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Mustangs earn return trip to Vanier Cup

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For the second straight season, the Western Mustangs have a perfect record and are on their way to the Vanier Cup against the Laval Rouge et Or. 

The Mustangs took down the Canada West conference champion Saskatchewan Huskies by a score of 47–24 on Saturday afternoon in the Mitchell Bowl at TD Stadium. 

Saturday's playoff contest wasn't quite the offensive blowout seen in the Yates Cup, but the stars of the Mustangs stars were equally impressive.  

Chris Merchant threw for 251 yards and two touchdowns and ran for an extra 82 yards and one rushing touchdown. Alex Taylor rushed the ball 12 times, picking up 141 yards and two scores. Harry McMaster hauled in 11 receptions for 152 yards and two majors. Fraser Sopik led the defence with 11 tackles and half a sack.

Despite incredible performances all around, the MVP of the game could only go to one person, and it was awarded to Merchant. However, the quarterback wasn’t satisfied with winning the award, feeling that others deserved the honour more.

“I don't really deserve this award,” said Merchant. “It was all the other guys. They all deserve it, and if you could give it to the whole team you should, because that's who deserves it today.” 

However, a key factor in the game was the fourth-year quarterback’s willingness to return to the field despite an ailing hip. While Merchant wasn’t impressed with his own performance, fifth-year running back Alex Taylor certainly was.

“Listen, this guys is nails,” said Taylor. “He hangs in there and takes some shots that I don't think a lot of quarterbacks could take in this league. He's one of the toughest guys on our team and [he] really keeps us going.” 

Taylor put on a show of his own, ripping off a 57-yard rushing score with 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. The late touchdown eventually served as the game-winning touchdown for the Mustangs.

As has been the case all season, the Mustangs defensive corps shone throughout the game,  especially in the second half, allowing just seven points in 30 minutes of play.

Taylor explained that Saturday simply showcased what has been a strength of the Mustangs all season.

“All year it's been the same story; our defence is just lights out,” said Taylor. 

In total, the defence allowed 380 yards of total offence to Saskatchewan. Two Huskies, Tyler Chow and Colton Klassen, provided problems for the Mustangs defensive squad all afternoon, though.

Chow finished with 21 rushes for 143 yards and one score. Klassen grabbed nine passes for 107 yards and two majors. The two players stood out against the Western defence, according to Sopik.

“[Chow is] a really good back,” said Sopik. “He's physical, he's got really good feet. Best back we've played. Him and [Klassen] are two of the best players that we played.”

Marc Liegghio, one of the most under-the-radar stars that the Mustangs have relied on this year, also put on a show on Saturday. The kicker finished the game with one field goal and three punts within the opponents' 20-yard line. 

After the game, head coach Greg Marshall lauded the effort of his third-year player.

“[He] boomed the ball,” said Marshall. “[He] kicked the ball long on kickoffs, made that clutch field goal. That field goal was huge for us at the end of the second quarter. To tie the ball game up and give us a little boost going into halftime was huge. And then his punting, he just out-punted the other punter. [He] consistently… put our defence in a really good position.”

In addition to winning the Mitchell Bowl, the Mustangs also tied the McMaster Marauders for the U Sports record with their 23rd consecutive win. The record means nothing without a win next weekend, though, according to Merchant.  

“It's just another week and another win,” said Merchant. “It really doesn't matter what our overall record is if we don't win the next game.”

Western will look to defend their title as defending national champions next Saturday in Quebec City at the 54th annual Vanier Cup against the Laval Rouge et Or. Laval has won nine Vanier Cup titles since their program's inception in 1996. Last season the Mustangs ended their 23 year playoff drought with a 39–17 romp of the Rouge et Or at Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field. More fireworks will be expected this week between the two most successful programs in Canadian university football history.

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