UBC Thunderbirds upset Montreal Carabins 26-23 in Vanier Cup classic

UBC Thunderbirds upset Montreal Carabins 26-23 in Vanier Cup classic

Once in a great while, a team whose quarterback throws the ball a country mile and has a football mind just as long-range as Michael O'Connor's turns university football inside-out and upside-down.

The UBC Thunderbirds, on the wings of O'Connor's arm strength and a timely tip-drill interception by defensive back Kevin Wiens near midfield with 1:19 left in a deadlocked Vanier Cup, gave the more seasoned Montreal Carabins comeuppance with an 26-23 last-play victory on Saturday. Led by O'Connor going 31-for-51 for 389 yards and a touchdown pass, the 19-year-old became the first rookie in 49 years to be the winning quarterback of record in the the Canadian Interuniversity Sport football championship game. The transfer from Penn State, who chose and the West Coast over several major-college teams that wanted his talents, led UBC out to 16 and 13-point leads. In the final minute, after A.J. Blackwell deflected the final pass of Carabins QB Gabriel Cousineau's career, Wiens intercepted and O'Connor coolly manoeuvred UBC on a 53-yard drive that set up Quinn van Gylswyk to kick a 12-yard field goal with no time on the clock.

The result clinched coach Blake Nill's third Vanier Cup win as a head coach, and ended an 0-3 hex in title games held at TELUS Stadium.

"You couldn't have written a better script for this game," said O'Connor. "It means so much. We have a lot of dogs on this team, they're hungry, and they went out and got the Vanier. Give credit to Montreal, they're a hell of a team."

This is how quickly UBC came to prominence: van Gylswyk, the Thunderbirds kicking specialist, was their only first-team all-Canadian choice, as the punter. It almost looked like they had missed their opportunity after they had two field-goal tries go awry on bad snaps. The UBC defence countered that with two fourth-quarter takeaways, including rookie defensive back Stavros Katsantonis' strip and fumble recovery on Carabins running back Sean Thomas Erlington after a first-down run into UBC territory.

"Our coaches said there would be adversity throughout the game and we just worked to overcome it," van Gylswyk told Sportsnet. "The defence got it back [with Wiens' interception] and gave me the easiest chip shot, It's awesome."

The Thunderbirds were 2-6 last season before Nill moved over from Calgary and inherited a roster from predecessor Shawn Olson. Olson coincidentally quarterbacked UBC to its most recent Vanier triumph in 1997.

"Honestly, we all thought we were going to be a 3-5 team," van Gylswyk said. "After that devastating loss in the season opener at Calgary [49-16], we didn't know if this was possible. I can't explain it right now. It's just unbelievable."

O'Connor and his offensive line held up against the Carabins' pressure. Slotback Will Watson, with 12 catches for 171 yards, was sneaky good finding creases in between levels of the Carabins' coverage, while Marcus Davis had nine catches for 98 yards and wideout Alex Morrison grabbed seven for another 95. Graduating running back Brandon Deschamps chipped in nine rushes for 79 yards, including a 44-yard stampede for UBC's only second-half touchdown.

"The future's going up for them," Deschamps said of his younger teammates. "This is such a good young team and I'm loving every moment of it."

For historical perspective, it's arguably the least expected Vanier result since 2005 when the Laurier Golden Hawks beat the Saskatchewan Huskies 23-22, also by way of a late field goal. Laurier was led by a fifth-year quarterback, Ryan Pyear, in contrast to O'Connor being a frosh.

For the fifth time in six trophy games, Montreal was involved in a game decided by a field-goal margin or less. Cousineau finished with a near-identical passing line to his young counterpart at 31-for-45 for 391 yards, but with two touchdowns cancelled out by two interceptions.

The Carabins had a nine-play, 88-yard TD drive highlighted by a 37-yard snag by Regis Cibasu (five catches, 108 yards) that tied the game with 7:47 left. It seemed like a situation tailor-made for Montreal to get a defensive stop and methodically work for the winning points, reminiscent of how it pulled off the 20-19 win against McMaster in the 2014 Vanier.

However, UBC's defence held firm. The unit, which had two near-interceptions on a third-quarter drive that produced a field goal, found the third time was the charm when Wiens came up with the contested interception. O'Connor and his offence and van Gylswyk's foot took care of the rest.

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