It was a gutsy move by Canadian Interuniversity Sport standards, benching the starting quarterback midway through the season – a senior, no less – in favour of an unproved backup.
Tristan Grenon had guided the Laval Rouge et Or to the Vanier Cup in 2012 but this season was not performing to the high standards in which the Quebec school football team operates, which have led them to the precipice of their eighth national title in just 18 years of the program’s history.
Although the Rouge et Or were an unblemished 4-0 back in September and, at the time, ranked No.1 in the country, head coach Glen Constantin made the difficult decision to start Alex Skinner in Grenon’s place.
“I think we owe it to the team to have the best kids on the field and give us the best opportunity to win,” Constantin said in an interview. “People understand that when you come to Laval we do everything we can to compete.”
With Skinner at the helm, the sputtering Rouge et Or offence began to play with more consistency and Laval concluded the season undefeated and now head into Saturday’s national championship in Quebec City as the overwhelming favourite.
Laval’s opponent will be the Calgary Dinos, who last week shocked the nation when they upended the previously undefeated and No.1-ranked Western Mustangs.
Both the Rouge et Or and the Dinos sport identical 11-0 records and Saturday’s game will mark the fourth time in the past six years that the two institutions have squared off on the national stage, including a decisive 29-2 Laval win in the 2010 Vanier Cup.
It will be Laval’s record-setting fourth consecutive trip to the Vanier Cup and perhaps its most arduous journey.
After leading Laval to a convincing 37-14 win over McMaster in last year’s championship game, Grenon appeared tentative to start the 2013 season in the Quebec conference.
Although the Rouge et Or won their first four games, Grenon threw only two touchdowns. He completed just 51.5 per cent (51 of 95) of his passes for 586 yards.
Laval relied heavily on a top-notch defence that held opponents to an average of 11.5 points a game in the regular season, the stingiest outfit in the nation.
The tipping point with the quarterback, as far as Constantin was concerned, occurred in Week 4, a conference game against Montreal where Laval was hard-pressed to earn a 16-9 victory.
“I don’t know if he was having trouble dealing with the pressure, but he was having a difficult season,” Constantin said of Grenon. “It was a difficult situation but he took it in stride and for that I must commend him.
“He became Alex’s best supporter and displayed a great example of a team-first attitude.”
The following week against Bishop’s, Constantin elected to go with Skinner as his starter and Skinner wound up leading Laval to a 46-38 shootout over the Gaiters in his first CIS start.
Skinner, in his third year, threw for two touchdowns and 281 yards, Laval’s season high.
He finished the season completing 68.6 per cent (72 of 105) of his attempts for 1,013 yards and eight TD passes.
If Skinner is sharp Saturday, it could be a long day for the Calgary defence, which surrendered a healthy 330.6 passing yards a game in the regular season.
Calgary will try to counter with a high-powered ground attack that averaged 232 yards a game to lead the CIS.