LONDON, Ont. – A strong defence and three field goals from Marc Liegghio helped the Western Mustangs finish out the regular season with a 19-18 win over the McMaster Marauders on Saturday afternoon at TD Stadium.
The win gives the Mustangs a 7-1 record, and secures not only a bye into the provincial semi-finals, but grants Western home field advantage throughout the OUA playoffs. McMaster moves to 6-2 on the year, good for third place in the standings, and the Marauders will host the sixth seeded Guelph Gryphons in a quarterfinal contest next week at Ron Joyce Stadium.
"That was a great defensive effort," said Mustangs head coach Greg Marshall after the win. "They did a good job in those third down scenarios."
Western's defence limited McMaster to only 281 yards of total offence and 17 first downs. They also made big plays in critical times including stopping McMaster on each of their four third down attempts. Western was led in tackles by linebacker Jean-Gabriel Poulin with 5.5, with both Philippe Dion and Malcom Brown close behind with 5 and 4.5 stops respectively.
Although coach Marshall was pleased with his team's win, he was quick to point out how the team needs to improve before they start their playoff run after next week's bye.
"The problem was we lacked any real flow," said coach Marshall. "Give McMaster credit they brought nine and ten guys and we struggled to put the ball in a good spot. There are a lot of little things that we did that we can clean up.[…] I said to our players - sometimes you have to find a way to win."
And find a way to win they did. The difference in the game ended up being a pure form tackle by lineman John Biewald in the McMaster end zone off the back off a missed field goal to score a single point to give the Mustangs the win.
Quarterback Chris Merchant went 16 for 26 for 185 yards and two interceptions. The Mustang offence was slightly put off rhythm by how much pressure the Marauders brought throughout the game, recording three sacks on the day.
"We saw it on film," said Merchant after the game, "They are a very good defence. We knew coming in they were going to bring the heat and they did. I'm not particularly happy with the way I played but it's nice knowing I have a great team around me to pull out a win when we need it."
With two of the league's top defences on the field, Saturday's contest was expected to be a hard-fought affair and it certainly didn't disappoint. Neither offence was able to get much traction in the first quarter, with the Mustangs leading 5-1 after the first 15 minutes, thanks in part to a 28-yard field goal from Liegghio.
Liegghio also marked his name down on the stat sheet on the final play of the first quarter, extending the Mustangs drive with a pass to Brown on a fake punt to get the first down. The kicker then capped off the drive early in the next quarter, connecting on a 25-yard field goal to put Western up 8-1.
McMaster didn't wait long to respond however, as they fired back on their next drive, scoring the first major of the day on a one-yard run from Asher Hastings.
The Mustangs pulled ahead only a few moments later as they put together a yard eating, clock draining drive of their own that ended in Stevenson Bone diving across the goal line for the score. The 76-yard drive lasted 13 plays and lasted almost five and a half minutes, and put the purple and white up 15-8. Liegghio would add another field goal before half to make the score 18-8 at the break.
Despite being down at halftime, the Marauders controlled the scoreboard in the third quarter, picking up 10 points off of a 35-yard touchdown pass from Hastings to Mitch O'Connor, and a 50-yard field goal from Adam Preocanin to tie the game at 18-18 heading into the final frame.
The teams remained deadlocked until midway through the final frame. McMaster looked to punt the ball away from linebacker Fraser Sopik shot through the coverage and blocked the kick attempt. The ball careened towards the sideline and Brown fell on it to give the Mustangs the ball with good field position.
"Coach Kaiser is preparing us each week for each punt scheme we are going against," said Brown, "We have definitely capitalized on punt block this year."
Despite the field position the Mustangs had to settle for a field goal attempt, which Legghio punched wide right. However, Biewald hustled down the field and tackled the McMaster returner before he could take the ball out of the end zone securing the single point to give the Mustangs a 19-18 lead.
McMaster pressured the Mustangs throughout the final minutes of the game but once again the Mustangs defence stood tall. Despite the pressure the Mustangs were able to hang on to secure the one-point victory.
With the win, the Mustangs will now have a week off as they move on directly to the OUA Semi-Finals where they'll meet up with one of Ottawa, Guelph, or Carleton, depending on the outcome of next week's two quarterfinal matchups. Both players and coaches alike agree that the bye will be beneficial to their chances in the playoffs.
"It is huge," said coach Marshall. "It is a physical game and we have played eight weeks with practices. We can take a breath and let the guys heal and have some meaningful practices on the back end. "
"Having this playoff bye is monumental for our team," said Brown. "And I already know coach Marshall is going to have us prepared after that bye week."
Source: Western Mustangs