Nothing can stop them now: the Western Mustangs are perfect for the second consecutive regular season. The Mustangs defeated the Laurier Golden Hawks 46–13 in a Homecoming special in front of over 6,000 fans at TD Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
At opening kickoff, ominous grey clouds began to swirl and the wind started to pick up. As poor as the weather looked, Western’s offence looked worse. The Golden Hawks imposed their will on the first drive of the game, forcing a quick two-and-out.
Foreshadowing the rest of the game, the offensive side of the ball was bailed out by the Mustangs defence as Laurier took the field. After the gift of a short field, Western punched in the first score of the game on Alex Taylor’s 13th major of the year.
However, despite scoring, the Mustangs offence couldn’t muster much for the rest of the quarter. After the game, head coach Greg Marshall explained that Laurier’s defensive game plan surprised Western, leading to the poor offensive start.
“For years and years, they played us one way,” explained Marshall. “About three years ago, they changed it. It was a really effective way to defend us and everyone in the league copied it. We kind of found the answers to it, and then they changed it again.”
With the offence sputtering, showing few signs of life, Western was saved by the weather. As a result of a lightning sighting, the officials ordered both teams into their respective locker rooms, banished from the field for 30 minutes.
The Mustangs took advantage of this mid-second quarter break in the action to discuss and alter the game plan. Quarterback Chris Merchant explained how the delay was positive for the team.
"It was actually almost good. We were kind of a little sloppy there in the first quarter,” said Merchant. “Came in and kind of talked about what they were doing and made some adjustments.”
With Laurier consistently loading the box with defensive backs, the Mustangs made a clear adjustment out of a rushing attack in favor of a more pass-centric offence.
The change of game plan resulted in two quick passing scores from Chris Merchant to Harry McMaster out of the weather delay. Finally, Western's feared offence looked like themselves again.
However, despite improved play out of the delay — and another blowout win— Marshall was not pleased with the offence.
“When they see the film, and they see the mistakes they made, the night we get after them… it's not going to be pretty,” warned Marshall. “They'll realize that we can play better than we've played and we'll play better than we played.”
While the offence struggled, the defensive unit continued their dominant season. The defensive line was tough and imposing, the linebackers flying around the field in run and pass coverage and the secondary breaking up more than their fair share of big plays.
A leader on the defensive side of the ball, fourth-year linebacker Fraser Sopik explained that this game was simply a continuation of the defensive unit’s play this season.
"Oh man, we've been, as a defence, on the way up,” said Sopik. “Week one was our worst game of the season. Ever since then, we've been on the up. Some of the young guys in the secondary are playing incredible football — really, really good football. The veterans on the front seven have done a good job all year stopping the run.”
With five and a half tackles on the day, Sopik was a constant presence on both defence and special teams. Marshall boasted after the game that his linebacker was “the best defensive player in the country.”
The Mustangs have entered into rarefied air with their 20th consecutive win. If Western is able to win their next two games, they would surpass the U Sports football record for consecutive wins, currently set at 21 games by the McMaster Marauders from 2011 to 2012.
With the win the Mustangs also ended Laurier's hopes of returning to the postseason. The Golden Hawks have been to the playoffs four straight years, as former Western quarterback Michael Faulds has built the program into one of Ontario's best. However, with the team in a rebuilding phase and the OUA seeing one of its deepest seasons ever, Laurier was unable to sneak into the playoffs.
When Laurier won the Yates Cup in 2016, it appeared that Laurier and Western would be neck-and-neck for OUA supremacy for the forseeable future. However, after crushing the Golden Hawks in last year's Yates Cup and ending their playoff dreams on Saturday, it appears that Western has left Laurier in the dust.
The Mustangs next game will be a playoff semifinal at TD Stadium on Nov. 3 against the winner of the quarterfinal matchup between the Carleton Ravens or the McMaster Marauders. The other OUA quarterfinal will see the Guelph Gryphons take on the Waterloo Warriors, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2003.