It started out as just another season.
The Western Mustangs opened their 2016 campaign in typical fashion, rolling over a lesser opponent. Greg Marshall's crew hosted the Windsor Lancers and destroyed the visitors 78-6 with Stevenson Bone and newcomer Chris Merchant splitting snaps at quarterback.
A week later it was off to the capital for a game with Carleton. Things didn't start well for Western as the Ravens jumped out to a 24-0 lead. The Mustangs came back, scoring 31-consecutive points, before the home side rebounded for a thrilling 38-31 win.
That game is a bit easier on Marshall now then it was then.
"In the first half everything that could go wrong did go wrong," Marshall told In The Huddle. "We couldn't extend drives, we'd miss tackles. It was great that we came back and still had a chance to win the football game."
Western has strung together five consecutive wins since that Labour Day eve loss.
A major component of the streak has been Merchant, a transfer from the University of Buffalo. He's played exceptionally well of late, posting a 67-percent completion rate and throwing 14 TD passes - fourth best in the country.
When did Marshall know that Merchant was the QB he wanted to lead the Mustangs forward?
"When we played against Guelph, he stood in there and he threw the ball very well," stated the coach. "He's shown consistency in practice and is always watching film and studying hard."
The success wasn't immediate.
"Early on, we'd go no huddle and he wouldn't be on the same page as everybody else," confessed the coach.
Merchant is quite obviously a lot more comfortable now.
Having a team whose running game is averaging 285-yards per game certainly helps. Opposing teams have to commit to stopping the run, so the QB doesn't have to worry as much about linebackers dropping back into coverage. It is also beneficial that Western is not afraid to run the ball on second and ten, which keeps defences honest.
"The thing I'm most pleased about is that we've gotten better every week across the board," said Marshall. "As coaches that's what you want to see and we've seen improvement across the board."
A big part of the consistent improvement dates back to the Carleton loss.
"When you win big all the time there's not the sense of urgency in practice," confessed the coach. "We know that we have to work hard to get better every week. A little adversity is a good thing."
One group that is playing very well, and in fact may be the Mustangs biggest strength, is the offensive line. When asked about this unit, Marshall couldn't say enough positive things.
"They're very good," said a suddenly excited coach, "We lost a couple of key players, three starters, and we moved Sean Jamieson to tackle (from guard). In the Guelph game Dylan Giffen got hurt. We put David Brown at tackle and he's having a great year."
Marshall also had very high praise for the man in the middle.
"Matt Van Praet at center, he's the sparkplug for our offence," said the coach. "He got hurt against Carleton. He hurt is back and missed the next two games. He's one of the best centers I've ever coached."
He also beamed about a London native in his first year as a 'Stang.
"A true freshman at right guard," explained Marshall. "He's an undersized kid (6'0", 303 pounds), but if there's a better freshman offensive lineman out there than Matt Bettencourt I'd be surprised."
The play of the line has helped Western get on a major roll. After the loss to Carleton the Mustangs disposed of Waterloo, then the schedule got tougher. They faced Queen's, Guelph, Laurier and Ottawa in successive weeks. The result? Four wins, with an average margin of victory of 30 points, including last week's surprisingly easy 68-17 win over the Gee-Gees in Ottawa.
"Seems like we've been playing good teams for a while now," said Marshall. "We had the toughest schedule in the league, with road games in Ottawa (against both the Gee-Gees and Ravens) and in Kingston. We're battle tested. There were no easy games down the stretch."
That slate of tough games of late culminates this week with a home date against McMaster, also at 6-1 this year, and part of a three way first-place tie with Laurier.
Leading the Marauders defence is Mike Kashak, who leads all CIS players with 11.5 sacks.
"MAC presents a lot of challenges," admitted Marshall. "Their edge players are very good, they may be better than Laurier. Different, but just as effective."
The coach sums up the game in five simple words.
"Getting first place is huge."
It's a fantastic way to whet the playoff appetite.
The O Zone:
Western's win at Ottawa may not have turned heads, but the margin of victory certainly did. The visitors jumped out to a 28-3 lead before coasting to a stunning 68-17 win. Alex Taylor rushed for 160 yards and three touchdowns. Ten different receivers caught passes for the Mustangs. Ottawa QB Derek Wendel was held to a season-low 228 yards passing, with receiver Mitchell Baines accounting for 101 of those yards. As a team Western compiled 733 total offensive yards, while winning the time of possession battle 35:42 to 24:18.
If the playoff started this week the Guelph Gryphons season would be over. The defending Yates Cup champs lost 27-25 at Laurier in a rare Friday morning game. The Gryphs cut the lead to two points with a touchdown in the game's final minute, but a two-point conversion attempt failed and the Golden Hawks held on for the win. Levondre Gordon led the winners with 193 yards on just 12 carries, including a 71-yard TD run. As a group the Hawks compiled four sacks, three interceptions and nine tackles for a loss. A'dre Fraser was a bright spot for Guelph, catching nine passes for 127 yards. In simple terms, if Guelph beats York, Ottawa beats Queen's and Laurier beats Windsor, the Gryphons are in thanks to their 38-29 win over Queen's in Week Three.
The Gaels have their playoff fate in their own hands after a convincing 55-5 win over Windsor in front of a Homecoming crowd of over 8,000. The Queen's defence held Tarrence Crawford to just 58 rushing yards on 20 carries. The D also had a two-interception performance by Wesley Mann. Nate Hobbs threw for three TDs, Jonah Pataki rushed for 139 yards and three scores, while Matteo Del Brocco had nine catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
McMaster scored the game's final 50 points in a 64-2 thumping of York. Both Chris Pezzetta and Dominic Mandalfino rushed for over 100 yards in the win. The Lions had just 25 net rushing yards and just 11 first downs, oddly, all of which came passing the ball – no rushing first downs and none via penalty.
And the University of Toronto Varsity Blues finished its season with a 38-7 win over Waterloo. Marcus Hobbs threw for 348 yards, with Rahul Madan and Anthony Naccarato having over 100 receiving yards apiece. The Warriors moved the ball well, but just couldn't finish drives with points. Lucas McConnell passed for 328 yards, with Jordan Hoover topping the 100 receiving-yards mark. Varsity's final record this year is 2-6.