The UBC Thunderbirds climbed to the peak of the Canadian university football world on Saturday, winning a national championship with a roster so young and an ascent so swift that simply watching them hoist the Vanier Cup trophy seemed at once surreal and unimaginable.
Yet from the ashes of a 2-6 team that didn’t even make the conference playoffs a year ago, to one that beat the defending champion Montreal Carabins 26-23 behind a walk-off 20-yard field goal by Victoria native Quinn van Gylswyk, their miraculous transformation under first-year head coach Blake Nill was as real and tangible as the eight straight victories they reeled off to finish their campaign with the school’s first national title in 18 years.
“Oh man, it is indescribable,” said UBC running back Brandon Deschamps, who rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown in the final game of his collegiate career. “You spend your entire life working for this. You spend every day in the offseason training just for the opportunity to get to the Vanier Cup. Then to win a Vanier Cup on the last play of the game? It was something I’m going to remember this for the rest of the life. It’s still tough to process everything right now.”
One man who could was the veteran of so many national title tilts.
Nill, who became the first coach in CIS history to lead three different programs to the Vanier Cup, had already won two crowns at St. Mary’s. But the truth is, he’d come out on the short end of national-title games on more occasions than he’d care to remember.
That’s what made his Saturday so special.
“It just feels good to win one, instead of losing one like that,” said Nill of van Gylswyk’s winning kick, “because I’ve lost about four like that. It’s incredible. I’m going to have to relive this forever. You’ve got to remember, this is a group of guys, I don’t think they were even picked to make the playoffs in Canada West this year. And what they have done, I think, is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen.”
That’s a big statement, but looking at all of the things that UBC overcame, not only throughout a season in which top-end recruits meshed seamlessly with a large, existing core, but in a game which continually threatened to crush their second-half will, it was all too fitting.
UBC’s Mitch Barnett kisses the Vanier Cup held aloft by teammate Terrell Davis on Saturday in Quebec City. (Richard Lam, UBC)
Luckily for UBC, quarterback Michael O’Connor was wearing their colours. O’Connor became the first freshman pivot since 1966 to lead his team to a Vanier Cup title. And the unshakable one did it by passing for 389 yards and a first-half touchdown to slotback Marcus Davis.
“We worked all year to get to this moment and to win it like we did, man, wow, that was amazing,” said O’Connor. “Man, I can’t say enough about our receivers.”
The numbers did all of the talking. Will Watson had 171 yards in receptions, while Davis had 98 yards and Alex Morrison 95.
The Carabins, outplayed throughout the first half, had rallied from 13 points down in the second to tie the game 23-23 when UBC mounted what it hoped would be a national title-winning drive from its own 23-yard line with 3:42 remaining.
The ‘Birds put themselves in position to kick a potential game-winning 41-yard field goal with 90 seconds remaining, but a low snap resulted in holder and back-up quarterback Trevor Casey being sacked for a 10-yard loss, and the the T-Birds turning the ball over on downs to a Montreal.
But that is when the football gods shined on UBC.
Carabins quarterback Gabe Cousineau had a pass attempt tipped into the air and intercepted by UBC defensive back A.J. Blackwell with 1:19 remaining.
“Every game, I’ve dreamed of a pick,” said Blackwell of his first-ever CIS interception. “I can’t believe it happened in the national championship. That’s the craziest part. It’s just so surreal. I don’t think it will hit me for a while. I don’t know if I’ll be able to assimilate back into real life.”
UBC Thunderbirds pose with the spoils of victory. (Richard Lam, UBC)
UBC took advantage of a Montreal offside for a first down with 47 seconds remaining, then got a 15-yard run from Deschamps before running the clock down to one second remaining, setting the stage for Van Gylswyk, who booted the winning field goal on the final play of the game.
Deschamps opened the second half, patiently waited for some text-book blocking to unfold in front of him before finding the end zone on a 44-yard run and a 23-10 lead.
Montreal’s David Deschamps kicked back-to-back field goals to make it 23-16, but the second field goal should well have been a touchdown had it not been for near-interceptions at the goal line on back-to-back plays by Terrell Davis and Mitch Barnett.
UBC defensive back Stavros Katsantonis later forced and recovered a fumble that the ‘Birds were not able to turn into points.
The Thunderbirds dominated the majority of the first half, capping its first two drives with 45- and 33-yard field goals from van Gylswyk.
Dylan Chapdelaine’s first-half interception set up O’Connor’s only touchdown pass of the game, and safety Taylor Loffler and Terrell Davis led UBC with 7.5 tackles apiece.