It was an unbelievable finish to an improbable season.
Their own botched snap, then an interception, followed by a 20-yard field goal with one second on the clock, the UBC Thunderbirds defeated the defending national champion Universite de Montreal Carabins 26-23 to win the 51st Vanier Cup in Quebec City Nov. 28.
The turnaround of the lackluster UBC Thunderbirds culminated with the program’s fourth Vanier Cup, its first since 1997.
"This group of guys was not even picked to make the playoffs in Canada West this year," said head coach Blake Nill following the game. “What they have done is one of the most amazing things I've seen. This team has stood up to the best the country can offer and they have come out in front every time.”
Photo: Rich Lam, UBC Athletics
The site of the Vanier Cup, the Stade Telus of the University de Laval, had not been good to Nill over the years. As the head coach of the Calgary Dinos, he twice lost the Vanier Cup in the Quebec City suburb to the Rouge et Or. But signs — if you care to believe in such things — were there from the start. In a pre-season game, UBC defeated Laval on their home field in a feat neither UBC or Nill had ever accomplished.
With the win, Nill improves his Vanier Cup record to 3-5. He became the first coach to reach the national CIS championship with three different teams (St. Mary's, Calgary and now UBC) and the first coach to win with different programs. (St. Mary's and now UBC.)
But before the T-Birds could wrap up the Cup, they almost lost it and had to earn it back.
In another sign — if you believe in such things — the Carabins won the 50th Vanier Cup over McMaster by blocking a go-ahead field goal in the dying minutes. A similar fate almost played out against UBC when, the game tied at 23 late in the fourth quarter, the T-Birds mishandled the snap on a field goal attempt and turned over the ball on the Carabins’ 35 yard line with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
Montreal’s would-be winning drive was interrupted by North Van’s A.J. Blackwell when he intercepted the ball at the half-line. The intended Montreal receiver missed the pass but redirected the ball, tipping it for Blackwell to make the play with 70 seconds left on the clock.
T-Birds quarterback Michael O’Connor put the ball in the hands of veteran fifth-year running back Brandon Deschamps, and UBC landed 11 yards from the end zone after the Carabins were called offside.
UBC Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O'Connor (No. 15) threw for 389 yards and was named MVP of the Vanier Cup as the first first-year pivot since 1966 to win the CIS title. Photo Rich Lam / UBC Athletics
Third-year kicker Quinn van Gylswyk hadn’t missed from within 40 yards this season — take it as a sign — and during the game he’d already put UBC on the board from 42, 33 and 43 yards. The clock showing one second, van Gylswyk kicked the winner through the uprights. He thanked his teammates for setting him up for the “easiest chip shot.”
“Honestly, we thought we’d be a 3-5 team,” he told the Sportsnet broadcast crew before the Cup presentation. “We didn’t think much was possible.”
A 2-6 team in 2014, UBC won eight straight to finish the 2015 season 11-2 as Vanier Cup champions.
The T-Birds started the national final convincingly and led 16-0 against a defence that allowed an average 13.6 points all year. UBC racked up a string of first downs and scored on their first two drives, grabbing a 6-0 lead off the foot of van Gylswyk.
Nearing the close of the first quarter, Dylan Chapdelaine picked off a pass inside Montreal’s half and the T-Birds took less than 90 seconds to capitalize. Quarterback and Vanier Cup MVP O’Connor hit Marcus Davis, a second-year running back from Victoria’s Mt. Douglas secondary, for a six-yard major. Van Gylswyk was good for a third time, and UBC enjoyed a 16-0 lead.
The Carabins answered in the second quarter, taking four swift plays to score a 12-yard touchdown in double coverage for their first points of the game.
After the half, they held momentum and whittled into UBC’s lead.
The T-Birds lined up for a 10-yard field goal but instead pulled the kick and tried to run a fake touchdown pass, an aggressive choice that almost sunk them down the stretch.
Van Gylswyk called what followed “devastating,” and Nill labelled the play call “a mistake.” The fake wasn’t convincing, and the Carabins sacked holder Trevor Casey for a seven-yard loss then drove 92 yards in seven plays for a field goal that put them six-points behind the T-Birds.
Deschamps, who ran for 79 yards for UBC, gave his side a 23-10 lead on a 44-yard rush. The Carabins cut into that advantage with back-to-back field goals followed by a dagger of a touchdown. Montreal pivot Cousineau led an 88-yard drive and from six-yards, hit his receiver for the touchdown and took a share of the lead with 3:55 to play.
Fifth-year running back Brandon Deschamps (No. 33) rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season and ended his university career with a Vanier Cup. Photo Rich Lam / UBC Athletics
The teams deadlocked at 23, all that followed was some of the most dramatic football in Vanier Cup history. Both defences forced punts, then UBC gained 42-yards only to mishandle the snap on the shoulda, coulda been winning field goal. Looking to complete the comeback, the Carabins turned over the ball to Blackwell. UBC scored. The Vanier Cup returned to Vancouver.
(Photo: Montreal Carabins supporters react as UBC running back Brandon Deschamps (No. 33) and Alex Morrison (No. 85) celebrate the T-Birds reaching the 11-yard-line and setting up the winning field goal that clinched the 26-23 Vanier Cup in Quebec City Nov. 28, 2015. Photo Rich Lam / UBC Athletics)