KINGSTON, ONT. — They came east to play the biggest game of their season, but to win it they had overcome a defence whose numbers told a tale of invincibility.
And in Saturday’s Vanier Cup national championship final, it was a heavy dose of those historic credentials which not only kept the UBC Thunderbirds out of the end zone for the first time this season, but one short step shy of climbing to the top of the Canadian university football world.
“You know, I think you’ve got to really commend the effort of our whole team, we played well,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill, whose ‘Birds fell 16-9 to the Quebec champion Montreal Carabins.
“We made very few mistakes, in regard to turnovers,” continued Nill who in looking to lead the ‘Birds to their first Vanier Cup title since 2015, nonetheless watched his team played perhaps its best defensive game of the season. “There were guys that really stepped up. We just weren’t able to connect as consistently as we usually do.
“We just struggled to make the really big plays on offence,” he added.
Indeed, UBC had won behind the momentum created by its ability produce dynamic plays in all three phases throughout the season, yet on Saturday, despite their best attempts, they had no play of 30 yards or more via the run or pass.
“We just couldn’t get the ball in the end zone and that was the difference,” stated Nill.
After throwing for 26 touchdowns and rushing for 14 more in the 11 games preceding Saturday’s national final, the ‘Birds (9-3) were denied, ultimately coming up one converted major shy of victory in the contest played in Kingston, Ont., on the campus of Queen’s University.
Incredibly enough, Montreal did not allow a touchdown in all 16 quarters of post-season play, and on the season, according to a graphic posted during CBC’s coverage of the title game, the Carabins did not allow a rushing touchdown of more than 10 yards all season.
“I think they are just well coached, they play their system, they force you to make plays and if you don’t, they are not going to give you anything,” confirmed Nill.
All of UBC’s scoring came from off the kicking foot of Kieran Flannery-Fleck whose three field goals kept the ‘Birds and quarterback Garrett Rooker in the contest with a chance to win it all until the dying stages of the fourth quarter.
Although he didn’t throw a touchdown pass, Rooker, who went 26-of-40 for 278 yards, had a clean, interception-free day, the final one of a revelatory 2023 campaign in which he returned better than ever from the gruesome dislocated hip injury that cut his 2022 season short.
Sam Davenport (66 yards) and Dane Kapler (64 yards) led the receiving core with five catches apiece, while tight end Lucas Robertson not only brought his blocking to the fore, but also caught five passes for 34 yards.
Running back Isaiah Knight was solid throughout and finished with a game-high 73 yards on 15 carries, however Montreal’s overall focus on the run game yielded a 163- to 84-yard advantage on the ground.
On three of its final four possessions, a UBC team forced to manufacture an explosive play in order to keep its hopes alive, wound up turning the ball over on downs.
In what proved to be it’s final shot at a comeback win, Rooker first completed an 18-yard pass to receiver Sam Davenport, which placed the Birds first-and-10 at the Montreal 39-yard line with 2:44 remaining.
It set up the Birds with three shots to win the game.
Then, after Rooker completed a six-yard pass to hobbled receiver Edgerrin Williams-Hernandez to set set up second-and-four at the Montreal 33-yard line, the season effectively was reduced to two snaps.
Rooker, however, was unable to connect with receivers Davenport and Williams-Hernandez on back-to-back shots to the end zone, the latter on a pass the pivot almost squeezed between a pair of Carabins’ defenders to a diving Williams-Hernandez.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, there were a couple of other opportunities as Rooker drove UBC down to the Montreal 16-yard line, but was unable to connect for a touchdown on back-to-back plays.
First, his throw to Davenport at the goal line was a little behind the SFU transfer, then throwing under a full blitz, Cesare Rednour-Bruckman was unable to squeeze a pass through traffic in the end zone.
Flannery-Fleck, however, booted his third field goal of the day, this one from 24 yards out to pull within a touchdown at 16-9.
It wound up being the final scoring play of the game.
Despite the suffocating defence of the Carabins, UBC trailed by only field goal for the first 10 minutes of the third quarter.
Montreal quarterback and Hec Crighton Trophy award winner Jonathan Senecal capped a seven-play drive after his offensive line held the fort on second-and-goal, scrambling seven yards for a major score. Phillipe Boyer added the PAT for a 16-6 lead with 5:15 remaining in the third quarter.
Despite being out-gained in net yardage 220 to 137 in the opening half, the ‘Birds were right in the game, trailing 9-6 on the strength of a pair of field goals by Flannery-Fleck.
UBC first got on the board by capping a drive which began on its own 24-yard line with a 32-yard Flannery-Fleck field goal on its first possession of the second quarter.
After forcing a Carabins’ punt on the next series, a promising UBC drive was snuffed out when Montreal defensive lineman Gabrielle Maisonneuve was able to knock the ball loose from Knight two yards into Montreal territory.
UBC, however, managed one of its best defensive plays of the half, when Jaxon Ciraolo-Brown broke up what looked like a sure reception to fireplug receiver Carl Chabot.
A completion would have given the Carabins the ball at the UBC 38-yard line. Instead, Montreal elected to punt.
That set up a UBC drive which began at its own 33 and ended on Flannery-Fleck’s longest field goal of the season, a 41-yarder which he booted through the uprights to pull the Birds to within 9-6 with 52 seconds left in the half.
Earlier, the Carabin had pushed its lead to 9-0 with 2:43 left in the opening quarter when receiver Iraghi Muganda lined up in the backfield and took advantage of solid blocking up the middle, carrying 18 yards for the major. Phillipe Boyer added the point after.
The seven-play drive covered 75 yards and was salvaged midway through its march when Montreal recovered its own fumble after the ball was jarred loose from running back Brandon Gourgon by UBC middle linebacker Ryan Baker. Montreal took a 2-0 lead early when the ‘Birds conceded a safety midway through the first quarter.
The Birds opened the game with a pair of two-and-outs on offence, and as part of a slow start, were held without a first down until 1:24 remained in the opening quarter.
“I think every game is an experience and we got beat by a better team today,” said Nill, who was seeking the program’s fifth-ever national title, as well as the fourth of his own coaching career.
“We got beat by a better team and maybe the kids will learn that they have to be better, that they have to perform better,” Nill continued. “You have to be a little bigger, a little faster and a little stronger. They still played well. Montreal is just a tough team. We played tough, we just didn’t make the connections when we needed to.”
For the immediate future, there will be a collective hurt felt throughout the team.
“It’s going to take some time,” said Nill, “but once we’re able to do that, I think we’ll sit back and say it was quite a year.”
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