UBC, St. Francis Xavier and Montreal complete CIS football's unlikely final four
In matter of minutes, Calgary, Western and Laval were gone — Nos. 1, 2 and 3 staring at an early winter.
So much for home-field advantage being a hole card in November. Headlined by makeover artist Blake Nill and Penn State transfer QB Michael O'Connor guiding the surging UBC Thunderbirds to a 34-26 Hardy Cup win against the unbeaten and top-ranked Dinos, all four road teams prevailed on Canadian Interuniversity Sport's conference championship Saturday. Defending national champion Montreal is the only holdover from the last fall's final four, joined by Guelph and St. Francis Xavier and Guelph (last conference title 1996) and UBC ('97).
Nill delivered conference titles in his second season in his tenures at Saint Mary's and Calgary. His T-Birds are one win from the Vanier Cup in his first year after leaving the Dinos, which won six Canada West titles in a row from 2008-13. The T-Birds will face St. Francis Xavier in the Uteck Bowl.
Coincidentally, UBC's road to its last Vanier Cup in '97 also went through the Atlantic conference.
Click here for 79th Hardy Cup: UBC 34 Calgary 26 video.
The T-Birds never trailed after the first quarter, and recovered two Calgary fumbles in the final two minutes at McMahon Stadium.
"Coach Nill did a great job of instilling confidence — we just had to go out and execute," the 19-year-old O'Connor, who was 24-of-35 for 356 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, told Global TV. "I know what I'm capable of. This meant a lot to Coach Nill. We just went out and did it for him."
Linebacker Terrell Davis was ever-present for UBC's defence, while his brother Marcus Davis caught both of O'Connor's TD passes and had 99 receiving yards on eight catches. Will Watson also had a game-high 122 receiving yards, as UBC found big gaps in Calgary's coverage.
"We knew we would have to manage the blitz, throwing hot routes or bringing in extra protection," said O'Connor. "If they want to go 1-on-1 with no safety help, we'll test them."
Nill's arrival heralded an influx of investment into UBC's program. The T-Birds, a 2-6 team in 2014 signalled they were turning a corner by defeating Laval in August in an exhibition game at the site of the Nov. 28 Vanier Cup. They lost by 33 points against Calgary in their conference opener, but have won six in a row.
Calgary QB Andrew Buckley, a Hec Crighton Trophy finalist, was 27-of-39 for 412 yards, albeit with only one TD.
All told, the four finals were decided by an average of 4.5 points, with two coming down to late field goal tries.
— By a bounce of the ball over the crossbar on Jonathan Heidebrecht's last-minute 42-yard winning field goal, St. FX edged Mount Allison 14-12 in the Loney Bowl for their first AUS championship since 1996.
In a cold, chilly environment between rivals that split their season series, coach Gary Waterman's X-Men kept veteran QB Brandon Leyh and the host Mounties out of the end zone for 60 minutes. The X defence created field position in the waning minutes, setting up the offence at its 47-yard line with 1:18 left. Three plays after wide receiver Randy Roseway drew a pass interference penalty on Mounties cornerback Devante Sampson, Heidebrecht hit the winner against a slight wind. It was X's first points all day at that end of Alumni Field.
Click here for StFX Heidebrecht AUS Loney Bowl game winning field goal video.
"Right after I kicked it, I ended up wiping out," Heidebrecht told AUS.tv. "All the guys were running down and I couldn't see it ... I was just really thankful that my team put me in position to try after my two earlier misses."
Defensive back Hayden Peters' interception and long runback with 14.4 seconds left sealed the victory, ending the Mounties' two-season reign.
"This was a really big emotional game for those of us in our fifth year," said Roseway, who scored the game's only touchdown on a 68-yard pass from QB Tivan Cook in the second quarter. "It's the first time for our school since 1996. It is so surreal, I don't even know what to say."
— Once again, Montreal won a trophy game by blocking a last-minute field goal. Defensive lineman Junior Luke swatted aside Dominic Lévesque's 19-yard try on the last play to clinch an 18-16 win over Laval, giving the Carabins their second consecutive Dunsmore Cup as the Quebec champions.
The defending national champs also blocked a last-minute McMaster field goal in the Vanier Cup to preserve a 20-19 victory.
Laval QB Hugo Richard seemed to have his team, which was down 16-1 at home in the third quarter, on the brink of a comeback victory. The Carabins inched ahead on a pair of a missed field-goal singles. Coach Danny Maciocia's swarming stuffed Richard on a third-down gamble before the offence bled some clock courtesy of a 43-yard run from running back Sean Thomas-Erlington. Laval managed to beat the clock to get back in scoring range before Luke broke through for the block.
The result marked the first time that Laval has gone two seasons without getting out of its conference since 1997-98, its second and third full seasons of CIS play.