UBC hotshot QB O’Connor set to face wily veteran Cousineau in Vanier Cup

It will be the young hotshot against the smooth veteran at quarterback when the British Columbia Thunderbirds face the Montreal Carabins in the Vanier Cup game.

UBC landed this season’s most coveted recruit in 19-year-old Michael O’Conner, a six-foot-five pivot who spent the 2014 season at Penn State after playing high school football in Florida. He’ll be up against Gabriel Cousineau, who hopes to cap a five-year university career by leading the Carabins to a second straight Vanier Cup.

The teams meet Saturday at Telus Stadium on the Laval University campus.

O’Connor has been on a mission to become one of the rare Canadians to become a pro quarterback, spending his last year of high school at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., before going to Penn State.

However, the coach who recruited him, Bill O’Brien, was named head coach of the Houston Texans, leaving O’Conner with his replacement James Franklin, who left him out of the lineup. O’Connor was looking for a change, and UBC’s new coach Blake Nill convinced him he could still make the pros out of a Canadian university.

In his first year, the Ottawa product completed 250 of 414 passes for 3,570 yards, 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. More importantly, he got UBC to the Vanier Cup for the first time since 1997.

“It’s been awesome,” said O’Connor. “Such a great journey.”

Nill jumped to UBC from Calgary, where he had built a western powerhouse, and transformed a 2-6 team to one that went 6-2 and bested 8-0 Calgary in the playoffs. But Nill admits the Thunderbirds are still a half-formed team that relies heavily on its rookie quarterback.

“A lot of our success is based on his ability to make plays, to stretch the defence, which allows our run game to have some success,” Nill said. “Most Quebec teams are based on a run game.

“My Calgary and St. Mary’s programs were based on an ability to run the football, allowing you to open up the pass game. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be back to the traditional mould but we’re not right now and Michael is a big part of any success we’re going to have.”

O’Connor likes to heave the ball downfield, especially to receivers Trivel Pinto and Marcus Davis. UBC also has a ground threat in Brandon Deschamps.

Montreal coach Danny Maciocia had kind words for O’Connor.

“They’ve got as good a quarterback as we’re going to face this year,” said Maciocia, who compared O’Connor to Jesse Palmer, another Ottawa quarterback who played for the New York Giants from 2001 to 2004.

“I’m hoping, because I’m a firm believer in Canadian content, that we may see him play quarterback at the next level.”

Maciocia said Cousineau brings other qualities.

While O’Connor throws the occasional interception, Cousineau’s strength is protecting the ball and building drives mainly on the ground, led by burly running back Sean Thomas-Erlington.

Cousineau was one of Maciocia’s first recruits when he joined the Carabins in 2011, after his time as coach and general manager of the Edmonton Eskimos.

“I try not to think about it as our last game together, even though it is, because I know how much I’ll miss him,” said Maciocia. “He’s been special. A tremendous leader.”

Cousineau was not drafted by a CFL club, so the Vanier Cup game will almost certainly be his last. It would not be surprising if he goes into coaching.

“Next week I’ll become an adult — I’ll stop playing this game I love,” Cousineau said with a laugh. “It’s a little emotional.

“I’m having a great time with my teammates. We know that if we want to beat this very good UBC team we’ll need to have our best game.”

(Photo:Montreal Carabines' quarterback Gabrial Cousineau throws a pass against the Guelph Gryphons during the first half of CIS Mitchell Bowl football championship game action in Guelph, Ont., on Saturday, November 21, 2015.-Dave Chidley/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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