HAMILTON (CUP) — In Saturday’s Vanier Cup, the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks did what only nine other teams in CIS history have ever accomplished as they edged the favoured Saskatchewan Huskies 24-23 to cap an undefeated season with Canadian university sport’s most sought-after crown.
The 16,827 fans that stuck it out through the bitter cold at Ivor Wynne Stadium witnessed one of the most even football matches imaginable – so close that the time of possession through 45 minutes was separated by just eight seconds.
It all came together for one of the most thrilling finishes in the Vanier Cup’s 41-year history, as Laurier kicker Brian Devlin found himself faced with a 32-yard kick that would indelibly etch his name into Hawks’ history books. With 19 seconds left on the game clock, the reticent second-team All-Canadian calmly converted the biggest kick of his life, having already missed from a shorter distance in the first quarter.
“He’s got ice in his veins,” commented quarterback Ryan Pyear and the team’s emotional leader. “He always makes the biggest kicks … and he did it again today.”
The victory was very much in doubt midway through the fourth quarter. After jumping to a 15-7 lead, thanks to touchdown strikes to third-year slotback Andy Baechler and fifth-year running back Nick Cameron, the Hawks watched their eight-point advantage dissipate quickly.
The Huskies looked to David Stevens on a six-yard pass from quarterback Steve Bilan. Stevens led the way for Saskatchewan all day, amassing an obscene 240 yards from scrimmage, including all three Huskies touchdowns.
However, after linebacker Jesse Alexander knocked down Bilan’s two-point convert attempt, the Hawks retained a tenuous 15-13 lead.
As the Laurier offence stalled, momentum shifted decisively to the experienced Saskatchewan squad. Kicker Braden Suchan split the uprights from 41 yards out just over two minutes into the final frame to give the Huskies a 16-15 advantage.
The raucous and predominately Laurier crowd caught another an unwelcome glimpse of Stevens at his best on the first play of Saskatchewan’s next drive, as he busted out towards the right sideline and powered his way 85 yards for the major, in what looked to be the decisive blow. With under seven minutes remaining, Laurier faced the unpleasant task of putting up eight points against the nation’s second stiffest defence.
The adversity didn’t seem to phase the Hawks, though. “Ry [Pyear] just said it in the huddle,” explained slotback Andrew Agro, who led the team with six receptions for 81 yards, most of them coming in the final minutes. “He’s like, ‘You know what? This is for the rest of our lives.’
“For some reason, we just knew it was going to work out,” he added.
So, on the strength of offensive coordinator Stefan Ptaszek play-calling mastery, Laurier strung together a timely eight-play, 79-yard scoring march. Amidst Cameron runs and Agro receptions, Bryon Hickey made two key grabs, first demonstrating tremendous concentration while ripping a near interception from the hands of Saskatchewan linebacker Morley Miller and then capping the drive with a cross-body catch in the back of the endzone.
With just under three minutes remaining, Laurier missed a potentially game-tying two point convert. Thanks to a pair of quick defensive stops, Pyear and company were granted one last chance to complete their storybook ending. With 2:27 remaining on the clock, Laurier, a team that has shunned individual accolades all year, a true team in every sense of the word, simply banded together.
After a completion to Agro, the Huskies defence read a run and stopped Cameron for a loss, forcing a WLU timeout facing third and 16. But the seeming team of destiny found a way, as Pyear hit second-year quarterback turned wide receiver Dante Luciani, who dodged his way to an all-important first down to keep hope alive.
Working for every extra inch, Laurier ran a screen pass to Cameron and a couple of short runs to set up Devlin’s gut-wrenching field goal attempt.
After missing wide left in the first quarter and a botched snap in the third, the old adage proved true, as Devlin split the uprights making this third time a charm and giving the Hawks a 24-23 lead.
All that remained was a pointless last ditch effort from the Huskies as time ran out on the perennial bridesmaids from Saskatchewan.
“We played our hearts out,” Huskies head coach, Brian Towriss said.
“We lost a tough one last year. We lost a tough one this year. We just have to go get a little better, I guess,” he added, as his veteran squad limped off the field with their third Vanier Cup disappointment in four years.
Most of Laurier’s elated fans were too busy storming the field to notice.
“This is exactly how I wanted to go out,” explained a euphoric Pyear moments after accepting the Ted Morris Trophy as the game’s MVP.
Pyear connected on 20 of 30 passes on the day, good for 254 yards, three touchdowns and an unforgettable final two drives.
Watching the celebrations, it was all too clear that this was a team carrying a chip on their shoulder all season, a team on a mission. As the first Ontario University Athletics representative in the Vanier Cup since 1995, respect was hard to come by. Some predictions from out West had the Hawks the victims of a 46-7 shellacking.
“We were laughing,” smiled Hickey. “There’s no way we were losing by 40 points. That’s the kind of disrespect Ontario gets.”
In the end, though, his roommate and best friend stated it best. “We’re the greatest team in Canada and no one can take that away from us,” said Agro.