The Western Mustangs used a stifling defense and superlative running game to decimate the Laval Rouge et Or 39-17 to win the 53rd Vanier Cup in Hamilton on Saturday. Here are my thoughts.
1. Domination was the name of the game as Western got the lead on the game’s opening drive and never gave it up. There were some lulls in the second and third quarters — the halftime score was just 16-7 for Western and 25-10 after three — but the floodgates opened in the fourth. Western scored twice in the final frame and the game was over by about halfway through the final quarter.
2. All the talk going into the game was about the country’s best offense (Western) taking on the country’s best defense (Laval) and how Laval’s defense would make life tough for the Mustangs. When the smoke cleared, the old adage of “defense wins championships” proved false once again as the Mustangs pasted Laval to the tune of 578 yards total offense and five touchdowns. No matter what the ‘Stangs did, whether it was running or passing, it seemed Laval did not have an answer.
3. Speaking of running the football, Western’s three-headed rushing monster — quarterback, and Vanier MVP, Chris Merchant, and running backs Alex Taylor and Cedric Joseph — was stupendous in rushing for 302 yards against a very good Laval defense. Taylor led the team with 150 yards on the ground, while Taylor and Merchant each found the end zone twice. Merchant had a couple of excellent quarterback draws and Taylor seemed to get to the second level on every run. I don’t have the historical numbers, but I can’t imagine Laval has given up 300+ yards on the ground very often. They were run off the field in this one, early and often.
4. A lot has, and will continue to be, made of the attendance woes of the two Vanier Cups held in Hamilton, but this year’s game attracted over 2,000 more fans than last year’s. While the 2016 game was much better in terms of the on-field product, ticket sales were boosted by a local team being in the game. They even opened up some parts of the second level, which was never even considered last year. I don’t think the game will be back in Hamilton any time soon, but I’m happy we got these two and I was happy to attend. Maybe if USports had a better TV deal and the games were more readily available to folks, the championship game would be better attended. But as it stands, almost 11,000 people got to see a dominating performance by the Mustangs.
5. I went down to the stadium earlier than I normally would so I could walk around and see if there was any hoopla. While it doesn’t rival the tailgates at big NFL, CFL or NCA towns, there was a few dedicated folks who had a cool tailgate going in the parking lot adjacent to Tim Hortons Field. I saw Laval and Western fans, obviously, and the crowd there was decidedly pro-Western given its proximity to Hamilton, but I saw shirts and sweaters from a few other schools (mostly Queen’s and McMaster) and a very proud Guelph alum had a huge tent set up with a Gryphons logo on it. If I didn’t know Justin Dunk was in Ottawa for the Grey Cup, I’d have thought it was him.
6. Being a neutral observer was weird, too. I literally sat right in between a see Laval fans on my left and Western fans on my right. It was such a weird dichotomy that isn’t prevalent when you go to a CFL game, championship or otherwise. This was literally split at the midfield point and it was fun to sit amongst. I had no rooting interested — UofT alum’s don’t have much to brag about when it comes to Canadian university football — so I was just there for a fun game. But if you ever get a chance to attend a Vanier Cup and you don’t have a team in the game — AUS students/alums, I’m talking about you — find a way to get seats at midfield. Your experience will be illuminating.
7. Laval quarterback Hugo Richard had as bad a game this year as he had good the year before. Richard was just off, missing opening targets and making bad decision after bad decision. After watching him play exceptionally well the year before, it was disappointing to see him play so poorly this year.
8. Laval’s offensive line is no joke. They manhandled Western’s defensive front early and really only relented when the game was out of reach. They surrendered four sacks, but a lot of that was on the quarterback for holding the ball too long. Don’t be surprised to see more than a couple of the Laval hoggies head to the next level.
9. There was a lot of chatter on social media after a couple of high hits by Western in the second quarter, the biggest being the second one on Western’s Jesse McNair hit Laval’s Marc-Antoine Pivin. (This hit led to a wee bit of an altercation in my section, but thankfully cooler heads prevailed.) I understand why both were called, but I didn’t like either call. In both cases, the Laval player was going to the ground and the Western defender had to change his positioning to make the hit. Neither seemed to have any malice behind them and looked to me to just be good, solid football plays. But in 2017, those plays just aren’t allowed, but I’m not sure what a defender is to do in that situation.
10. Going into this game, Western hadn’t won the Vanier Cup since 1994. For some perspective, the University of Toronto, which has been a doormat in the OUA for nearly two decades, last won the Vanier in 1993. Aside from hardcore USports fans, would anyone have been able to guess that Western’s title drought was nearly as long as Toronto’s? That was crazy to me. It doesn’t matter now, because Western has snapped their title-less streak (and maybe Toronto will follow suit next year… right? No? OK) and they, along with Laval, will likely be back in the hunt for the championship again next year.
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