Ice in his veins: Freshman QB Evan Hillock lifts Western Mustangs to victory in frigid 56th Vanier Cup

Photo courtesy: Brandon VandeCaveye / Western Athletics

On -9 degree day in Quebec City, icy conditions turned football players into unwitting skaters as they slipped and slid across the frozen Stade Telus-UL turf all afternoon.

In the latest Canadian university championship every played, the frigid conditions would at times dictate the pace of play of the 56th Vanier Cup. In the second half, it didn’t seem to matter to the Western Mustangs. The only ice that the team from London cared about was what was running through the veins of freshman quarterback Evan Hillock, as he commanded his team to a 27-20 victory over the Saskatchewan Huskies.

The OUA Rookie of the Year finished 18-of-29 for 274 yards and two touchdowns, both in the third quarter, and was awarded the Ted Morris Trophy as the game’s MVP. Hillock, who took the reins of the Western offence in Week 3 of the season and has yet to lose a game, looked entirely in control while leading a second half surge, powering the Mustangs to their second Vanier Cup win in the past five years.

Given the conditions on the ground, no one expected an aerial showcase Sunday from the two best running teams in the country. Indeed, Western set the tone early in the only way they knew how, with a five play, 70-yard drive capped by a 24-yard touchdown run from running back Trey Humes. In typical fashion, the Mustangs still finished with 209 yards of net rushing, but that familiar well froze solid for stretches and wouldn’t keep them in front for long.

With their own potent ground game struggling, the Huskies managed just a 26-yard David Solie field goal in the first quarter, but got an assist from the officials to spark the offence in the second. Western defensive back Robert Panabaker appeared to force a punt with a second down pass break up, but instead got flagged for interference. With a fresh set of downs, running back Adam Machart broke loose for 13 yards two plays later, before quarterback Mason Nyhus took his sweet time in the pocket to find Daniel Perry in behind coverage for a 22-yard touchdown.

The Mustangs blocked the point after to keep the deficit just two points and marched the field in response, but Hillock was high on a potential touchdown pass to Brett Ellerman, forcing a 23-yard Brian Garrity field goal to retake the lead for much of second quarter.

Getting the ball back with less than a minute left before the intermission, Saskatchewan put together a six play, 55-yard drive. Returning to the field after what looked to be a scary leg injury the series previous, Machart picked up three chunk gains to get things rolling, before Nyhus found Sam Baker for a toe-tapping 15-yard catch with one second left to get into field goal range. David Solie pounded through the 24-yarder despite wiping out on the icy turf mid-kick and the Huskies seemed to have the momentum up 12-10.

That appeared to continue as Josh Ewanchyna provided a great return to start the second half, but the Huskies back was stopped short on third and one by linebacker Zach Lindley later in the drive, and momentum flipped.

The Mustangs wasted no time taking full advantage. Trey Humes powered for 18 yards on the next play and then Evan Hillock decided to go airborne. Receiver Griffin Campbell beat the man coverage and came wide open across the middle, romping through the Huskies’ secondary for a 50-yard touchdown catch.

Saskatchewan could manage only an unsuccessful 40-yard field goal attempt in response, mustering just two more points when the Mustangs conceded a safety from deep in their own end. The surrendered points would quickly be recovered however, as Hillock led a seven play, 72-yard drive to end the quarter exactly how it started. Campbell caught his second touchdown pass of the game, this time taking the wide receiver screen 17-yards to paydirt behind the stellar blocking of Seth Robertson and tackle Zack Fry.

Both defences battened down for the fourth quarter, but the Western run game would emerge once again when it mattered. Third string power back Edouard Wanadi got his chance to slash through a dog-tired Huskies team, bursting for a 56-yard gain behind a ferocious pull from Fry. The result was a 37-yard Brian Garrity field goal to make it 27-14 late.

The Huskies would get the ball back with under two minutes remaining and showed no quit as Nyhus and Machart picked their way down to the goal line. It took four plays, aided by penalty, but Josh Ewanchyna punched in the one-yard touchdown to cut the lead to just one score with 30 seconds left. Unfortunately for Saskatchewan, Keon Edwards easily recovered the Solie onside kick and Hillock knelt out the clock to complete Western’s undefeated season.

Despite the loss, Huskies quarteback Mason Nyhus finished 28-of-40 for 303 yards and a touchdown, connecting seven times with Alouettes’ draft pick Colton Klassen for 95 yards. Uteck Bowl MVP Adam Machart was again spectacular, rushing 16 times for 78 yards and catching eight passes for 82 more, but the Western defence came up big when it mattered.

Safety Daniel Valente Jr. took home the Bruce Coulter Trophy as the game’s defensive MVP, notching nine tackles, while J.P. Metras winner Deionte Knight and Malcolm Hinds each added sacks.

Without the services of first team All-Canadian receiver Savaughn Magnaye-Jones, Griffin Campbell caught six passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns, stepping up to aid in Hillock’s incredible outing. Trey Humes led the three headed monster in the backfield with 79 yards on 13 carries, Edouard Wanadi had four for 72 yards, and Keon Edwards added 12 carries for 47 yards.

The Mustangs have skated through yet another dominant season under head coach Greg Marshall and claimed their eighth title in school history. With Hillock likely at the helm for the forseeable future, it is unlikely to be their last.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.