The magic finally ran out on Saturday afternoon at TD Stadium.
For the first time since November 12, 2016, the Mustangs lost a game to an Ontario University Athletics opponent, after the Marauders rode a dominant second quarter to a 29-15 victory in the 112th Yates Cup.
McMaster University’s quarterback Andreas Dueck took home game MVP honours. The third-year player completed 72 per cent of his passes for 243 yards and one interception.
However, while the quarterback was chosen – he wasn’t really the most valuable aspect of the Marauders team. If the award could go to more than one player, it should have gone to the entirety of the McMaster defence.
Coming in against Western University, one of the best offences in the country, the Marauders played exceptionally well.
The Mustangs finished with 229 yards of total offence and four turnovers.
Despite going down 10-0 early on in the first quarter, the Marauders defence should actually be commended for keeping the game that close. The Mustangs defence gifted their offence with three turnovers in four McMaster drives in the first fifteen minutes. Each turnover came within their opponents 40-yard line.
It could have easily been 21-0 before the second quarter started. The Marauders defence held firm, though.
By holding their opponents to just one touchdown and a field goal in the first, the Marauders offence was given time to find their footing. And during the second quarter, McMaster found another gear, and then another gear after that.
The Marauders scored 22 points in fifteen minutes, including a last second field goal as time ran out. The Mustangs offence wasn’t able to answer, failing to put points on the board during the second quarter.
Western kept coming tantalizingly close to big plays on many of their drives. Passes that would have gone for huge gains kept falling just ahead or behind the intended receiver. Even if one of those passes had hit, the score could have been much closer entering the break.
But the passes didn’t hit. The Marauders defence beat the Mustangs offence. Holding a 22-10 lead entering the locker-room at half-time, McMaster had a lead to sit on for the final 30 minutes.
During the first half, quarterback Chris Merchant took a fair amount of big hits and was seen visibly limping on and off the field.
Every one of Merchant’s teammates commends the signal caller for being one of the toughest players on the team. And the expectation that the fifth-year player could play through anything made it even more shocking when the quarterback traded out his helmet for a toque and watched the second half from the sidelines.
His injury was too serious to continue. Head coach Greg Marshall stepped in and prevented the quarterback from playing the second half, worried that the injury could get worse.
Backup quarterback Kevin John took the reins on offence in Merchant’s absence. The fourth year player showed flashes of greatness, loading up and bombing remarkable passes downfield, but he was unable to mount a comeback.
It would have been unfair to expect a player who received just six passing attempts throughout the regular season to come in and dominate one of the best defences in the league.
After the game, head coach Greg Marshall apologized for putting his quarterback in a situation that was nearly impossible to win.
“You know what, that was a tough spot for ol' Kev to come in to,” said Marshall. “And maybe because we hadn't been dominant this year, that we were in so many close games, that he didn't get many reps that he got in the past. And, you know, that was really unfair. Difficult spot for him to come in to. But, you know, he battled. He battled.”
The quarterback ultimately finished with 73 passing yards and two interceptions with a 43 per cent completion rate. But the poor numbers were more a product of having to force offence, rather than the player struggling individually.
Even still, John remained a consummate professional through it all. After the game, he refused to allow the situation excuse his play.
“Yeah, it's a tough situation, but that's not an excuse,” said John. “I, personally, think I need to play a lot better and I know I could play a lot better. But, I think our teammates did a good job and they fought to the end and I'm really proud of them for the effort they put on the field.”
His teammates did fight hard and play well. The Mustangs defence did all that could have been expected in the championship game. The unit allowed just 351 yards of total offence and forced four turnovers.
But, at the end of 60 minutes, the Marauders were undoubtedly the better team. McMaster earned the right to play in the Mitchell Bowl in Calgary next weekend.
The Mustangs will have a little under a year to digest the loss before the 2020 season starts in August.