Greg Marshall didn't think his Western Mustangs were this good at the beginning of the season.
They graduated a lot of players. They dealt with some injuries. Their starting quarterback is a second-year kid. And they are young. Most Mustangs are second and third-year players, with only two fifth-year seniors.
But after going 8-0 in the regular season of the Ontario University Athletics conference, and then marching through the post-season scoring 222 points and allowing only 47 points against, the Western Mustangs pulled off the undefeated season, defeating the Laval Rouge et Or 39 to 17 to win the Vanier Cup, the U SPORTS football championship in front of 10,754 fans Saturday afternoon at Tim Hortons Field.
The last time the Mustangs won the Vanier Cup was in 1994, when they defeated the Saskatchewan Huskies 50-40 in overtime in Toronto.
This is the first time a U Sports team has gone undefeated since 2013 when the Rouge et Or went 12-0 and won the Vanier Cup against the Calgary Dinos.
And for head coach Marshall, this was his first-ever Vanier Cup win in 18 seasons as head coach.
"This is one of the best teams certainly I've ever coached and one of the best teams I believe have ever played U SPORTS football," Marshall said after the celebration at Tim Hortons Field died down. "This is a dominant team. To go undefeated and dominate the way we did in the playoffs, I'm really proud of these guys."
Playing a team hunting for its 10th Vanier Cup championship and is a frequent attendee of the Canadian university football final, the Mustangs did not show any nerves against the Rouge et Or. In a battle of the best defence in the country against the best offence, Western's offence was no match for Laval.
On its first possession of the game, Western drove down the field on the strength of quarterback Chris Merchant, with a perfect screen play to running back Cedric Joseph and a hand off to Alex Taylor, followed by a block by the quarterback to get into the red zone. The possession was capped by a 13-yard touchdown run from Merchant to put the Mustangs up 7-0.
Western scored on its opening drive of every game this season.
Leading 8-0 thanks to a rouge midway through the second quarter, the running arsenal, which included Joseph, Taylor and quarterback Merchant, took turns with the ball, moving into Laval's end before Joseph found the endzone to put the Mustangs up 15-0.
Mustangs' running backs Taylor and Joseph finished with 154 yards on 26 carries, and 63 yards on 14 carries, respectively, with the latter scoring two touchdowns. Merchant rounded out the impressive ground game with two touchdowns of his own and the team finished with 302 rushing yards. Western held Laval to 70 yards on the ground.
Laval quarterback Hugo Richard, who finished the first quarter only 1-for-5 and 13 yards, got help from two consecutive unnecessary roughness penalties against Western midway through the second quarter, getting on the scoreboard with a pass to receiver Benoit Gagnon-Brousseau.
A missed Western field goal made it 15-8 heading into the half.
"I think they pure and simply outplayed us," said Richard. "It was a tough one for us. We weren't able to come up with the momentum and get some energy going during the game and that's what really killed us. Other games, when we faced adversity like this, being down early in games, we usually end up taking control … but today, it just never happened."
On Western's first possession of the second half, the Mustangs scored a six-yard run from Joseph, and then forced Laval to give up a safety midway through the third quarter.
Laval would settle a 34-yard field goal with less than two minutes left in the third quarter after Chadrick Henry dropped a perfect pass from Richard on the goal line.
Western scored two majors in the fourth quarter courtesy of a 32-yard catch from Cole Majoros and Merchant with a 10-yard run to put the game out of reach.
A one-yard run from Laval's Vincent Alarie-Tardiff in the dying seconds of the game would round out the scoring.
"You always know going into the game that [anything] can happen and you're prepared for it," Marshall said. "And I always say you learn lessons every way. Sometimes you learn more about yourself when you lose. You may learn more, but it's a lot better to win."
Merchant finished 13-for-20 for 276 yards and one touchdown, as well as 89 yards on the ground for two touchdowns. His counterpart Richard finished 21-for-35 for 235 yards and one touchdown, and 20 yards on the ground. He was sacked four times.
Merchant was rewarded the most valuable player while Western linebacker Fraser Sopik received the defensive player of the game award.