LONDON, ON – Nathan Mesher kicked the game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock to cap the largest fourth quarter comeback in Yates Cup history as the No. 5 Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks defeated the No. 3 Western Mustangs 43-40 at Saturday afternoon at TD Stadium.
Trailing 40-19 early in the fourth quarter, quarterback Michael Knevel of Brantford, Ont., preceded to lead the Hawks on three consecutive touchdown drives before Mesher, a native of Waterloo, Ont., connected from 26 yards to give Laurier their eighth Yates Cup title in the 109th edition of the championship game.
“I am probably the only one crazy enough to think it could actually happen,” said head coach Michael Faulds after capturing his first Yates Cup as a coach to go along with the two he won as a player. “I tell the players that and they gave me a nod. But I truly did believe.”
“In the second half, they really started to get on us. We knew if we could hang around just enough, we’d have a chance in the fourth. If we could hold it to two scores, we’d have a really good chance. Once they got the third touchdown, to go up three scores, I thought it was probably slim to none, but that’s why we’re here now. We did enough to get it done,” added Faulds.
Knevel was named the Porter Airlines Player of the Game as he led Laurier to their first victory over Western since 2006 and their first playoff victory in London since 1991. The fourth year quarterback, playing his first season with the Hawks, finished the game 22-of-36 for 309 yards and three touchdowns.
“The thing I’ve noticed about Knevel since day one, is that he doesn’t get nervous at all,” said Faulds on his quarterback. “No matter how big the situation is, he just simply doesn’t, and from that, you can see the guys around him get more and more confidence.”
Brentyn Hall of Toronto, Carson Ouellette of Windsor, Ont., and Kurleigh Gittens Jr. of Ottawa, were all recipients of Knevel’s fourth quarter touchdown passes with Hall finishing the afternoon with a team-high 89 receiving yards.
Second year running back Levondre Gordon of Mississauga, Ont., also starred for the Golden Hawks, filling the void left by injured starter Eric Guiltinan of London, Ont., as he rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
Mesher had the best game of his Laurier career on the afternoon, including the championship-winning kick. He connected on all five of his field goals in the contest, matching his total from the regular season, while also tying the team record for most field goals in a game.
On defence, the Onyeka cousins, both from Brampton, Ont., were the Hawks top performers on the day for a unit that forced six turnovers on the day. Godfrey finished the game with 9.5 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups while Nakas, had 8.5 tackles, a half sack, a fumble recovery and forced the fumble late in the fourth quarter that set up Gittens Jr.’s game-tying major.
The group as a whole was key in helping Laurier complete the comeback as the Hawks limited Western to two two-and-outs and a fumble on their final three possessions after giving up 28-straight points to the Mustangs in the second half.
“It’s the philosophy that Coach VanMoerkerke preaches that regardless of what the score is, we’re still going to play hard and our body language is everything,” said Nakas Onyeka of the bounce-back effort of the group in the fourth quarter. “He’s been the defensive coordinator longer than anyone else in Canada and he’s owed pride for that. Although we played horribly in the third quarter, that kind of mentality is what brought us back in the fourth.”
In the 14th all-time meeting between Western and Laurier for the Yates Cup, it was the Mustangs that got off to a strong start, scoring on their opening drive with a 12-yard touchdown from Alex Taylor of Winnipeg, that put Western up 7-0 just over two minutes into the contest.
A 28-yard field goal from Western’s Marc Liegghio of Woodbridge, Ont., extended that lead to 10-0 less than two minutes later, however Mesher answered with a 22-yard field goal of his own to cut the Mustangs lead to 10-3 after the first quarter.
After a 19-yard field goal from Liegghio made it 13-3 for Western midway through the second, the Golden Hawks took control of the scoreboard for the remainder of the frame. Capitalizing on a number of turnovers from the Mustangs, Mesher connected on field goals of 37, 18, and 27 yards, while Gordon scored on a 43-yard run to give Laurier a 19-13 lead heading into the third.
Western responded with a dominant third quarter, outscoring the Golden Hawks 21-0 in the frame. Chris Merchant of Calgary, started things off with a 39-yard touchdown pass to George Johnson of London, Ont., followed by a pair of majors from Taylor to make it 33-19 for the home side after three quarters.
The Mustangs appeared to be in firm control after a 61-yard touchdown pass from Merchant to Harry McMaster of Niagara Falls, Ont., a little under four minutes into the final quarter, however the Golden Hawks took control from there.
Knevel tossed a 29-yard pass to Hall, who made a phenomenal catch in the end zone to begin the comeback with eight minutes left on the clock.
Ouellette narrowed Western’s lead to only seven points on the Golden Hawks next drive, catching a 23-yard touchdown pass from Knevel to make it a one-score game with 2:55 remaining.
The Golden Hawks kept their momentum rolling, recovering a fumble on the Mustangs three-yard line before Knevel connected with Gittens Jr. on a three-yard pass to tie the game at 40-40.
Western went two-and-out on the ensuing drive, giving Laurier the ball on the Western 52 yard line with 47 seconds left on the clock. A 31-yard rush from Levondre Gordon set things up for Mesher to provide the game-winning heroics, finishing things off with a 26-yard field goal to claim their fifth Yates Cup victory over Western and first win over the Mustangs in the Michael Faulds’ era.
“Obviously this is the one team we’ve never beaten, so it feels absolutely phenomenal,” commented Faulds on beating Western. “But I’m the type of guy that I’m already moving on to Laval, so I want to prep for them tonight.”
Laurier now advances to the Uteck Bowl which will be hosted by the Dunsmore Cup Champions, the Laval Rouge et Or, in Quebec City on Saturday, November 19.
Stay tuned to laurierathletics.com for complete game details.
NOTES: Saturday’s victory marks Laurier’s first playoff win against Western on the road since 1991…the win is the Hawks first Yates Cup title since winning back-to-back championships in 2004 and 2005…Laurier has won eight Yates Cup titles in 21 appearances in the conference championship game…attendance at the game was 4134