LONDON, Ont. — The Western Mustangs are headed back to the Vanier Cup.
Chris Merchant came back from injury to lead the defending champions to a 47-24 win over the Saskatchewan Huskies in the Mitchell Bowl on Saturday and set up a rematch of last year’s title game against the Laval Rouge et Or.
Merchant finished 17-for-28 passing with 251 yards and three touchdowns, including one on the ground, after getting hurt on the second play from scrimmage after Western fielded the opening kickoff.
Merchant lay prone on the field for a couple of minutes after getting hit on his blind side while throwing the ball. He hobbled off gingerly with what appeared to be a back injury before returning for the next offensive series.
Alex Taylor rushed for 141 yards on 12 carries and had two touchdowns in support of Merchant, while Harry McMaster had 152 yards receiving and a pair of TDs.
Merchant, who was named the game’s most valuable player, heaped praise on his teammates.
"I don’t deserve any of the credit today," he said "It was all the guys up front.
"It was unbelievable. Everybody was firing on all cylinders, (Taylor) was just running the ball downhill and breaking huge lanes. Aw man, I don’t deserve this MVP award, it was the other guys. They all deserve it and if you could give it to the whole team, you should."
Kyle Siemens paced the Huskies with 256 yards in the air and two touchdowns, while Tyler Chow had 143 yards on the ground and a TD. Colton Klassen had 107 yards receiving and two scores, and Joey Trumpy caught nine passes for 98 yards.
"Their offence is good and their quarterback is as good as we’ve played, and we shut them down in the second half," said Western head coach Greg Marshall, whose Mustangs only gave up a single touchdown to the Huskies after halftime.
Marshall added that while it was a good test for his players, he would have preferred to rest a few in the second half had the score not been so close.
The Mustangs will face the Rouge et Or in the national championship game on Nov. 24 in Quebec City. Earlier Saturday, Laval romped to a 63-0 victory over the St. F-X X-Men in the Uteck Bowl to set up the matchup.
On Saskatchewan’s first drive, strong running by Chow and a spearing penalty by the defence laid the groundwork for 22-yard touchdown pass from Siemens to Klassen at the 10:06 mark.
After another three and out for the Mustangs, the Huskies fumbled a handoff on the Western side of the field. The Mustangs took advantage of that miscue when Merchant, looking no worse for wear, found wide receiver McMaster in the end zone at 7:49 to tie the game 7-7.
The Mustangs offence, however, was just heating up. On their first possession of the second quarter, Merchant hit McMaster again for the go-ahead touchdown on a 31-yard bomb for a 14-7 lead.
The Huskies answered with a field goal and followed that with an eight-yard major from Siemens to Klassen for his second score of the first half at the 7:00 mark.
The Huskies defence found Merchant again after the Mustangs pivot scampered to his left and was hit hard from the back just as he released the ball. After several minutes on the turf, he was helped off the field only to return for the next series.
With time running out in the first half, Merchant carried the Mustangs into field goal position, setting up a 37-yard field goal by Marc Liegghio that tied the game at 17-17.
After fielding a Saskatchewan punt minutes into the third quarter, the Mustangs went on an 85-yard drive, capped off by a four-yard run by Merchant to give Western a 24-17 lead with 9:25 to go in the third quarter.
In the midst of that drive, stalled at third and inches at midfield, the Mustangs went for it. Stopped short initially, the Western offensive line formed a rugby scrum and manhandled the Huskies back about 10 yards.
That third-down play was not lost on Marshall.
"It was a great push and it gave us a lot of confidence," he said. "I thought overall it was a great team victory."
After Western pinned the Huskies inside their own five-yard line, Saskatchewan opted to take a two-point safety rather than punt from their own end zone. The move gave the Mustangs a nine-point lead with just 15 minutes to go.
The Mustangs widened the gap to 16 with 10:26 to go when Taylor took a handoff and darted up the middle for a 51-yard run.
"All year it’s been the same story," Taylor said. "Our defence is just lights out and it took a little to get going there, but our defence just really showed up. It was just the right timing because our offensive line started to really click at that time."
Chow responded with a 64-yard run to the end zone just 30 seconds later. Down by 10, the Huskies opted to kick the extra point instead of going for a two-point conversion, leaving it a two-score game at 33-24.
But Taylor ran for his second score in four minutes giving the Mustangs a 40-24 lead that they wouldn’t give up.
Western back Cedric Joseph scored on a four-yard run with 2:41 left on the clock to up the score to 47-24.