|What might have been: Mathieu Bertrand shattered McMaster's Vanier Cup ambitions in 2003 with a game-winning TD run.|
Perhaps this post idea sprang as a rearguard action against the prospect of another football season where the road to the Vanier Cup will go through the Laval/Montreal/Blake Nill axis of awesomeness. The endless loop will involve some riveting conference playoff games that might be available only via webcast, the OUA being three-tiered (powerhouses, the pretty goods, the perpetually mediocre), and the AUS champion getting the obligatory pat on the head after travelling a few thousand kilometres to get blown out in the Mitchell Bowl.
So much depends on the bowl rotation when it comes to having a memorable final four. I am the guiltiest of trolling sundry Londoners when the team with the biggest football budget in Ontario, non-Stu Lang division, has their Vanier Cup drought extended for another year. In fairness, three of the four Yates Cup-winning teams Greg Marshall has produced since 2007 were on the road for their semifinal bowl.
Anyway, today's twist on fantasy football is imagining Vanier Cup matchups that could, would, should have happened. The parameters: maximum of two different outcomes in the conference finals or the bowls.
What happened: UBC 25, Western 23
What might have been: Bishop's-Western
Like their 1982, '97 and 2015 teams, the '86 Thunderbirds ventured down east for the semifinal, won it, and stuck around to win the Vanier too. That championship game was the first to match two undefeated teams, and it was one of the most dramatic, as Eric Pututo came off the bench to march UBC down a muddy field before connecting with Rob Ros on the winning touchdown in the final seconds.
However, the Bishop's Gaiters of coach Ian Breck certainly rated an opportunity to play for all the marbles at least once. The small school reached the Dunsmore Cup nine times in 11 seasons from 1984 through '94, winning four times. In '86, they won the O-QIFC (aka the Nontario conference) for the first time and hosted the semifinal on campus. Alas for BU, UBC pulled out a 32-30 win.
Bishop's vs. Western would have been the small Quebec school against the large Ontario school, with both wearing purple and silver. (They did meet in the 1994 semifinal, and in an interlocking regular-season game in '99, and yes, it looked weird.)
I am in no position to say whether '86 was Bishop's best shot at a national title during Breck's 24-season tenure. To nine-year-old me, football was boring and violent, and then-Gaiters star Leroy Blugh was a member of the North Fredericksburgh Kings junior men's fastpitch team, which won the first of back-to-back Canadian titles that summer.
Also, in 1992 the Gaiters were ranked No. 2 heading into conference championship week, with a high-octane O led by QB Jim Murphy and a speedy D bolstered by future long-time CFL deep back Tom Europe. Queen's stunned Bishop's 32-6. That day had two defining moments - a Queen's goal-line stand that maintained a halftime lead, and Brad Elberg housing the second-half kickoff, going 86 yards through the muck and mire. They played on grass back then, you know.
Odd note about UBC: all four of their Vanier Cup winning teams have had to go east for the semifinal. In 1987, UBC defeated Laurier at home, then got on the plane and lost the Vanier to McGill.
What happened: UBC 39, Ottawa 23
What might have been: Mount Allison-Waterloo
Kids, back in the '90s, you needed a landline to get on the Internet. Waterloo being good and the Atlantic conference having relative parity with the rest of the country were also whole things.
In the actual game, UBC, with QB Shawn Olson and the tailback tag-team of Mark Nohra and Akbal Singh working behind a stacked offensive line, beat Ottawa decisively. It was a bad game in front of a bad crowd of only 8,000 at Skydome. The small gathering might or might not have included an undergrad from another eastern Ontario university who relished the Gee-Gees getting their comeuppance, who would go on to become uOttawa's play-by-play commentator.
Both semis were high-scoring games, with UBC outlasting Mount Allison 34-29 in the Atlantic Bowl while Ottawa defeated Waterloo 44-37 to get the unification belt in Ontario. Since this is fantasy, one can assume the Mounties would have a healthy Éric Lapointe instead of having to carry on without the two-time Hec Crighton Trophy winner, who was out with a broken arm. Lapointe might have helped the Mount A defence get more rest, which would have helped defensive end Mathieu Gauthier and his mates keep up the fight.
The Churchill matchup is mostly remembered for the infamous "illegal interference by an unauthorized person" penalty on Ottawa that was called when the Gee-Gees mascot took down a Waterloo receiver. The fallout from that, apart from enduring infamy, was that the officials penalized Ottawa half the distance to the goal. Waterloo 'dive back' Eddie Kim broke a 17-yard touchdown run on an inside dive on the next play.
Ottawa's speed won the day, as Chris Evraire accounted for two of their three punt return TDs. That said, it would have been something to have the engineering school which had never won a Yates Cup before 1997 against the small school from the Maritimes, who probably would have had more support at Skydome despite Waterloo's proximity to the GTA.
Warriors coach Tuffy Knight had his wishbone running on all eight cylinders that season with option QB Ryan Wilkinson and 'pitch back' Jarrett Smith. The Mounties had a good offence built around Lapointe, who's now in the Hall of Fame as a university player. With all that running, they might have finished that game in 2½ hours, even with extra TV timeouts.
