It’s Western’s running game vs. Saskatchewan’s air attack in Vanier Cup

When Greg Marshall became head coach of the Western Mustangs football team in 2007, he set at standard that remains unyieldingly high. 

In his tenure, Western has contended for major championships nearly every year, playing in the Yates Cup OUA title game 11 times and winning six. 

They’ve also played in two Vanier Cup national championships, winning once in 2017 and adding to the two national titles Marshall won as an assistant under Larry Haylor. 

At this point, winning is not merely expected, it’s required. 

But when the Mustangs face the Saskatchewan Huskies Saturday in the 56th Vanier Cup in Quebec City, they’ll battle a program with similar aspirations. The game can be seen live on CBC Television, CBC Gem and CBCSports.ca starting at 1 p.m. ET.

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In the four seasons since Scott Flory took over as head coach, the Huskies have won two Hardy Cup championships as the top team in the Canada West Conference. 

His club has the No. 3-rated offence in the country this season, just behind Western’s No. 2, and Flory is inching toward the same level of success he had as a player.

As a CFL Hall of Famer who won three Grey Cups with the Montreal Alouettes and two Vanier Cups as a standout on the Huskies offensive line, his standards are exceedingly high. 

Here’s what to watch for as these two powerhouses prepare battle for a national title.

Western’s running game:

The Mustangs have the best rushing game in the country this season, led by three stellar backs who all have the ability to chew up more than 100 yards in a game. 

Keon Edwards, a second-year running back from Toronto, was the No. 1 rusher in all of U Sports this season with 1,217 yards, 16 touchdowns and an average of 6.9 yards per carry.

Fourth-year back Trey Humes, from Ajax, Ont., was Robin to his Batman for much of the season, finishing as the nation’s No. 4-rated rusher. 

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But Saint-Jerome, Que. rookie Edouard Wanadi had a breakout game in the Mitchell Bowl against St. Francis Xavier, with 238 yards and three touchdowns. 

Look for Western to run early and often, especially if December winds disrupt the Mustangs passing attack.

Saskatchewan passing under pressure: 

Huskies quarterback Mason Nyhus, from Regina, Sask., has had an MVP-calibre season, averaging 265 passing yards per game and 21 total touchdowns. He’s a major reason Saskatchewan finished second in scoring average this season with 35 points per game (including playoffs).

But Nyhus and the Huskies offensive line will be under pressure from the remarkably stingy Western defence, led by second-year lineman Deonte White, from Ajax, Ont., who led the nation in sacks during the regular season with 7.5. 

Western’s defence allowed just 10.9 points per game this season, including the playoffs. Their average margin of victory is 36.7 points.

University of Saskatchewan Huskies’ quarterback Mason Nyhus averaged 265 passing yards this season and threw for 21 total touchdowns. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Another big game from Machart?

Huskies running back Adam Machart, from Saskatoon, will go down as one of the top rushers in school history. 

He also scored one of the most important touchdowns in recent memory, dashing into the end zone with five seconds left in the Uteck Bowl to lift Saskatchewan over Montreal and into the Vanier Cup.

Machart is a small, shifty runner — listed at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds — with a knack for dancing around defenders and the ability to make big plays. If the Huskies offensive line can clear space for him in key moments, he could be an X-factor. 

If not, it will be a long day for Nyhus and the rest of the Huskies offence.

Western has depth at QB:

If you want insight into Marshall’s tenacious perfectionism, have a look at the benching of Jackson White, who began this season as Western’s starting QB. 

White, a former understudy to Hec Crighton Award winner Chris Merchant, lost the starting job to Evan Hillock three games into the 2021 campaign. 

A shaky performance in Week 2 gave Western its only loss of the year, 23-21 to the Guelph Gryphons. The following week against Laurier, Marshall pulled White after a scoreless first half that found Western trailing 7-0 at the break. 

First-year pivot Evan Hillock, from Hamilton, took over in the second half, leading the team to a 36-16 victory. He’s had the starting job ever since, and White appeared to accept his role as a high-quality backup.

If Hillock falters or goes down, White may be able to step in and help. 

He said all the right things after being demoted, publicly placing the team’s fortunes above his own. This is what’s expected at Western, and other powerhouse programs that aim to contend every year: Win at all costs, and no matter what — stay ready.

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