Rookie running back Jordan Botel dominated the opening half, leading the Mounties in both rushing and receiving, and scored the first of what is expected to be many touchdowns over the next few seasons as the hometown Mount Allison Mounties relished a 16-10 victory over the St. Mary's Huskies at MacAulay Field on Saturday afternoon.
The victory was the first time the Mounties had defeated the Huskies on home turf since 1998, and even though it was a pre-season exhibition, it was especially tasty for veteran players like Ben Halpern, Ryan Downe and Justin Richard.
"It wasn't quite as satisfying as our win over them two years ago in Moncton but it definitely felt great to beat those guys," Halpern commented after a game in which he played very little as the coaches took few chances of injury to key personnel.
"We held them off in the final minutes with our fourth-line linebackers and our no huddle offence took its toll on the Huskie defensive players."
While Botel – an amazing junior performer from Prince George, B.C. – was making his mark in his first AUS game, it was a sophomore who electrified the crowd of more than 1,300 with his Gary Ross style of punt returning. Donovan Saunders set up several scoring opportunities with a pair of returns that netted 98 yards and reminded fans of the form Ross showed here for five seasons as he rewrote the record books.
Asked why it took a year to realize the potential of Saunders, coach Kelly Jeffrey said the staff knew it all the time but felt it unfair to place a young rookie in such a situation so early. But he showed the coaches they have a greatly improved return game, while the special team units showed much better form. So much so that punter Kyle MacLean was not asked to kick to the sidelines as was the case last season.
And the Tantramar Titans’ contribution made its presence felt, especially with the play of Michael Bohan who was assigned one corner spot in his rookie season.
"The game at this level is a lot faster than I had imagined," said Bohan as he met with friends after the game.
"It took a couple of plays to get fairly comfortable and I am pretty happy with my role on this team and it's great to have Al Snowdon and Conrad Barczyk from Tantramar with me. They both got into the game and performed really well."
Jeffrey agreed that neither team went with their top units all afternoon but the Mounties proved they have both quality and depth in the lineup. He said some special team scheme changes have helped, and he praised Botel for his outstanding effort in his first start. He believes the team will be in much better shape for this Friday night's matchup with St. FX as several starting offensive linemen did not dress due to nagging injuries.
Defensive coordinator Scott Brady was finally smiling after a game and much of it had to do with the play of a pair of Halifax rookies, Mark Sampson and Dylan Cossar, who joined a host of other freshmen in showing much hope for the future of the program.
The visitors took a three-point bulge by the end of the opening quarter even though the Mounties had more opportunities. Kicker Brett Lauder connected on a 33-yard field goal attempt after the Mountie defense bent a little but refused to snap. Matt Kenny set the table for the locals partway through the second quarter when he stepped up to snare an interception, and five plays later Botel zipped into the end zone for his first ever university major. But the Huskies replied only a minute later as Todd Speakman caught a nine-yard pass in the end zone, leaving the visitors up 10-7 by the break.
The second half brought a new look backfield for the Mounties.
Saunders took a punt return all the way to the Huskie 12, and, off a pass from back-up quarterback Alex Field, Emmanuel Musangu promptly cuddled in an eight-yard toss to put the Mounties up to stay, and they were handed two more points late in the third as the Huskies conceded after being forced deep into the zone.
Actually, the teams were pretty even in first downs, rushing, passing and total yards. But a trio of sacks and some key interceptions made the difference. Individually, Botel was the top man on the field with 69 yards rushing and 47 through the air, while Saunders' 98 yards of returns far surpassed anyone else. Richard Deschamps a linebacker from Clarkson, Ont., led the Mounties with five tackles, a sack and a knock down but it seemed everybody got into the act.
While the Mounties players had 24 hours to enjoy the outcome, it will be a difficult week, as coaches must pare the roster to 44 for Friday in preparation for the conference opener. They have developed an entirely new following after hosting an open house practice on Friday and will have another reason for "stepping to the plate" this week as Mr. Gary Ross will be in the house. It should be interesting to see him eying Saunders as he continues to emulate the greatest.