Late touchdown lifts Team West to East-West Bowl victory

Manitoba Bisons running back Jamel Lyles scored the game-winning 18-yard touchdown with 2:12 remaining on the clock, to lead Team West to a 15-14 victory in the 2018 U SPORTS Valero East-West Bowl on Saturday at Laval’s TELUS-UL Stadium.

It was the third straight victory for the West team and improved their record to 10-6 in the annual Canadian Football League (CFL) top prospects game since the event began in 2003.

Trailing behind 12-0 after the first quarter, the West earned significant contributions from a number of student-athletes, including that of MVP and York Lions receiver Colton Hunchak.

“It was great to play with all these guys and learn all week long,” said Hunchak, who had three receptions for 38 yards, including two crucial catches of 18 and nine yards in the late-game comeback. “Being surrounded by all these good players all week has allowed me to be better today and for the future. I will now focus on the off-season to improve even further and be able to help my team.”

Mustang head coach Greg Marshall was at the helm of the Western squad six months after leading Western University to its first Vanier Cup win since 1994.

“It was a little inconsistent, but it was to be expected in this kind of all-star game,” said Marshall. “Overall, we’re happy. It was a good match, both teams played well. They controlled the first half, we controlled the second. There were great athletes on each side of the ball, and it was a privilege to be their coach.”

On the East side, the MVP title went to the local favourite: Laval defensive end Mathieu Betts. The two-time recipient of the J.P. Metras Trophy, awarded to the best U SPORTS lineman, gave the crowd something to cheer about early in the first quarter, scoring a touchdown after recovering from a fumble he himself caused.

“It was really nice to be around everyone here this week. It’s hard to put together a team in four days, but I think we did a good job. The coaches had prepared us well,” said Betts, who was credited with three tackles, two of them solo, for a loss of a yard.

“With so many good players on the field, there was sure to be some good plays on either side,” stated East head coach Chérif Nicolas of the Bishop’s Gaiters. “Some penalties hurt us, but these things happen in this kind of game. It was a close game, and the interception at the end may have made the difference. In the end, the guys had a great week and a good game. We accomplished what we wanted to this week.”

The East opened the scoring halfway through the first quarter. After two missed pass attempts in the endzone by quarterback Brett Hunchak of the York Lions, Laval kicker Dominic Lévesque pulled through for a 14-yard field goal, making the score 3-0. The next play, Betts caused a fumble by literally stealing the ball from the hands of West quarterback Michael O’Connor of the UBC Thunderbirds at their 45-yard line to return to the end zone. Another defensive fighter from Laval, Vincent Desjardins landed a major sack in the quarter with the West deeply repressed in their zone. The West was out of options, conceding a safety. After 15 minutes, the East led 12-0.

The West scored at the start of the second quarter. Saint Mary’s Huskies kicker Brian Hope converted on a 24-yard field goal when O’Connor joined Kurleigh Gittens Jr. of the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks for a long play of 21 yards that put the West in a good position in the East team’s zone. The latter’s defence forced the West to score another safety, increasing the East lead to 14-3 at the half.

After an East safety midway through the third quarter, the West again cut the lead at the end of the frame, thanks to the excellent work of Guelph quarterback Theodore Landers. In a series of 12 plays and 94 yards, Landers got several first downs through the air and on the ground, and Brian Hope added the finishing touch as time expired with a 19-yard field goal. At the start of the fourth quarter, the East’s lead was only 14-8.

But the play of the game may have come with 3:31 left to play, when Saskatchewan Huskies defensive back Payton Hall intercepted mid-field Western Mustang quarterback Chris Merchant’s pass to bring it back to the 48-yard line. O’Connor then led the West’s attack, throwing two completions to Colton Hunchak, before handing the ball to Lyles, who ran 18 yards to the end zone, giving the West the lead for the first time in the game at 15-14. The East had two more chances to take the lead, but failed. Defensive linebacker Robbie Smith of the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks ended the East’s hopes at Merchant’s expense.

The West dominated on offence, racking up 354-103 total yards – 236-93 by air and 159-52 on the ground.

Landers and O’Connor split the job for the West side, with Landers completing 10 of 18 passes for 119 yards, while O’Connor tallied 11 of 17 attempts for 117 yards.

For the East, Brett Hunchak, who started the game, only completed four of his 12 throws for 28 yards. Merchant didn’t have much more success, recording five of his 11 pass attempts for 65 yards and one interception. For the victors, Kurleigh Gittens Jr. and MVP Colton Hunchak each recorded three receptions for 38 yards, while Chris Osei-Kusi of the Queen’s Gaels was the most prolific on the East side with five catches for 47 yards. On the ground, Landers led the West with 56 yards on nine carries, while the leader for the East was Gabriel Polan of Sherbrooke Vert & Or with 25 yards on seven carries.

Defensively, linebacker Fraser Sopik of the Western Mustangs led both teams with six tackles, including five solo. On the East side, defensive back François Hamel of the Montreal Carabins distinguished himself with 5.5 tackles, including four solo.