Montreal Carabins give CIS football a 'fresh face' with Vanier Cup heart-stopper

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Danny Maciocia and the Carabins celebrating beating McMaster (Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press)
Danny Maciocia and the Carabins celebrating beating McMaster (Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press)

MONTREAL — Les Bleus now have one, which is still seven fewer then their rival up Hwy. 20.

The Laval Rouge et Or being what they are has made it easy, for those perhaps already predisposed to give Canadian university sports little more than a passing thought, to ignore the university's game growth. It isn't necessarily even or sustainable growthy. Regardless, after his team engineered a 20-19 Vanier Cup win over McMaster in front of 22,649 at Molson Stadium, Montreal Carabins coach Danny Maciocia hoped the team's rise could be a beacon unto other programs.

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"I don't know if it's the start of a new era," said Maciocia, who is now a Grey Cup and Vanier-winning coach. "But I think we needed a fresh face, I think it's good for football. I think it's good for university football in general. I think it leads other institutions to be believe that this could happen to them. And if they take that from this victory today then it's a positive message.

"All the institutions in our conference are great choices for young men, depending on what you're looking for, but obviously everyone loves to associate themselves with a winner," Maciocia added in reference to a follow-up question about whether Montreal's first Vanier Cup win will help it further narrow the gap with briefly-dethroned Laval.

"Will it help us? Of course it will help us, but it's still a rat race."

Eight-time champion Laval caught lightning in a bottle when it launched its program in the mid-1990s. The Quebec City sports market lacked an anchor team after losing pro hockey's Nordiques and did not yet have junior hockey's Remparts. No other French-language school fielded a team; future francophone Hec Crighton Trophy winners such as Éric Lapointe (1995 and '97 at Mount Allison) and Éric Lapointe and Phill Côté ('99 at Ottawa) leftthe province.

The Carabins, who began play in 2002, have more competition for eyeballs in Canadiens-crazy Montreal and play in a cozy campus stadium that holds about 4,000. Plus, as Maciocia alluded to, Laval's hole card has long been that's it the place to be for any footballer who wants to win a championship in the ultimate team game. After what the Carabins demonstrated, that's no longer the case. Winning one casts them in a new light.

'I wanted to be one of the first ones, to make history'

Montreal's core group, particularly pass receivers Régis Cibeau, Mikhaïl Davidson, Phillip Enchill, were an advertisement for themselves with the way they gutted out a win on Saturday.

"It means a lot," said Enchill, a possession receiver who scored Montreal's first TD in the third quarter after a fumbled kickoff return by McMaster's Isaiah Mels led to a short-field 42-yard drive. "It means we're probably going to get some new guys coming in, that's for sure. We thought it was possible from the beginning of the season and it finally came true. It was a difficult game but at tne end of the day, we got the W.

"Having a chance to be on the first team to do it, that was really the major point for why I came to the University of Montreal," added Enchill. "I wanted to be one of the first ones, to make history by beating Laval at their stadium and by being part of the first team to win a Vanier Cup.

"We all proved it today and just can't wait to celebrate tonight."

McMaster, as it did all season, played terrific defence, with end Mark Mackie notched two first-half sacks and Mike Kashak making tackles all over the field. Corners Joey Cupido and Steven Ventesca, in their final game together, were also solid. But Cibasu (six catches, 90 yards) and the slippery Davison (eight for 81, plus another 50 yards in kickoff and punt returns) found enough tiny openings in the coverage.

Montreal didn't flinch or get overwhelmed by the prospect of their season slipping away after only scoring a field goal in the first 30 minutes and falling behind 13-3.

"We decided to just have fun and play the game that we loved," said Davidson, a 5-foot-8 slotback in the Wes Welker/Emmanuel Sanders mold. "Not be stressed and just play with passion."

The Mels fumble and safety Anthony Coady's second interception of the game helped Montreal turn around the field-position battle. The nine-play, 65-yard march that quarterback Gabriel Cousineau (17-of-33 for 196 yards with one TD) engineereed for the winning field goal was their only drive longer than 50 yards on the day.

When it mattered, they got the big plays, including a 32-yard grab by Cibasu to the McMaster three-yard line that caused the decibel level to spike. A Sean Thomas-Erlington touchdown on the next play cut Mac's lead to 19-17 with 10:48 left. At that point, it seemed inevitable that Montreal would be able to wear down the Marauders.

"That kid is unbelievable," Enchill said of the 20-year-old Cibasu. "He went through a lot as a rookie. As veterans, we tried to help him through all the pre-season training. He just came through with unbelievable catches today. He was a big part of our victory today."

It took another eight minutes for Montreal to take its only lead. And, of course, it needed Mathieu Girard to block a 31-yard field-goal try with 52 seconds to seal the win. Montreal, of course, is no stranger to close shaves. In the Dunsmore Cup, it induced two end-zone incompletions in the final minute and forced Laval to kick a tying field goal before winning 12-9 in overtime. Coady also had a save-the-day strip-sack after Manitoba drove inside the 15-yard line in the final minute of the 29-26 Mitchell Bowl win on Nov. 22.

That's three wins by a combined seven points, even tighter that Queen's 2009 run (a combined nine-point margin in the conference final, semifinal and Vanier). 

"You just believe until the end and maybe some crazy play will happen," Cibasu said, "That's football, play to the end and good things will happen.

"We didn't just do it for us," he added. "We did it for all the people who have come to the program, We just made history and we're so happy for that."

The win should be a boon to the Carabins. It might represent a short-term challenge to other teams, such as cross-town rival Concordia under bright young coach Mickey Donovan, which are trying to step into the upper echelon. Laval will still be Laval next season, especially with young quarterback Hugo Richard having passed through his rookie season.

Getting back to the point, Montreal is now all the more established. And Maciocia is quite happy to stay in university ball rather than return to the oft-volatile life of a CFL coach.

"I never say never, but I'm at a great institution and I think this is one of the best jobs in Canada," he said.

Next year's challengers might have to go outside of La Belle Province. Laval has bid for the 2015 Vanier Cup, but Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which owns the CFL's Redblacks, has also bid to hold the game at TD Place. The Ottawa bidders' ace in the hole is that, with control of dual football-soccer stadium and an arena, they are capable of staging CIS championship tournaments in several team sports.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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