LAVAL, QC – Ice, ice baby!
The Saskatchewan Huskies and Western Mustangs converged upon the venerable Stade Telus on a frigid and icy Saturday afternoon for the biggest game on the Canadian university football calendar – the Vanier Cup.
Some may call it quintessential Canadiana; others may see it as the imperfect ingredient to a Canadian classic. No matter your view, the conditions would be wreaking havoc as the only two teams left standing following a U SPORTS football season previously unseen vied for the distinguished distinction of Vanier Cup champions.
The Huskies and Mustangs found their way here in different ways: Western with a decisive Mitchell Bowl victory over previously-undefeated St. FX, and Saskatchewan with a buzzer-beating game-winning touchdown from Adam Machart to down Montreal in the Uteck Bowl.
Each club with a contrasting path – at least in terms of the national semi-finals – yet, both teams equally worthy of the position in which the find themselves: 60 minutes away from U SPORTS football’s ultimate glory.
This was the third all-time meeting in the Vanier Cup between Western and Saskatchewan; the Mustangs were victorious in both of the previous two, 35-10 in 1989 and 50-40 in an OT thriller in 1994. If the Stangs were going to make it a three-peat over the Huskies, they would have to do it without the services of No. 1 receiver Savaughn Magnaye-Jones, who suffered in ankle injury in last week’s 61-6 Mitchell Bowl victory over St. FX.
However, if you’ve paid attention to the Mustangs for, basically, anything more than a single series this season, you’ll know it’s been their running game – the two-headed monster that is Keon Edwards and Tre Humes – has gotten them here. The first drive of this game put that theory on full display, beginning and ending with a bang. First, Edwards took the first play from scrimmage for a 25-yard romp. Then, four plays later, none other than Humes busted up the middle for a 25-yard scamper of his own, only this one was to paydirt to give Western the early 7-0 lead.
The teams then traded punts over the next four drives before David Solie, Saskatchewan’s All-Canadian calibre placekicker, hit a 26-yard field goal to trim the lead to 7-3. Colton Klassen, a CanWest All-Star in 2021, helped set up the field goal with a 26-yard catch-and-run on the first play of the series. The Mustangs enjoyed that four-point lead after 15 minutes of play.
In the second, it was Klassen at it again, as he hauled in another 20+ yard reception – this one 24 – to get the Huskies moving on their opening drive of the quarter. Then, after a pass interference call on Western and then a 13-yard run from another conference All-Star in Adam Machart, the Huskies All-Star pivot Mason Nyhus threw a dime for Daniel Perry, who made a nice over-the-shoulder grab, for a 22-yard touchdown. That gave Saskatchewan its first lead of the Vanier Cup, 9-7 after Solie had the extra point blocked.
The Mustangs were able to respond, however. They ran 13 plays on the ensuing drive and chewed 6:32 off the clock. It was a methodical drive for Western, something we don’t see a ton of from the explosive, big-play Western offence. The biggest play on the drive from Seth Robertson – into the starting lineup to replace the injured Magnaye-Jones – who reeled in a 26-yard reception. The Mustangs would have to settle for three, though, after Evan Hillock’s pass for Brett Ellerman went off his fingertips at the goal line. Brian Garrity promptly made the 23-yard kick to restore his club’s advantage.
The Huskies were left holding their collective breaths late in the half. After Machart caught a 7-yard screen pass from Nyhus, he went down clutching his left ankle. Machart had to be carried to the sideline, seemingly unable to put any weight on his left leg. Disaster was averted, however, as Machart returned to the field for the Huskies next offensive series, appearing none the worse for wear. The Huskies used a nice mix of run and pass on that final series to get into field goal range for Solie, who was good from 24 yards out on the final play of the first half, despite losing his footing on the play thanks to the icy conditions. That kick gave Saskatchewan a 12-10 lead at the break.
In the third, the Mustangs retook the lead in what was turning into a back-and-forth affair. On their first play from scrimmage in the half, Humes burst for 18 yards and a first down. Then, on the next play, Hillock found Griffin Campbell wide open, and he won a footrace to the cone for six. It went down as a 50-yard reception, and gave the Mustangs a 17-12 lead.
The Huskies started both their first two drives of the second half with terrific field position, but were unable to score. They started their first drive on the Western side of midfield from the 51 after the Mustangs failed to recover an onside kick attempt. That ended in a turnover on downs on a 3rd and 1. Their second drive, following the Campbell touchdown, began at their own 46. They were able to get a couple first downs, but Solie then missed a 40-yard field goal to keep the score 17-12.
From there, the defences began to ratchet up their play. An unnecessary roughness penalty on the missed field goal return backed the Mustangs up in the shadow of their own goalpost at the 5. They were forced to concede a safety after a two-and-out, bringing Saskatchewan back to within a field goal, 17-14.
The next three drives all resulted in two-and-outs, and Western got it back with 3:01 left in the third. Evan Hillock went to the air four times on the drive, completing three passes. Two of those were to Campbell, who scored his second touchdown of the day on a 17-yard bubble screen to expand the Western lead to 24-14 after three quarters of play. Garrity would add to the lead with a 37-yard field goal early in the fourth to make it a 27-14 game.
That normally wouldn’t be much to panic about, especially in the Canadian game, but the Husky offence was nearly non-existent in the second half. They punted on their next drive before turning the ball over own downs for a second time on the day, unable to capitalize on a nine-play drive. The Huskies were able to punch it in late in the game courtesy of Machart, who ran one in from a yard out to punctuate an 11-play drive, but there were only 28 seconds for the Huskies to work with needing an onside kick recovery and a touchdown to pull out the miracle.
That miracle wasn’t meant to be, as Edwards brought down the onside, and sealed a 27-21 victory for the Mustangs. It’s their eighth Vanier Cup, and the program’s first since 2017 after a loss to Laval in the 2018 game.
Decorated Mustangs head coach Greg Marshall, who has won a total of 20 Yates Cups as a player and coach, captures his second national title as a head man, and fourth Vanier Cup overall.