Mustangs Top Golden Hawks in Season-Opener
Western Mustangs FootballGreg Bowman
The OUA football season kicked off on Sunday afternoon, with the Western Mustangs battling the Laurier Golden Hawks in Waterloo, Ontario. Coming in, Western won 22 straight regular-season games, not having lost since Week 2 in 2016 against Carleton. The Mustangs have been the winners of 23 of their past 24 games and have a record of 31-3 in the past three OUA seasons overall.
Piling on the gaudy numbers of the past two seasons, the Mustangs have not lost an OUA season opener since 2007 – the only time in the current Greg Marshall Era.
Patterns continued in Week 1 between Western and Laurier, with the purple and white capturing their first win of the season 32-19.
“We had lots of young guys on the O-line that are playing their first game – basically a whole new interior,” said Head Coach, Greg Marshall after the win. “That’s as good a front as we’re going to see, so it was a little trial by fire.”
As per a new OUA mandate, training camps have been shortened by three days. The abbreviated training camps played in a role in the start of the game, with the score being just 3-1 after the first quarter in favour of Laurier.
In the second quarter - with just one prior first down conversion – Chris Merchant found Justin Nickson for a 62-yard touchdown pass to give the Mustangs their first lead of the season.
For Nickson, it was his first career OUA touchdown: “I was just looking at the reads, I looked over to the field and I noticed that the safety is playing very low,” said Nickson on his score. “I just knew if I get into the seam, Merch will get me the ball. He’s the best passer; he’s going to get you the ball.”
Given the slower start on offence, special teams were a factor early on. In the second quarter, Laurier lined up for a punt deep inside their own territory, which was blocked by Jacob Andrews. Brett Ellerman pounced on the ball in the endzone to give Western a huge touchdown, putting them ahead 15-3. The Golden Hawks hit a field goal at the end of the first half to go into the break trailing by nine.
Western came out firing in the third quarter. After another couple of stalled drives to open the third quarter, Merchant took to the skies again and found Savaughn Magnaye-Jones in the endzone for a 36-yard touchdown pass. Merchant finished the game with 236 passing yards, two touchdowns and an interception in his first game of the season.
Trey Humes added another touchdown in the fourth quarter as an insurance marker. While he did get into the endzone, he had a modest game, collecting 23 yards on eight carries. He was stymied for a majority of the game but got some good runs in the second half. “It gets the ball rolling, gets the juice back,” said Humes afterwards, who is a starter after a few seasons as the third-string back. “Our identity is running the football…doing play action when the run game’s not working - it doesn’t help at all… coach Marshall sticks with it. He loves running the rock so we’ll never stop. As long as we stay consistent with it.”
Western was outperformed on paper when the final statistics are tallied. Laurier had almost 200 more yards of offence than they did, four more first down conversions, and nearly 10 minutes longer with the ball. The Mustangs rush-heavy motto was unable to take off, which can be explained by offensive linemen adjusting to real-game speed, and two inexperienced running backs in the backfield.
There are a couple of injuries to keep an eye on. Daniel Valente Jr. left the game at halftime with an apparent injury. Starting middle linebacker, Myles Manalo, looked like he suffered a lower-body injury. Defensive lineman, Deionte Knight, was also helped off the field a couple of times.
While he didn’t get injured, Chris Merchant took a lot of hard hits. While some of them were simply a matter of the pocket collapsing (Laurier had five sacks), Merchant also made questionable decisions when he left the pocket, often trying to make a move and get more yardage rather than trying to preserve his body. While the determination is admirable, it’s not necessary for Week 1 when the Mustangs have aspirations of going to the Vanier Cup for a third straight year.
Defensively, the Mustangs were sound. They struggled to contain Levondre Gordon early on, but adjusted at halftime, rendering him obsolete. The secondary got burned on a couple of occasions, which is to be expected in the first game of the season. Merchant’s arm looks as good as it ever has, and the receivers are running great routes. Improvement needs to be made on the offensive line and the rushing game – which both influence one another.
The Mustangs will have eight days off before their next tilt. It will be a tough test, as they will be going up against their former Offensive Coordinator, Steve Snyder, who now is the Head Coach for the Queen’s Gaels. It will be the home opener at TD Stadium on Labour Day Monday, with a 7:30 pm kickoff.
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