Friday, August 29, 2008

CIS Countdown #1: Laval Rouge et Or

Fast facts: Laval motored through last season until the Uteck Bowl, when it was overwhelmed by a great defensive play from Saint Mary's, who outemotioned and outworked a team that hadn't lost a meaningful game in two years. Laval was still lights-out better than most of its opponents all season and will return most of its offensive and defensive lines, while one can only assume fourth-year QB Benoit Groulx, who is trying to match Mathieu Bertrand's feat of winning two Vanier Cups as a starting quarterback, itching to play a full season after a high ankle sprain limited him for much of last season.

Groulx's backfield mate, Pierre-Luc Yao, has moved on, but Guillaume Allard-Caméus and Samuel Fournier, among others, should be able to provide a running game. Defensively, Laval has its entire front four back and shouldn't suffer a huge drop-off from last season, when it had the second-ranked D in the CIS next to Saint Mary's.

The schedule also stacks up favourably, with only one cross-over game, against a very young Acadia team. As well, in the CIS rotation, it's Quebec's turn to host a semi-final game. All-time, Laval is 1-3 when it's had to travel for the natinnl semi-final, but is 3-0 when it's been able to play at PEPS Stadium.

Coach: Glen Constantin (8th season)

Co-ordinators: Justin Éthier, offence; Marc Fortier, defence; Francesco Pepe Esposito, special teams

Enrolment: 28,902

Alumni in the CFL: Eskimos FB Mathieu Bertrand and RB Pierre-Luc Yao, Stampeders DL Miguel Robede, Blue Bombers OL Alexandre Gauthier and Dominic Picard, Alouettes S Pascal Masson, Alouettes LB Mathieu Proulx. Former linebacker Sébastien Sejean, a native of France, is also on the St. Louis Rams development team.

Famous non-football alumni: Former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Louis St. Laurent, and Brian Mulroney; Conrad Black, former author and businessman; basically every single politician in the history of Québec.

Three-year record: 23-1

2007 unit rankings: 3rd on offence, 2nd on defence

Key losses: RB Pierre-Luc Yao, WR-KR Duane John, LB Éric Maranda, DB Jean Petit-Frère, DL Roody Jean

Returning starters: Groulx's blocking group includes three returnees -- Luc Brodeur-Jourdain (an Alouettes draft choice), Louis-David Gagné and Vincent Turgeon. The front four essentially returns intact with Étienne Légaré, Jean-Philippe Gilbert and ends Marc-Antoine Beaudoin-Cloutier and Jean-Philippe Cormier, plus whoever else rotates in on passing downs.

Defensive halfback Samuel Lajoie and Jonathan Laliberte also bear watching. Defensive

Players to watch: Groulx completed 72% of his attempts in the four games where he was able to play. He was sacked eight times against just 100 attempts, which was actually up from 2006, when he was dropped just six times. It's not surprising that there's been rumblings his backups Cesar-Roberto Sanchez and Bruno Prud'homme, getting some major burn. Chances are, it's just a smokescreen.

The Rouge et Or could also have a rookie starting left tackle, David Bouchard,

For future reference: Laval's 26-member recruiting class should offer a few players who can shore up holes on the roster right away. In addition to Bouchard, the likely suspects include linebacker Samuel Lavaud and 300-lb. defensive tackle Philippe Lemire.

Former Edmonton Wildcats tailback Tristan Jones (son of 1980s CFL fullback Milson Jones, who won a couple Grey Cup rings in his day) initally committed to Laval in the summer. There is talk that he has left Laval's camp.

Schedule (swing games in bold):
Sept. 7 Montréal
Sept. 13 @ Acadia
Sept. 20 @ Concordia (RDS)
Sept. 28 Concordia
Oct. 3 @ McGill (RDS)
Oct. 11 @ Bishop's (RDS)
Oct. 19 Sherbrooke (RDS)
Oct. 25 McGill

The Rouge et Or play home-and-home series with Concordia and McGill.

Final analysis: They still have to play the games of course, but it would be surprising if Laval's not headed west for a national semi-final on Nov. 15 as they go after Vanier Cup No. 5, which would move the program within one of Western's record six.

An Ottawa-Laval Vanier Cup, with Josh Sacobie trying to pick apart an airtight Rouge et Or defence, well, that doesn't sound half-bad at all.

Constantin's crew has a little more to play for after last season's unravelling. Winning three national titles in four years can cause everyone work just little less harder, regardless of if anyone's willing to admit to it. Getting the Vanier back is a motivating factor for the one team in the country for whom No. 2 is not good enough.

(Contributors to this preview: Rob Pettapiece and Duane Rollins, with special thanks to Laval SID Jérôme Pelletier.)

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