Stage set for UBC vs. St. FX, Western vs. Montreal in U Sports national semi-finals

Photo courtesy: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

Conference championships have been doled out and national bragging rights are now up for grabs, as the 2023 U Sports season rolls into its penultimate weekend.

The top seeds prevailed in all four games last week, leaving us with a pair of blue-blood matchups in the national semi-finals on Saturday, November 18. For Western and St. FX, this is a chance to correct last year’s mistakes. For Montreal and UBC, it is an opportunity to climb back up to the mountaintop after a brief hiatus.

Here’s everything you need to know about the last step on the road to the Vanier Cup.

Uteck Bowl: Western Mustangs (10-0) at Montreal Carabins (9-1) — 12:00 p.m. EST

The Western Mustangs are back in a national semi-final for a third straight year and the sixth time in the last ten seasons, drawing the short straw in a matchup against the RSEQ. Last year, it was the eventual Vanier Cup champions Laval who derailed their chance for back-to-back titles, but the Rouge et Or are gone and the Carabins will take their place.

The Dunsmore Cup champions run through their quarterback, RSEQ MVP Jonathan Senecal. The highly-touted transfer from the University of Connecticut has blossomed in his third U Sports season, finishing fourth in the country with 2,215 passing yards and setting a new school record with 15 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. He’s also a threat to beat you with his legs, running for 394 yards and six majors.

Western’s Evan Hillock is on the very short list of pivots that are on Senecal’s level, finishing above him with 2,439 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, and three interceptions. He’ll need a clean pocket to find his gaggle of OUA all-star receivers, however, as a lower-body injury suffered in last week’s Yates Cup victory could prove troublesome.

As always, the Mustangs can lean on the ground game, though perennial Hec Crighton contender Keon Edwards is no longer available due to a broken foot. Troy Thompson and Ethan Dolby have shouldered the load in his absence, but will now come up against a front anchored by J.P. Metras nominee Christopher Fontenard at defensive tackle and featuring both reigning President’s Trophy winner Nicky Farinaccio and 2023 nominee Harold Miessan at linebacker.

This could come down to which secondary can lock up the opposing receivers and generate timely turnovers against these efficient quarterbacks. There are elite cornerbacks on both sides in Montreal’s Kalyn St-Cyr and Western’s Richard Aduboffour, with opportunistic Mustang safety Jackson Findlay also looming on the backend.

Mitchell Bowl: St. FX X-Men (10-0) at UBC Thunderbirds (8-2) — 3:00 p.m. EST

Not since 2007 has a team from the AUS been able to book their ticket to the Vanier Cup but St. FX came awfully close last year, losing by just 17 points to Saskatchewan in a game they kept tied until the fourth quarter. They are back for more against a UBC team that has fond memories of their last clash with the X-Men, which set the stage for an unlikely national championship in 2015.

Unlike the undefeated Maritimers, the Thunderbirds nearly didn’t make it to this point. A hotly contested Hardy Cup came down to the final play, with the home side needing a miraculous touchdown from SFU football alumni Sam Davenport and a walk-off extra point from Kieran Flannery-Fleck to secure a one-point victory.

Comebacks like those are possible when you have an elite quarterback like Garrett Rooker, who atoned for earlier mistakes by connecting with speedster Shemar McBean for a field-flipping play on the final drive. The Texas gunslinger has bounced back spectacularly from a hip fracture that kept him out of the playoffs last year, throwing for 2,266 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions this season.

The X-Men have their own star at quarterback in veteran Silas Fagnan, who was named AUS MVP after throwing for 2,075 yards, 13 touchdowns, and six interceptions. No receiver in the country averaged more than Zachary Houde’s 110.3 yards per game either, but the visiting offence will still unquestionably be driven by running back Malcolm Bussey.

The thousand-yard rusher missed the Loney Bowl with injury but is expected to return this week against a UBC team that has been torched along the ground in both their playoff games, despite an all-star crew of linebackers in Ryan Baker, Jaxon Ciraolo-Brown, and the criminally underrated Mitchell Townsend.

Of course, the real star power in this game is actually along the offensive line, where reigning J.P. Metras Trophy winner Theo Benedet and his behemoth counterpart Giovanni Manu bookend a Thunderbird’s front that has kept Rooker clean all season and helped fuel a dangerous running game with Isaiah Knight. They’ll both be tested in this game by Ottawa Redblacks’ draft pick and two-time AUS Lineman of the Year Alexander Fedchun, before receiving considerable NFL interest this offseason.