Vanier Cup vantage point: Why Laval's ninth title stands apart from the first eight

HAMILTON -- From 0-1 to the last ones standing, Laval took a different path to its ninth Vanier Cup.

To an outsider, all the Laval football titles and Carleton men's basketball championships loop together. In the case of the Rouge et Or, it isn't until they take off those metallic gold helmets that could keep a stadium lit in case of a power failure that one remembers there are still young student-athletes carrying out coach Glen Constantin's grand design and they are mortal. This season, Laval had one of its youngest squads since its nascence -- "15 new starters, only three fifth-year kids," Constantin noted -- and still managed to win the national championship by defeating Calgary 31-26 at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday.

All of those down-to-the-wire grudge matches against the Montréal Carabins might have provided that critical bit of resilience against well-prepared Calgary.

"It built our character and we got to give it to the University of Montreal Carabins," quarterback Hugo Richard, who received the Ted Morris Memorial Trophy as offensive player of the game, said. "They give us great games every single time. We never know how it's going to end. It's a great rivalry that drives Quebec football in the right direction. This season, playing them three times, it showed us that regardless of the score or the situation we can always execute and come out on the top.

"The situation has changed, Montreal has risen up to the challenge, It's great for them, great for us, great for football and we know we have to push our limits every time ... regardless of how and when, it feels great to play to the end of the season and now to come out with a win at the end it's just the cherry on top of the sundae."

Laval has learned it can be defeated even if it plays at its peak. They lost to Montréal at home in the season opener, which immediately meant being the visitors in the Dunsmore Cup. Laval had no applicable experience with that role, since it has only gone on the road for a conference final twice. The last time was in 2004 against the Carabins, who at the time a talented but nonetheless third-year program.

This time around, they eked out 20-17 win on the margin of a trick-play touchdown in the final minute of the game.

Laval's Vanier victories have typically been dull defensive battles or walkovers, so winning a scoring battle is something new. Richard shrugged off seven sacks to go 25-of-32 for 339 yards while being responsible for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). The young defence, with five second-year players in the front seven and first-year eligible cornerback Frederic Gagnon and halfback Adam Auclair starting in the secondary, was very bendy in allowing 553 yards. That said, the unit did not give up another touchdown after Dinos Dinos backup QB Adam Sinagra replaced injured Jimmy Underdahl late in the first quarter.

A third-and-one stop gave the Dinos time for a victory drive. It looked like it might happen, with Sinagra moving Calgary to the Laval 23-yard line with 39 seconds left. Laval was able to hold on, inducing three incompletions in a row.

"Every Vanier Cup feels like your first," Constantin said. "They're different stories, different kids, every one feels like your first, it's a very very special one -- a game for the ages.

"The second- and third-year guys, I'm so proud of them," Constantin said. "They had to watch those two losses in the last two Dunsmore Cups so they hadn't experienced something like this. This is huge, especially since maybe those Dunsmore Cups [losses against Montreal in 2014 and '15] were starting to weigh on them a bit."

Calgary outgained Laval 553-446. Ultimately, the Rouge et Or got 21 points off of turnovers, as their first and last touchdowns came on short fields. Auclair's interception and return to the Dinos' 37-yard line in the first quarter helped facilitate a touchdown that pared Calgary's early lead to 14-7. A strip sack set up a third-quarter TD.

Midway through the fourth quarter, it appeared to be setting up for Richard to lead a go-ahead drive after Calgary had inched ahead 26-24. Instead, on second-and-10 at the Dinos' 39, Richard tried to throw across his body while he was being restrained by a tackler. The Dinos' Adam Laurensse dove and made the interception.

Laval got another chance by forcing a punt. Defensive back Raphael Robidoux skied to make the block and the recovery gave Laval possession on the Dinos' 15-yard line. Literally no one the sideline was thinking, great, the worst-case scenario is a short field goal and a one-point lead.

"I'm close with the special teams coordinator," fifth-year slotback Félix Faubert-Lussier said. "He told me the block was coming and when I saw it happen I was pretty stoked, jumping all oer the place. We knew they had a great kicker (Nick DiFonte, who was 4-of-4 on field goals) so we didn't want to settle for three points. We wanted to close it out ourselves."

Richard coolly checked back in and used his legs to score on a one-yard rush with 2:33 left in the game.

"He took some great shots downfield," Constantin said of his third-year quarterback. "It was an exciting effort from Hugo -- not a perfect game, but he played his heart out."

A post-game peruse of Laval's depth chart confirms they are not going away. Five starters in the front seven -- rush end Mathieu Betts and tackles Vincent Desjardins and Clément Lebreux, middle linebacker Marc Antoine Varin, will linebacker Cedric Lussier Roy, are second-year players. There's also the continuous depth that comes out of fecund CEGEP system.

Richard said, "Every winter, we have the mindset that we want to go all the way." Of course, having that vision and realizing it are two totally different things.
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