Sports

Vanier Cup: Western Mustangs beat Laval for national title

By Morris Dalla Costa, The London Free Press

HAMILTON - 

There were 50 seconds left in the Vanier Cup Saturday when a couple of Western Mustangs football players snuck up on coach Greg Marshall and hit him with the Gatorade shower.

They only got his shoulder and arm.

It was about the only mistake the Mustangs made all day.

They could be forgiven for being out of practice, since they haven’t had many chances to soak the coach. It’s the first time in 23 years the Mustangs are national football champions.

The Mustangs shocked the university football world and the Laval Rouge et Or with a 39-17 win to bring home their seventh Vanier Cup at Tim Hortons Field in front of 10,754.

Their last win came in 1994 over Saskatchewan 50-40 in overtime.

As the clock wound down, 23 years of frustration gave way to wild celebrations, tears, hugs and cheering. Injured Mustang Jake Karroum was running around without a shirt.

The Laval sideline was a study in disbelief and shock. Never has a Laval team been so thoroughly beaten, both physically and on the scoreboard. The Mustangs have grown better with each game and picked the national championship to play their best game in years.

For Marshall, a heavy weight was lifted from his shoulders. It was only his second Vanier Cup appearance in 18 years as a head coach -- and his first win.

What a way to win, steering his club to a 12-0 season.

“It was a surreal feeling at the end of the game,” Marshall said. “Laval’s punting with five minutes left and they are really conceding and running the football out . . . it was like “alright, this is real, we really won.’ I’m so happy for so many kids. This is really a special group.

“For me, it’s a special day. I’ve been working hard at this for a lot of years. I thought it would be a little closer than this but I really think this is one of the best teams I’ve ever coached and certainly one of the best teams that’s played U Sports football. This is a dominant team. To win the way we won, going undefeated and doing what we did in the playoffs, I’m really proud of this team.”

Dominant was the only word that fits this team. They outscored their playoff opponents 261-64 this season. They limited Laval on Saturday to 277 yards in total offence, much of that in garbage time with the game already out of reach. They put up 578 yards of total offence, 302 of that on the ground with Alex Taylor coming back to gain 150 yards on 26 carries.

No one does that to Laval.

The Mustangs did to Laval what Laval has done to so many teams: they wore them out with tough play on both the offensive and defensive line.

Linebacker Jean-Gabriel Poulin had no doubt when this team began to build for this championship.

“I have a scoop for you,” he said. “November 15 from last year when we lost to Laurier (the Yates Cup) . . . We looked each other in the eyes and said ‘never again. We are not losing one more football game.' It’s been the fire that pushed us all year. It’s been more than a year in the making. I don’t know a group of guys that worked harder in the nation and it showed today.”

Laval was supposed to be the biggest test for a Mustangs team that people believed had not played many tough teams this year. There will be no more questions about this squad. Long-time observersfeel this could be one of the best Mustangs teams of all time.

So while many expected Laval to punch the Mustangs as hard as the Mustangs punched other teams, it was pure and simple a knockout without Laval landing many punches.

“Scheme-wise it was pretty much what we expected but they brought a lot of intensity,” said Rouge et Or quarterback Hugo Richard. “They were very physical, which was something we didn’t really see on film. It’s a championship game; we have to expect that and we did but we didn’t respond to it as well as we should have.”

To a man, the Mustangs didn’t express surprise at their performance.

“They are a powerhouse in U Sports but we just wanted to come out and run the ball down their throats and we did. It feels great,” said Mustangs quarterback Chris Merchant. “We worked hard and I’m not surprised. When I saw the game was out of reach I broke down in tears and I don’t usually break down. It’s the best feeling in the world to win such a prestigious trophy and bring it home where it belongs.”

Merchant was the game’s most valuable player. He was tremendous both running and throwing the football. He faced down the Laval rush the few times they got near him and delivered the ball on target.

He finished 13-of-20 for 276 yards and a touchdown pass to Cole Majoros. He ran 13 times for 89 yards and two touchdowns.

No one more represented the physical, determined play of the Mustangs than their defence. Linebacker and special teamer Fraser Sopik is making a name for himself as a fearsome and fearless player. He had 11 tackles in the game and won the defensive player of the game award. But he was just one of a group of defenders that shocked the Rouge et Or with their quickness and physical play.

“It’s the best feeling in the world. People don’t even understand how hard we worked this year,” Sopik said. “To get it done for the old guys, the fourth year, the fifth year, the coaches, it’s the best feeling.

“We said it coming in: (Laval) has never been hit by a team like us. We knew they weren’t going to run on us, our (offence) knew they were going to run on them. That’s not like Laval. That’s what they normally do to other teams.”

It was a classy Laval team that congratulated the Mustangs, especially when the Mustangs' French Canadian contingent and the Rouge et Or players met. It was a special day for the players who choose to leave Quebec to play in London.

Poulin has been one of the leaders of this team. He leaves everything on the field every game. He’s been healthy this year and he was rewarded with a first-team all-Canadian spot. Poulin said the reason he didn’t play with Laval, even though he was heavily recruited, was his desire to beat Laval.

“We knew it would be like this. In the locker room before the game we knew,” Poulin said. “We’ve known for weeks. People doubted us, saying we don’t have any opposition, we don’t play strong teams. We showed today no one can play with us.”

 

Here is live coverage from Free Press sports reporter Morris Dalla Costa during the game Saturday: