Vanier Cup: Western exorcises demons by dominating Laval

Alex Taylor stretches out for some of his game-high 150 rushing yards. (Charity Matheson, U SPORTS)

Hurt into hunger. When the Western Mustangs contrived to hand over the Yates Cup last season, of course it was a deep cut there is nothing quite so jarring as a season that ends with a shock defeat, the other guys dog-piling on to each other, and a sudden unexpected slew of time to study for Christmas exams.

It was a double whammy for the Quebecers on the Mustangs such as linebackers Jean-Gabriel Poulin and Philippe Dion, since a win would have set up a chance to play against Laval in the national semifinal and verify the wisdom of casting their lot with Western, over in Ontario. They, and all the purple ponies, proved their point over and over on Saturday, dominating Laval in all three phases during a 39-17 win in the Vanier Cup at Tim Hortons Field.

"This all started on November 12, 2016 when we lost to Laurier," said Poulin, who was Western's second-leading tackler with seven stops. "We all looked each other in the eyes and that's when we said, 'never again; never again.' That was our saying all season.

"This means the world to all of us," added Poulin, who's from St-Nicholas, Que. "It's been four years in the making. We put 1,000 hours every year. There's no team in Canada that out-prepares us or out-works us. This means the world to everyone, not just the Quebec guys. We have guys from B.C. down to Quebec on our team who came here wanting to do this. We showed that football is strong all over Canada."

So in one sense the seeds for this triumph were sown 12 months ago. In another, it started once the mighty Mustangs, who are at the summit of Canadian university football for the first time since 1994, started recruiting in La Belle Province.  

"Oh my god, this victory means everything," Dion said as the Mustangs accepted congratulations on the field. "From the moment Coach Marcus (Chris Marcus, an assistant coach tasked with recruitng) starting talking to us, coming to Western felt right. We knew that this was a national team that had won and could win. Today we wanted to prove to the rest of the country we're not chokers.

"We wanted something different. And this year it was all about finishing. Every rep, every lift in the weight room, every sprint — finishing."

In front of a crowd of 10,754 — decent attendance but not outstanding — the game was not as close as the 22-point margin indicated. Laval came in 8-1 all-time in Vanier Cups, with the only loss in overtime, but it was never in the game after halftime. The final spread represented the Rouge et Or's worst season-ending loss since the 2001 Atlantic Bowl, when Laval coach Glen Constantin was in his first season at the helm.

Western outgained Laval 578-277 and had zero turnovers. The Rouge et Or's only touchdown in the first 3½ quarters came on a 78-yard drive late in the second quarter that was helped along by two unnecessary roughness penalties on Mustangs pass defenders. The second came in garbage time after Marshall had already received the Gatorade bath, baptized as a Vanier Cup-winning coach after 18 seasons of trying at Western and McMaster.

"I'm going to enjoy this one for a while," Marshall said. "We are not going to start looking at tape, that's for sure.

"You learn lessons either way," Marshall added. "Sometimes you learn more about yourself when you lose. You might learn more, but it's a lot better to win."

The unravelling in that 43-40 loss against Laurier — last mention of it, pinky swear — led to a ministerial shuffle in Marshall-land. The head coach became only the head coach and brought in a Londoner, Steve Snyder by way of St. Francis Xavier, as the offensive coordinator. The end result was that Western was precise and powerful, with any mental fat burned away.

The Western offensive line — centre Mark Wheatley, guards Matt Bettencourt and Grégoire Bouchard (another Quebecer), and tackles Dylan Giffen and David Brown — dictated terms to Laval's force unit all afternoon. The boxscore had Laval's all-Canadian defensive end Mathieu Betts down for 7.5 tackles, but very few came at or behind the line of scrimmage.

"Our offensive line played unbelievable," said Mustangs QB Chris Merchant, who copped MVP honours after finishing 13-of-20 for 276 passing yards and one touchdown, whilst adding 13 rushes for 89 yards and another two scores. "We wanted to contain Betts and we were able to do that. I'm going to take them all to dinner; I don't even care where, I'll let them pick."

Offensively, Merchant, graduating running back Alex Taylor and Cedric Joseph combined for 302 yards. Wide receiver Harry McMaster also torched Laval for five receptions for 115 yards, and slotback Cole Majoros had 92 on just three receptions — two inside the 20 to set up touchdowns, and one that he took all the way to open a 32-10 lead in the third quarter.

On the other side of the ball, the linebacker foursome of defensive player of the game Fraser Sopik (10 tackles, one sack), Dion, Poulin and Russ Jackson Award winner Nick Vanin were seldom out of position.

"I give them a lot of credit," Marshall said. "We made Laval pass a lot more (35 attempts from Hugo Richard) than they wanted to."

In terms of long-range perspective, it has been a while since a Vanier Cup that was played up to be close ended up so one-sided. The shallowness of OUA, where none of Western's competition was near the top of a growth cycle this season, really only served to obscure how strong Western is — once it had erased that creeping self-doubt that had been an Achilles heel in autumns past.

The Mustangs did not have to spring any surprises to beat Laval thorougly.

"I give them a lot of credit," Constantin said. "We thought we had a good read on their schemes and they didn't do anything much differently from what we expected. But what we cannot measure from film is the intensity and physicality. They were a better team today. They have a lot of character."

Scary thought, and more on this in the next post: Western loses little from its nucleus. Leading rusher Taylor and aforementioned all-Canadian left tackle Brown from the offense. The medical school-bound Vanin and safety Jesse McNair are the only sure departures on the D side.
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