HAMILTON — Today's Vanier Cup was an impressive victory by the Rouge et Or to be sure, as most 44-21 affairs are, but I'm not convinced that it "was never for a moment in doubt." [Shi Davidi, The Canadian Press via The Globe and Mail]. Yes, the Rouge et Or were the much stronger team all day, but they didn't actually score until less than three minutes were left in the first quarter, and that was only a field goal. They didn't get a touchdown until 7:17 of the second quarter. Perhaps we could have called it after their second touchdown just over a minute later, but you never want to discount a Greg Marshall team in the area of cardiac comebacks.
It wasn't until 41-21 early in the fourth that I felt confident enough to write Western off, and they even made me question that a couple times with near-comeback moves. Still, the best team won by quite a lot (they even covered that 19.5 point spread [James Mirtle, The Globe and Mail], which I thought was ridiculous.) There's no question that Western was considerably outclassed. Laval certainly proved that they're no paper tiger, and they look set to continue that dominance for some time to come.
Western shouldn't be in for too much criticism, though. They played hard, and they played with heart even when conditions turned rotten (er, snowy) and everything seemed to be going against them. As Davidi notes, they hung more points on Laval than any team had done yet this season (the previous high was Concordia's 17 in the Quebec final). For a few minutes, they looked like they might even be able to pull off the comeback. Laval was on another level, though, and you'd have to play perfect football to beat them. With four turnovers (two fumbles and two interceptions), many of which led directly to Laval points, Western's game wasn't perfect.
Some statistical points of note:
- Western actually gained more first downs than Laval (28-19), as many of Laval's TDs came on long passes and runs.
- Laval proved they could get it done on the ground in a way they rarely had all season. They ran 25 times for 197 yards, an average of 7.9 yards per rush (granted, much of that is from Sebastien Levesque's 63-yard touchdown dash up the middle, but that's still impressive). That rushing threat opened up even more opportunities for the passing attack.
- Benoit Groulx proved to be an absolutely deserving Hec Creighton recipient. He threw for 384 yards, which would have been the second-highest total in Vanier history and the highest total in a non-overtime game. The record is still Brent Schneider from Saskatchewan, who threw for 528 yards against Western in 1994's overtime thriller (and still lost, 50-40). Interestingly enough, the previous second man on the list was Warren Goldie, Western's quarterback in 1994, who had 360 yards. He's now Queen's offensive coordinator.
- Groulx was crazily efficient, though: those yards came on only 17 completed passes (22.5 yards per catch). On the day, Groulx was 17 for 27 (62.9 per cent), which is very good considering the conditions. He threw for two touchdowns as well.
- Michael Faulds threw for even more yards than Groulx, though, taking over those numbers from him. Faulds was not as efficient; he went 37 for 65 (56.9 per cent) with two interceptions, but he did amass 403 yards and three TDs.
- Western had no running game at all. All day, they ran the ball 12 times for 34 yards (and three of those were scrambles by Faulds for 18 yards). Running back Nathan Riva rushed eight times for 16 yards (2 yards per carry), which isn't going to get it done here. With no rushing threat to worry about, Laval was able to drop more guys into coverage, and that made the passing game tougher for Western.
- Laval's passing attack was balanced. Both) Julian Feoli-Gudino and Mathieu Bouvette were over 100 yards (112 and 118 yards on four and two catches respectively), but six other receivers caught passes. Western couldn't shut them all down, and the Rouge et Or proved great at getting yards after the catch.
- Laval won the trench war. Their linemen were pressuring Faulds all day long, sacking him five times and hurrying him into bad passes countless other times. Western picked up four sacks, but on the other plays, Groulx was relatively untouched. Laval's West Coast-style offence, based around quick, short passes with the occasional deep bomb, also requires a QB to hang on to the ball for less time. Western preferred to throw longer passes, and they weren't able to give Faulds the necessary protection for that.
- The Mustangs also lost the special teams battle. Christopher Milo averaged 59.5 yards per kickoff and 40.7 yards per punt; Mustangs kicker Darryl Wheeler only averaged 49.0 and 35.4 yards respectively. Furthermore, Laval won the punt return game: they returned seven punts for 141 yards, while Western only managed to return seven punts for 83 yards. Western was better on kickoff returns, but they often were dealing with poor field position.
Overall, it was a pretty impressive showing from the Rouge et Or. They couldn't convert early on, but they didn't make many mistakes, and they capitalized whenever Western messed up. They didn't have much offence late in the game, partly due to the conditions, and that kept Western in it longer than necessary, but Laval still was dominant. They had a tremendous day and proved themselves to yet again be the class of Canadian university football. We'll have to see if anyone can challenge them next year.