What happened: Ottawa 42, Regina 39
What might have been: Ottawa-Saint Mary's
Ottawa was dominant in the final seasons of the old O-Q (four conference titles and two Vanier berths from 1995-2000), while the Blake Nill Huskies repped the Atlantic every November from '99 till 2004.
Both teams were at a peak in 2000. The tectonic shifts in the university game factored into Ottawa an SMU never getting together for a game that would have included teams that with explosion-play capability in all three phases, and swarming defences.
Nill also had some experience with the Gee-Gees, since he was defensive coordinator at St. FX when they shut down Ottawa 13-5 in the '96 Atlantic Bowl.
The prologue was 1999, when Laval beat an 8-0 Ottawa team in the playoffs on the way to their first national title, and Regina imported their junior program into Canada West. (Ottawa was on CIAU probation, so 6-2 Laval hosted that Dunsmore Cup.)
Laval's ascendancy led to Ottawa and Queen's shifting their football teams back to the OUA, which diminished the bilingual university's ability to fish in the deepening Quebec recruiting pool. Regina, with 27-year-old QB Darryl Leason, also made one of the great road runs in 2000, upsetting Saint Mary's 40-36 in Atlantic Bowl in Halifax. That game probably started the conversation about an age cap in university football.
The way that Atlantic Bowl got away from the Huskies is unforgettable. Saint Mary's opened a two-score lead. A poorly directed kickoff created a wide field for Neal Hughes to house a kickoff with an 89-yard return, saving Regina the trouble of the need to run a one-minute drill for a touchdown and try to recover the ensuing short kickoff.
A quick exchange of possession followed Hughes' touchdown, and Saint Mary's gave a safety that cut the lead to a field goal. Of course, that meant kicking off again, which was a trigger for fatalists. Hughes broke a 67-yard return into the red zone, and Regina capitalized for the TD.
The tightening of the age rules certainly set back Saint Mary's. So have tighter budgets and OUA's introduction of
For those who don't recall, or don't care, 42-39 was a misleading score. The Rams scored a window-dressing touchdown and two-point convert with zeroes on the clock.
What happened: Laval 14, Saint Mary's 7
What might have been: McMaster-Saint Mary's
As alluded to up top, the bowl rotation has been less than serendipitous for Greg Marshall as a head coach. The four-in-a-row Marauders got to host a national semifinal thrice from 2000 till '03. By the last one in 2003, the "if not now, when?" desperation had traction beyond just the Marauders and their following, since OUA's Vanier Cup absence stood at seven seasons.
Laval got by McMaster 36-32 in the Mitchell Bowl on the margin of Mathieu Bertrand's long touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. Memories are hazy, and the game isn't on YouTube, but the way it's recalled is the Marauders were blitzing, so Bertrand coolly called his own number and scored on a quarterback draw. The Marauders had time to respond, but a pass just sailed past a receiver's hands inside the 10-yard line in the final seconds.
Who knows how Mac would have fared against SMU. We know that Laval eighty-sixed a great storyline. Mac would have been in its first Vanier since the event's infancy, while SMU was going for a three-peat. That's the contrast in team histories broadcasters love. Mac and SMU also had a familiarity after playing in the 2002 semifinal. Then you have the whole Maritimer resentment of Upper Canada.
Everything happens for a reason, though. McMaster would eventually get another chance against Laval.
What happened: Laval 29, Calgary 2
What might have been: Calgary vs. Ottawa
Calgary and Erik Glavic, two-time Hec Crighton winner, against Ottawa and Brad Sinopoli, the 2010 Hec honouree. Now that is a quarterback matchup that would play in Peoria: two dual threats who often extended plays beyond all logical limits.
Ottawa got home-field advantage throughout the Yates Cup playoffs on the margin of a one-point home win against Western in the season opener. The Mustangs avenged that with a two-point win in the Yates Cup, prevailing on Lirim Hajrallahu's late field goal. That probably seemed just to the Mustangs, who in the regular-season game had a potential game-icing TD taken off the board after being penalized for a pick play.
In the reg-season game, Ottawa took the lead with 35 seconds left. In the Yates, there was 1:45 left when Ottawa kicked a sure go-ahead field goal on a third-and-1. That left Western just enough time to reply.
Now, how can one say Ottawa should have been in the Vanier after failing to get it done on their home field in the Yates? Well, the Yates was close, and the spoils of winning was a Uteck Bowl against a banged-up Laval team with a first-year starting quarterback. The Rouge et Or just slipped by Sherbrooke 19-18 to get out of Quebec.
Western went toe-to-toe with Laval, but the Rouge et Or took down four interceptions and eked by 13-11 at a blustery PEPS. Ottawa was the more advanced team in the passing phase, and was capable of challenging Laval's back eight. Both the 2009 Queen's and 2011 McMaster teams beat Laval by taking vertical shots, along with doing a lot of other good stuff.
Any other matchup would have been more watchable than Laval plowing over Calgary in a snow bowl. Or maybe it would not have been.
That's the point; we'll never know, but it's fun to imagine.