HAMILTON — The Western Mustangs have put up staggering numbers during their remarkable U Sports football season.
They are undefeated at 11-0. They led the country with an average of 48.3 points per game. They have outscored the opposition by a whopping 222-47 in the playoffs.
The only thing standing in the way of their perfect season are the reigning Vanier Cup champions from Laval.
"I know we've got a good football team but I'm realistic enough to know that this is going to be our biggest challenge by far," Mustangs coach Greg Marshall said Thursday at a news conference.
The top-ranked Rouge et Or (10-1) and No. 2 Mustangs will meet Saturday at Tim Hortons Field in a matchup of the two most decorated programs in Canadian university football history.
Western is looking for its seventh Vanier Cup title and first since 1994. The Rouge et Or are looking for their 10th national crown.
Something will have to give when Laval's top-ranked defence (9.6 points allowed per game) meets Western top-ranked offence (608.5 yards per game). The Mustangs will likely get a boost from the busloads of supporters set to make the 90-minute drive from nearby London, Ont.
Western started its playoff destruction with a 66-12 rout of Guelph, followed by a 75-32 victory over Laurier in the Yates Cup. The Mustangs then went to Acadia to crush the Axemen 81-3 in the Uteck Bowl.
Laval, meanwhile, has been challenged at times throughout its post-season run.
The Rouge et Or dumped Sherbrooke 45-0 in the Quebec conference semifinal before pulling out a tight 25-22 win over Montreal. Laval had a so-so first half in last week's Mitchell Bowl before topping Calgary 35-23.
"When you're involved in games that are decided at the very end, you gain the experience of adversity and that's definitely not negligible," said Laval coach Glen Constantin. "I like having experienced that kind of adversity during our playoff run."
Laval is 2-0 in head-to-head matchups with Western. The Rouge et Or edged the Mustangs 13-11 in the 2010 Uteck Bowl, two years after Laval's 44-21 victory over the Mustangs at the Vanier Cup.
Constantin, in his 17th year as Laval head coach, holds the U Sports record with eight Vanier Cup titles. Marshall is looking for his first national title in his 18th season (11th at Western) as a university head coach.
"We're expecting a hard-fought game, they're going to be the most complete team we've faced all year," Marshall said.
"There are no holes in their armour."
Quarterback Hugo Richard, a two-time conference player of the year, is coming off a Mitchell Bowl MVP performance. The Laval defence, meanwhile, is anchored by all-stars Mathieu Betts (defensive end), tackle Vincent Desjardins, linebacker Adam Auclair and defensive back Gabriel Ouellet.
Western boasts an impressive rushing attack led by Cedric Joseph, who ran for 100 yards last week. The Mustangs led the nation with 309.9 rushing yards per game in the regular season.
Quarterback Chris Merchant is in his second year with Western after transferring from the University of Buffalo. The all-conference pivot is also a threat to run.
Richard scored the game-winning touchdown on a one-yard run late in the fourth quarter of last year's Vanier Cup win over Calgary. He threw for 339 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-26 victory.
"To have success against (Western), we'll need to stick to the same recipe," Richard said. "Move the ball well, keep mistakes to a minimum, avoid turnovers and give our team good field position."
This is the second year in a row that Tim Hortons Field has hosted the title game.
The forecast is calling for mostly sunny skies and a high of eight degrees.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press