History on the Line Against a Familiar Foe
Western Mustangs FootballGreg Bowman
The term ‘dynasty’ is an oft-used one when talking about professional sports. The Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s; the early 2010s San Francisco Giants; the Brady/Belichick New England Patriots of the past two decades--all are sports teams that were able to make it to the big games year after year.
The aforementioned teams are considered dynasties because they were able to win, and win often. The term ‘dynasty’ though, gets muddled when in the conversation of collegiate athletics. Programs have to undergo a complete upheaval of players on any given year as athletes are only around for a maximum of five years.
The Western Mustangs are the closest thing to a dynasty that the OUA has seen, as on Saturday they will be competing in the 111th Yates Cup, a stage which the program is no stranger to.
The mastermind behind all of it is Head Coach Greg Marshall. The former Mustang running back took over as the Head Coach of the Mustangs in 2007, and has since led the purple & white to 10 Yates Cups in the past 12 years. The Mustangs have a 5-4 record in the provincial championship game, most recently winning the Yates last season en route to their first Vanier Cup in 23 years. The program has seen extensive changeover from one year to the next, yet somehow Western football finds themselves in the biggest games of the year on a regular basis.
Saturday’s 111th Yates Cup will be the fourth straight provincial title game held at TD Stadium. In 2015, the Guelph Gryphons stunned the hometown Mustangs 23-17 after scoring 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. The next year’s Yates Cup was not any kinder to the purple & white, as they blew a 21-point lead with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter to lose to the Laurier Golden Hawks on a last-second field goal 43-40.
Everyone was stunned after that collapse in the 109th Yates Cup. The Mustangs had found themselves with a strange reputation as “chokers” in the OUA playoff scene. The narrative was: “the Western Mustangs will run the table during the regular season, dominating every statistical category, only to blow it in an important playoff game.” As outrageous as that claim is now, it was hard to argue considering the Mustangs had always boasted winning records, making the playoffs most years, but only reaching the Vanier Cup once (2008), and not a whole lot of other playoff success to show.
After that collapse in the 109th Yates, the Western Mustangs brought in a bunch of new faces to the coaching staff, most notably Steve Snyder from the AUS’s St. FX X-Men. The addition of Snyder alleviated a lot of the burden from Coach Marshall, freeing him to simply coach the players without having to worry about the play-calling. While the Snyder-era offence took a while to set in, it would go on to dominate the entire country in the latter-half of 2017, only being held to under 30 points just once after September 16th (29 v. Laurier, Sept. 30, 2018).
The Mustangs would finish the season 8-0, and found themselves in the familiar scenario of playing the Guelph Gryphons in the playoffs. Unlike years previous, when Western got a lead in the 2017 OUA semi-final, not only did they maintain it but they proceeded add to it relentlessly until the final whistle went.
The Mustangs would put 66 points up against the Guelph Gryphons in the semis, but a familiar Laurier Golden Hawks squad came to town the next week in the 110th Yates Cup. The Mustangs excorcised their demons of years previous with a statement of 75 points against Laurier. They put their foot on the throat and never let it off once.
After capturing their fifth Yates Cup in the past 10 years, Mustangs fans were wondering when the dominant play would run out, as history had dictated it usually did. A trip to the East Coast to take on the Acadia Axemen sure didn’t slow them down, as a Usports Bowl-record 81 points were recorded against the AUS Champs.
The Mustangs had quietly found themselves in the 2017 Vanier Cup, despite shattering offensive records along the way. Many were still apprehensive to believe that this year could be ‘the year’.
The Mustangs would beat the Laval Rouge et Or 39-17 in Hamilton, Ontario to capture their first Vanier Cup since 1994. For Greg Marshall, it was his first as a Head Coach, and it expunged him of any criticism of not being able to coach in big moments.
Western Mustangs training camp had a different feel in the summer of 2018, as it was called by many ‘the most competitive training camp ever.’ Players who had spots on the team last year were in jeopardy of losing them. The Mustangs were the powerhouse that people had hoped they would be.
Barring a couple of close calls on the road vs Carleton (26-23 OT) and Queens (26-23), the Western Mustangs cruised through the regular season with an 8-0 record, leading the OUA in every rushing category, averaging nearly 50 points a game and boasting an impenetrable defence that averaged less than 300 yards against per game.
The Carleton Ravens fell victim to the Mustangs defence in their semi-final game at TD Stadium last week, as they were only able to get 272 yards of total offence, while turning the ball over four times.
With the Guelph Gryphons coming to town on Saturday for the 111th Yates Cup, it’s hard not to expect a Western win. Granted, Guelph is coming off a terrific 17-point second-half comeback on the road against the Ottawa Gee Gees in their semi-final matchup, and boast seven OUA All-Stars; Western has seven All-Stars on the OUA First-Team list (14 total). Greg Marshall also earned his sixth-ever David “Tuffy” Knight Coach of the Year honour as the conference’s top coach.
Saturday’s matchup against Guelph will simply come down to if Western is able to execute. It is clear that the talent is available, their preparation is second to none, and the experience and motivation from last year is an omnipresent driving force. It’s whether or not they can establish their dominance early, keep the ball out of the hands of mobile Gryphons quarterback Theo Landers, and execute on offence--one which registered just 12 points and three turnovers in the first half against Carleton in the semis.
Should Western win, not only would it be their 32nd Yates Cup, but it would also break the all-time Usports record for most consecutive wins with their 22nd . The mark of 21 was set by the McMaster Marauders in 2011-12, where they won the Vanier in 2011 after a Week #2 loss, ran the table in their following season only to lose in the following Vanier Cup in 2012 (L 37-14 to Laval). While the Mustangs aren’t getting caught up in records, it will be a significant win for many reasons should they pull it out on Saturday.
All the answers will be given when the ball is kicked off for the 111th Yates Cup from TD Stadium on Saturday, November 10th.
You can listen to that game on 94.9FM or at www.radiowestern.ca/stream. Tune in at 12:50pm for the pregame show with kickoff slated for 1pm!