The Western Mustangs football team has been consistently inconsistent throughout much of the 2017 Ontario University Athletics season. Despite a dominating 59–7 win over the Windsor Lancers on Sept. 16, the Mustangs had yet to show that they were a true national championship contender.
It took a date with a historic rival, the biggest crowd of the season and a Hec Crighton calibre performance from running back Alex Taylor to change all that.
The Western Mustangs are for real.
The Mustangs have dominated Queen's University as of late, winning every game against the Gaels since 2013. Western continued their one-sided domination of the series on Saturday with a 48–10 win in front of nearly 4,700 fans at TD Stadium.
If it wasn't a perfect performance, it was as close to perfect as the Mustangs have been all season. Taylor found the gaps and put together big run after big run. Quarterback Chris Merchant was efficient in moving the chains both with his arm and his legs. The defence continued their imposing play, shutting down the Queen's offence throughout the game.
Mustangs kicker Marc Liegghio definitely played his part in the win, tying Western's single-game record for field goals at six.
While the Mustangs and Gaels have a well-chronicled rivalry, dating back to 1929, the importance of the game has changed for many in the Mustangs program.
It's still a rivalry, mind you. But as the Gaels program has fallen out of the ranks of the contenders, and as the nouveau-riche programs of the OUA from Wilfred Laurier University and the University of Waterloo are rising, the significance of the Western-Queen's game isn't the same as it was a decade ago.
With that being said, the two schools still hate each other, so a demolition of the Gaels was enough to make the Mustangs sing their post-game celebration twice in the locker room.
More importantly, the Mustangs played their most complete game of the year. And with a Yates Cup rematch with Laurier looming next weekend, head coach Greg Marshall is happy with where his team is at.
“It was our best game, our most complete game,” said Marshall. “Offensively, Chris was really good. He made good decisions ... With a defence as good as Queen’s has been, they felt their defence deserved to be 3-0. That’s how good they’ve been throughout the year.”
The Mustangs offence has come under scrutiny throughout the first four games of the season. Perhaps it's been undeserved, as Western leads the OUA with 48.6 points per game and 2,979 yards of total offence, but this team is being measured on a different level than the rest of the conference.
While the Mustangs had trouble finishing on a handful of drives, Liegghio came up in the clutch to put points on the board and extend their lead.
"There were a couple drives we didn't finish off. We took some chances and that happens some times," said Marshall. "I thought overall when we didn't finish, Marc got points on the board for us which was very important."
The Mustangs offence emerged as a two-headed monster on Saturday. Merchant threw for 306 yards and a touchdown on 18-of-29 passing. Taylor looked like one of the top players in the nation, running for 184 yards and a touchdown while catching two more touchdowns and 50 yards receiving.
Cedric Joseph added 63 yards rushing, while receiver Harry McMaster caught seven passes for 111 yards.
Taylor is the catalyst of the Mustangs offence. He is as dominant a running back as there is in the OUA. And after sitting out the Windsor game to rest his shoulder, which was banged up in the game against McMaster University, Taylor came out firing on all cylinders against Queen's.
“It was just a nice week to kick back and let things settle down a little bit because we’re heading into a tough stretch here ... I’d rather be healthy going into the second half of the season when we play competitive teams," said Taylor.
He's right about the tough stretch. The Mustangs have their most important game of the regular season coming up.
Everyone remembers what happened against the Laurier Golden Hawks in the 2016 Yates Cup. Revenge will be on the minds of every single Mustang who felt the sting of that loss last November.
“It’s a huge game ... first place, home-field advantage,” said Marshall. “Football is an emotional game. You try and put those things out of your mind and just play, but it will be in the back of our kids’ minds."