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Laval's Alex Duff runs the ball during the first half of the USports Mitchell Bowl between the Western Mustangs and the Laval Rouge et Or at Alumni Field at Western University in London, Ont., on Nov. 19.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Saturday’s Vanier Cup will take place in London, Ont., but it won’t include the defending national champion Western Mustangs.

It will, however, feature the year’s best player, plus the two most prolific passers in U Sports this season. It will pit the coach with the most wins in Canadian university football against a former CFL star who won Vanier Cups as a player, but seeks his first as a coach. It will include the team Western defeated in last year’s title game, and the one that just eliminated the top-ranked Mustangs in the semi-finals.

The Saskatchewan Huskies will face the Laval Rouge et Or at Western’s Alumni Stadium in the 57th Vanier Cup, the Canadian championship of university football. The foes go into Saturday with matching 10-1 records after 7-1 regular seasons.

This game will feature the only two quarterbacks to average more than 300 yards passing this season. Arnaud Desjardins, in his second season as Laval’s starter, threw for 20 touchdowns, best in the country. Saskatchewan’s fifth-year quarterback, Mason Nyhus, MVP of the Canada West conference, threw for a second-best 18 touchdowns, but topped Desjardins in passing yards – 344.9 yards a game to Desjardins’s 319.4.

Both pivots look to win their first Vanier Cup. Nyhus, playing in his final university game, wants to replace the pain of losing to Western 27-21 in last year’s championship.

“Last year, it didn’t end the way we wanted, so hopefully we can right the wrong on Saturday,” Nyhus said. “I’ve been here for a long time. This is why you put in all that time, the offseason workouts, the runs, the player practices. All that stuff is just building for moments like this. To come away with a Vanier Cup and a ring would mean the world.”

The game will also star Kevin Mital, this year’s Hec Crighton Trophy winner as most outstanding U Sports football player. The Laval receiver led the country in receptions (58) and receiving yards (751) in eight regular-season games. His 12 touchdown receptions set a school record and tied the Quebec conference mark, also earning conference MVP honours. Mital has been a key target for Desjardins.

“We’re all very excited to be here in London,” Desjardins said. “But we’re not done yet.”

For the first time, both Vanier Cup opponents advanced via semi-final road victories.

Confident, the Rouge et Or packed for 10 days when they travelled to London late last week. They trailed Western 17-4 at halftime of last Saturday’s Mitchell Bowl and roared back to beat the No. 1 Mustangs 27-20, earning the chance to stick around and play in another Vanier Cup. Laval has won it 10 times – more than any other school. It denied Western the chance to chase its ninth.

“It’s obviously one of the blue-blood programs in the country, so to play at Western and beat them on their own field was something like a milestone for our program and for myself, a very proud moment for us,” said Laval coach Glen Constantin, who this season became the U Sports coach with the most wins, holding a 201-38 record, 9-2 in Vanier Cups. “We just took care of a big challenge and now we have another one on our hands.”

The Huskies arrived in London on Wednesday night after crisscrossing the country in a head-spinning week of travel. They beat St. Francis Xavier 36-19 at last weekend’s Uteck Bowl in Antigonish, N.S., and flew back home for a few days of preparation in Saskatoon before travelling to Ontario for the big game.

Saskatchewan has won three Vanier Cups, the most recent ones when current coach Scott Flory was starring as an offensive lineman. Flory played with the Huskies in the late 1990s, winning Cups in 1996 and ‘98 before a standout 15-year CFL career in which he won three Grey Cups with the Montreal Alouettes. Flory quickly returned Saskatchewan’s program to elite form after taking the helm in 2017.

The Huskies led the Mustangs 12-9 at halftime of last year’s Vanier Cup before letting the game slip away. That fuels them now.

“I feel like we were like ‘we’re up at half, like we got this in the bag’. But we’ve got to stay locked in for both halves,” Saskatchewan receiver Daniel Perry said. “We definitely have a chip on our shoulder.”

The Huskies expected to return to the big game. Cornerback Katley Joseph remembers the talk when he made a campus visit in June. After graduating from University of Maine and playing some football there, he wanted to do his Masters in Education at U of S, play for Flory, and help Saskatchewan get back to the Vanier Cup.

“The guys were telling me, ‘Hey, if you come here, there’s no doubt that we’re going to get back to that stage and win,’” Joseph said. “They knew they were a good enough team to get there. Now it’s just about completing the mission. There was definitely a sense of urgency.”

Joseph, Perry, Nyhus, Desjardins and Mital are among the 21 conference all-stars who will appear in this game – 10 for Saskatchewan and 11 for Laval.

They’ll play under sunny skies in the premier late-November football game. Saturday’s London forecast calls for a high of 9 C inside Western’s Alumni Stadium.

“Canadian university football is something special, it’s very dear to me,” Constantin said. “This championship is totally different than is played anywhere else in the world.”

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