamped TD Stadium this weekend. On their last visit, the Marauders won the 2019 Yates Cup 29-15 and have owned bragging rights throughout the pandemic and a cancelled 2020 campaign.
“When you don’t win the last game, you want to get back and play the next day,” Western head coach Greg Marshall said. “It’s been a long wait and it’s appropriate it is McMaster coming in here again. I’ve looked at the film dozens of times since we played that last game and certainly this week many times.”
He saw a number of little things that changed the outcome, plus a need to protect the football and their starting quarterback better. All of that has been discussed with players and the plan is to unveil it straight from opening kickoff.
“This is the most talented, balanced (and) best team I’ve been a part of,” Western star defensive end Deionte Knight said, “and we’re going to execute perfectly and dominate. This defence is going to turn a lot of heads. We’re going to establish a running game early and play physical football. We’re going to play fast and confident. We’re going in with the mindset we have everything to lose, we’ve improved in all areas of the game and (Mac) is coming in on the high horse.”
Of course, no one has beaten the Mustangs in their last 30 regular-season games stretching back to 2016. But for those ready to automatically chalk up another 8-0 record for the local university, it’s simply not going to happen.
That’s because the schedule has been clipped to six games and the league rearranged into two divisions as a COVID-19 response. At every practice, one-half of the roster has to get dressed and take the field before the other to limit the number of people in the building.
On Saturday, there will be two teams that must first stay apart while getting dressed to smash into each other in close quarters on the field. The ability to navigate the protocols and restrictions properly in every game will likely determine if there will be another one played the following week.
“A lot different (with) a lot more moving parts,” Marshall said. “It’s making sure players have their vaccination statuses uploaded. When you’re dealing with 100 young boys, sometimes, yeah, it’s been interesting. When we’re on the field, it’s football. We have a great group of kids. The energy has been awesome.”
The atmosphere in the stands is to be determined. Western is currently operating at a limited capacity of 60 per cent of its west grandstand (3,211 seats) and tickets had to be purchased online. Over in Quebec, Laval — already three games in — and Montreal expect to play in front of 8,000 people this weekend
“It is what it is,” Marshall said. “We have to work with our Middlesex-London Health Unit, the university and Ontario government. I’m not jealous. We might get there. We’ll get this first game under our belt and make sure everything goes well. I love having our fans and supporters at the games, but for me, it’s just getting back to seeing our student-athletes participating again. For me, it’s the game. I’m focused on that and trying to separate that from everything else going on.
“Hopefully, we can get some students to come out and be part of the community. We need kind of a shot in the arm right now, and we’re really looking forward to this weekend.”
The baseball Majors are in the playoffs and the Knights have already played an exhibition hockey game, but the football Mustangs remain a big part of the local sports scene yet to play during the pandemic.
“We know this is a historically significant game and for London, the biggest audience for a live event in almost two years now,” Knight said. “We know what kind of weight that has and the energy in our locker room in terms of the community. Our coaches prepared us for any situation and we’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.”
GETTING STARTED . . .
Game time: Western vs. McMaster, 1 p.m. at TD Stadium.
Tickets: Must be ordered online with limited capacity. Gates open 90 minutes before the game. Each fan aged 12 and older must have government-issued ID and present proof of full vaccination received at least 14 days prior to game day.
Players to watch in the OUA West Division
Western: Jackson White, QB. The former Marauder will face his old team in his first eligible game since transferring to the Mustangs in 2019.
McMaster: Justice Allin, RB. Averaged 7.2 yards per carry for the 2019 Ontario champs and should get the rock a bunch more as a veteran.
Waterloo: Tre Ford, QB. He was the conference MVP in 2018, followed up with a stellar 2019 season and is hard to stop a runner or a passer.
Guelph: Clark Barnes, WR. The game changer scored three touchdowns on returns in three weeks in 2019 as a rookie. Now, the Gryphons will look to get the ball into his hands more through the air.
Laurier: Tommy Bringi, LB. The speedy six-foot, 217-pound London native was an OUA all-star in 2019 and finished third in the league with 41.5 tackles.
Windsor: Sam Girard, QB. Coach Jean-Paul Circelli’s signal-caller threw for 2,259 yards in 2019 — fourth behind Ford, Mac’s Andreas Dueck and Western’s Chris Merchant.