The Mustangs were up 40-19 with eight minutes to go in the Yates Cup match against the Laurier Golden Hawks. They appeared to have it in the bag.
With the win, the Mustangs would have their 31st Yates Cup in program history, and the journey to a national championship would continue.
But something happened at TD Stadium on Saturday. Maybe the Mustangs made too many mistakes and handed away the lead. Or maybe it was a miracle, an unexplained phenomenon that allowed Laurier to tie the game up with a minute and 23 seconds left.
The silence was deafening as Laurier's Nathan Mesher lined up to kick a field goal with less than a second left on the clock, and it was inevitable. Mesher put the ball right between the uprights. The 109th Yates Cup over in the most dramatic way possible.
Laurier players streamed onto the field and piled onto each other, and were crowned the provincial champions in one of Canadian college football's historic comebacks.
The cup seemed to belong to the Mustangs by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. Chris Merchant was throwing the ball effectively en route to 281 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Alex Taylor delivered a standard solid performance with 103 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Up until the eight-minute mark hit, the Mustangs defense were in their groove, shutting down everything the Golden Hawks threw at them.
But then things started to unravel.
"We just couldn’t stop them when we needed to at the end," said Mustangs head coach Greg Marshall. "They converted on third downs and that was the football game right there."
Marshall has won a lot of games since taking over the Mustangs program in 2007. But out of the losses, this one might hurt the most. His connection to this year's group of seniors was special and a devastating defeat like this is a hard note to end the season on.
"It’s gonna hurt," said Marshall. "It’s gonna hurt for a long time. Nothing I can say in words is gonna make it better. It’s one of those time things and we’re all gonna need to heal a little bit and take time and come together as a team. We win as a team and we lose as a team."
Marshall handled himself with class in post-game interviews. Amidst the palpable sorrow surrounding the Mustangs locker room — tears flowing and condolences shared — Marshall was happy for Laurier head coach Michael Faulds, who played quarterback at Western under Marshall from 2007-09.
“I told Coach Faulds, as sad as I was, that I was really happy for him," said Marshall. "He’s a person I care very much for and so when you see your friends and good people that you care about happy, it brightens it up a little bit and takes a little bit of the sting off it."
The Mustangs will look to use this loss to strengthen their resolve. Key Mustangs will return next season to help redeem themselves.
Merchant had a great season and will look to build on his success. Alex Taylor was one of the nation's best running backs and will be back to compete for next season's Hec Crighton award. His fellow running back Cedric Joseph will also be back. Harry McMaster was spectacular in the playoffs and will come back in 2017 as a more complete offensive threat. On defence the Mustangs will bring back key players like Jean-Gabriel Poulin and Philippe Dion.
A loss like this can haunt the program for years, or the team can let it motivate them all summer through workouts and training camp.
"It’s the toughest thing in the world to lose a game like that," said Merchant on the loss. "Honestly I’m still in shock. I’ll take the blame for that. We didn’t score enough points and they played a great game and poured it all on at the end and left it all on the line, and we’re gonna take a couple of days and reload and hopefully come back next season stronger than ever.”
The Mustangs program will see change. Seniors will leave, hanging up their cleats and shoulder pads to finish up their degrees.
Malcolm Brown will bid farewell to TD Stadium after an incredible career as a Mustangs defensive back. George Johnson accumulated 2,424 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in his Western career. Simon Bahru was a key cog in the Mustangs defense this season.
Moving forward the Mustangs will have questions to answer, however. It's been 22 years since the program's last Vanier Cup. The Mustangs haven't won the OUA title in three seasons, the longest drought since Marshall took over in 2007. Although the Mustangs have a 23-1 regular season record over the last three years they've been unable to win when it really mattered.
With Laurier's program fully rebuilt and back on the national stage, the Carleton Ravens being a legitimate provincial contender and blue bloods like McMaster and Guelph still in their path the Mustangs' road to a championship won't get easier in the future.
But right now, in this moment, the Western Mustangs feel pain. They were a minute and 23 seconds from a Yates Cup.
"If there’s a lesson to be learned from this it’s that sometimes it doesn’t always work out the way you want it," said Marshall. "You just gotta pick yourself up and tomorrow is another day and you need to learn from it and get better and move on. It’s not easily done but it’s a life lesson these boys will need to learn.”