Saturday's "Reunion Weekend" showdown between Western and Laurier was expected to be a nail-biter between the top two squads in Ontario University Athletics football.
The Golden Hawks came into TD Stadium undefeated, a program developing itself into one the country's elite squads looking to snap a 13-game losing streak to Western that has lasted since 2006.
And while the game never felt out of hand, the Mustangs dominated on their way to 45-26 win to improve to 5-1 on the season.
The main storyline coming into Saturday was the Mustangs powerful running game going head-to-head with the best defense in the nation.
But it was Western quarterback Chris Merchant who led the Mustangs to victory with an incredible 360 yard, three touchdown performance.
Merchant continues to improve week after week, developing from an efficient game-manager early in the season to a game-changing gunslinger who has taken control of the offense.
"Chris [Merchant] is really settling into the offence, settling into the system," said fifth-year offensive linemen Sean Jamieson. "Coming in as a first year guy is pretty tough. I think he has done a great job getting better every week and adjusting to the game plan. He's been great at developing each week into a better player."
Mustangs head coach Greg Marshall was happy with his team's performance in what could be a preview of the Yates Cup.
"They are a good football team," said Marshall of the Golden Hawks. “We knew they would be tough defensively and we had to pull a lot of stuff out of the hat to score some points. We caught them with Alex [Taylor] on man coverage a couple of times. We caught them coming downhill hard on the run and we caught them on the run. That was big for us. Overall I’m very pleased.”
The Mustangs' defense proved itself once again against Laurier, remaining poised as Laurier quarterback Michael Knevel looked to throw the ball deep downfield, limiting him to 243 yards on 11-of-30 passing.
"We are doing really well," defensive back Malcolm Brown said about the performance. "We are coming together as a whole and we are doing everything we need to. We're communicating out there, and if we see something we don't recognize we communicate really well and adjust on the fly."
The game was a hard-fought affair between two programs that pride themselves on their work ethic and physicality. Jamieson and the offensive line battled hard to allow Merchant time to work in the pocket.
“It was super physical in the trenches,” said Jamieson. “We had to battle for every yard today and I thought we did a good job."
Malcolm Brown led an impressive special teams effort for a Mustangs unit that has been unconventionally aggressive throughout the season.
He put the Mustangs up 14-0 when he scooped up a Fraser Sopik block of a Nathan Mesher punt, taking it 22-yards to the end zone.
“It comes with Coach [Adrian] Kaiser,” said Brown. "Kaiser has put a lot of time into our special teams. He puts a lot of details into special teams every week, game plans every week for every team and it works well. We’ve got a lot of blocked punts, some touchdowns out of that. It’s a huge turning point when you get touchdowns out of blocked punts.”
The Western Mustangs are rolling right now. And a perfectly placed bye next weekend allows for a number of key players to heal up for their meeting with the Ottawa GeeGees on Oct. 15.
George Johnson and fellow receiver Brett Ellerman left the games with injuries, as did defensive lineman Rupert Butcher. While Butcher's injury looked serious as he had to be helped off the field, Coach Marshall believes one of the key cogs on the defensive line should be ready for their next game.
“I’ve always said Thanksgiving is a great time for a break, not too soon or too late,” said Marshall on the opportunity for his team to rest. “We’ve just played two tough games and we have two more to play.”
Mustangs look more and more like a Vanier Cup-calibre team every week. If the players can heal up and refresh their bodies over Thanksgiving weekend, the they are in a good position to finish the season off strong and head into the playoffs as the hottest team in the OUA.