Down, not dead
This time, there was no reason for hanging heads and dragging cleats.
The Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks had left everything and maybe even the kitchen sink on the gridiron against their arch-nemesis No. 2 Western Mustangs in their 34-28 loss on Saturday before 2,688 at University Stadium.
The usually-stalwart defence, which had been the missing backbone in each of Laurier’s past two games stood tall and didn’t flinch in the face of one of the greatest offences in the country.
The Hawks (1-3) knew they had to get up for this game against the Mustangs (4-0). Not only to silence the naysayers, but to prove to themselves they belonged on the same field as the best team in the Ontario University Athletics thus far.
“We knew we could compete with them and we did,” said head coach Gary Jeffries. “Despite what a lot of people thought, we became a good football team today.”
Sam Aird and Mitchell Bosch led the way for the young defence with eight and 7.5 tackles respectively.
Bosch repeatedly shut down Mustangs’ quarterback Donnie Marshall and first-year phenom and Kitchener native runningback Tyler Varga.
Varga leads the country with 12 touchdowns in four games, and obtained three of those on Saturday.
But the defence held the prized runningback to only 88 yards rushing and no touchdown was longer than a six-yard run-in. Varga had averaged 122 yards per game in Western’s three previous tilts.
“That’s the defence we’re used to,” said Jeffries. “They’ve got a lot of weapons; a lot of ways they can attack you … our kids just dug in.”
Laurier gave Western trouble all game long.
With the score 21-7 and less than two minutes left in the first half, the Laurier offence started to capitalize on their few chances with the ball.
First, Dillon Heap, the fifth-year punt-returner shocked Western with a stunning catch just outside the end zone and Rashad La Touche, Laurier’s runningback turned-fill-in punt-returner ran it in for the touchdown.
Heap finished the match with seven catches for 176 yards, including a 63-yard punt-returning touchdown 8:45 into the game.
Just a minute later and with 11 seconds left in the half, Hawks’ quarterback Shane Kelly found Russ Jirgens in the end zone to tie the contest at 21 going off into the dressing rooms.
But Western is a second-half team and has historically pulled away from close matches in the later stages of their games.
Laurier was ready.
The defence held Varga to his third touchdown in the third quarter and allowed only two field goals in the second half — both to kicker Lirim Hajrullahu.
Then Western’s offence came apart at the seams.
Marshall’s passes started airlifting away from his receivers and his runningbacks Nathan Riva and Varga couldn’t muster any significant drives and while his receivers Brian Marshall and Andrew Thibaudeau, usually threats on the offensive lines, were stymied.
Heap completed his OUA player of the week-winning game with a 52-yard touchdown reception in the fourth.
But it wasn’t enough.
Untimely interceptions by Western deflated the Hawks’ momentum at crucial points, including a turnover during Laurier’s last-ditch drive with seconds remaining.
Kelly finished the game completing 27 of 48 passes but allowed four turnovers.
“Offensively, we gave them a touchdown,” said Heap, referring to Sean Blake’s touchdown.
“Coach V [Ron VanMoerkerke] put together a good plan and got us working hard for the week and it showed,” said Bosch.
The punting which showed its frailty as La Touche filled in for the injured Ronnie Pfeffer also needs improvement. Pfeffer and starting kicker Nathan Hawkes are close to returning.
Now, with homecoming looming, the Hawks will rest easier knowing they can build on the best game of their young season.
Laurier now faces one of the OUA’s top team in the Ottawa Gee-Gees, a team that eliminated the Hawks in the semi-finals 32-31 just one year ago. Ottawa then lost to Western in the Yates Cup final.
“It’s all about trust,” said Heap. “Ottawa is a good team …. They’re a little underrated, so it’s going to be a battle.”
“We’ll get some wins,” said Jeffries.
“This thing’s a long way from over.”