LONDON, Ont. - One taste of adversity was enough for Greg Marshall and his Western Mustangs.
In a season where the top football team in the CIS cruised to an 8-0 record, outscoring its opponents 458-148 in the process, the Mustangs head coach remembers the importance of the one game the Mustangs didn't dominate from start to finish.
On Sept. 21, the Mustangs started the second half of the season flat, trailing the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks 17-5 late in the second quarter of their fifth game. While they responded with a 45-24 victory, it was the only time this season they were held to less than 50 points.
"After that game, I told the players it was good to go through some adversity and it was a learning experience," Marshall said. "In that game, we had shot ourselves in the foot early on offensively. We were playing out of rhythm. We had to settle back down and play more patient.
"In the second half, I think (quarterback) Will Finch had a stretch where he threw 10 consecutive receptions at one point."
With that one small exception, the 2013 regular season was a romp for the Mustangs, who finished on top of the Ontario University Athletics standings and earned a bye to the conference semifinals.
Highlights from the season include a 50-31 win over Queen's — the Gaels' only loss of the season — and an 83-27 romp over Ottawa. The Mustangs capped the campaign this past weekend 50-10 over the York Lions.
And they did all that with a new offence. Marshall, the CFL coach of the year in 2004 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, instituted a new play book at spring workout sessions, but didn't introduce it on the field until Western's third game of the season.
"You have to take the schedule week-by-week, but we felt if we were 3-1 after playing (McMaster) and Ottawa in our third and fourth games, that would be a good start," said Marshall. "Instead we got off to a great start and built some momentum, and the offence played with more and more confidence."
"Against Mac we introduced the new formation — a unique set for our offence where the quarterback is in shotgun and we have three receivers in the backfield in motion. It's been effective and we've done a pretty good job of balancing the run and the pass."
Western would beat the defending OUA Yates Cup champions in Hamilton, 58-15.
During the eight-game sweep, several OUA records were surpassed, including most points in a season (458). That eclipsed the 2004 McMaster Marauders (424), who were also coached by Marshall.
Mustangs kicker Lirim Hajrullahu earned the third-highest season point total ever with 130. He became the OUA all-time points leader with 422, passing the Neil Lumsden standard of 410 from 1972-75. Hajrullahu also set the OUA career field goals record with 77.
The Mustangs' potent offence is paced by quarterback Finch, who set a CIS record for completed yardage (3,047), passing former Mustang and current Laurier head coach Michael Faulds.
Finch, who is just a second-year player, has favourite targets in George Johnson (60 catches, 982 yards, 5 TDs), Brian Marshall (34 catches, 753 yards, 9 TDs), and slotback Matt Uren (17 catches, 254 yards, 1 TD) who is healthy now but missed four games due to a hamstring injury.
Marshall describes Uren as "maybe the most dynamic athlete on the team."
Finch's stats suggest he could be a nominee for the Hec Crighton Trophy as CIS MVP, which Marshall won in 1980 as a running back for Western.
"Will Finch certainly could be a candidate," Marshall said. "He could possibly represent (the OUA) for that honour. He's had that type of season. He shows such poise and leadership as he directs the offence."
Finch distributes some of his fame by complimenting his teammates.
"The O-line has been great all year, and the receivers are great at running their routes and catching the ball," Finch said. "Everyone on this team puts in the same hard work to create the chemistry — a real team bond. It doesn't matter if you're playing for a high school football championship or trying to win a Vanier Cup."
Injuries have taken a toll on the offensive backfield as Western lost Garret Sanvido and Adam Sinclair. Yannick Harou is now the last of three main ball carriers standing as Marshall feels Sinclair's season is over and Sanvido is doubtful for the post-season.
Western had 17 different players with at least one touchdown, including fifth-year linebacker Pawel Kruba with a 50-yard interception return versus Ottawa.
"We have a really cohesive team," Kruba said. "We watch a lot of game film with coach (defensive co-ordinator Paul) Gleason to break down the tendencies of our next opponent and then execute it on the field.
"It's fun to watch our offence from the sidelines, so we know our job is to get the ball back for our offence."
Marshall said one reason the team has had success with a generally young squad is due to the work of recruiting co-ordinator Chris Bertoia, who is also the offensive line coach.
"Last year, we graduated four off the offensive line. On offence last week, we started nine or 10 second-year players," Marshall said.
The OUA quarter-finals are Saturday with Ottawa Gee-Gees (5-3) at McMaster Marauders (5-3) at 1 p.m. in Hamilton, and Windsor Lancers (4-4) at Guelph Gryphons (7-1) at 8 p.m.