51st Vanier Cup Preview

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The national playoffs in the CIS have always been the great equalizer in CIS football as they always take great teams a step further.

It doesn’t how could you are expected to be as the conference championships and beyond will determine who is really that good.

There have been multiple great teams that have won their conferences and yet when it comes to the bowls they fall short.

The Laval Rouge et Or could be the best example as they had won every Dunsmore Cup for eleven straight years from 2003 until 2013.

In that time they were easily the most dominant team in the entire country but they didn’t win the Vanier Cup every year.

They took plenty of Vanier Cups in those times winning 7 games but it is those other four years that stand out.

The Rouge et Or was the program that every program was trying to be as they had great players on a constant basis.

They continued to win longer than any other program had been able to as they found consistency in an ever-changing game.

Yet for four years in their dominant time they couldn’t find a way to win the nation’s top prize.

It still gives them a great record when making the national playoffs but as good as they were they could have won in every year from 2003 until 2013.

They couldn’t though and that is because the talent steps up in a big way as the best of the best are the teams that survive the long run into the national playoffs.

It takes a lot more than just a good team to make the Vanier Cup as there are plenty of barriers to overcome before even getting to the game.

There is the entire regular season with trap games everywhere as every conference has those teams that can beat any team at any time.

The best teams usually get through those regular seasons and into the playoffs where things only get tougher.

Single elimination games start and in those games a few mistakes can sink a season meaning that the best teams are the ones that can be consistent.

Then comes the championship games where two well-prepared teams face-off looking for the other to make a mistake.

Once they get by all of those tests they move on to the national playoffs where everyone that has proven their talent and their fortitude looks to get a win.

They are all winners and it is on the rare occasion that any of them have seen each other in a game before the bowl games.football-sidebar

That alone is a tough task added to the fact that every team knows they are only one win away from achieving something that some programs have never achieved.

The motivation is there and the success is there from every team only making it more difficult.

Finally the two teams that have proven everything to everyone have to face-off to determine who the best team in the country is in the Vanier Cup.

It is a long road to the final game and there are plenty of bumps along the way but what it does is eliminate all of the teams that can’t get through that grind.

It reveals the best teams that are not only talented but built to win games that have plenty of pressure.

Those two teams this year were on opposite sides of the experience spectrum as the defending champion Montreal Carabins are back in the big game only a year removed from surprising everyone with their first Vanier Cup in 2014.

The UBC Thunderbirds are also back but for the first time since 1997 with a new head coach and an NCAA transfer under centre.

These two teams have come through the relentless playoff system in the CIS as the two best teams in the country.

Now they head into the Vanier Cup looking to ensure that the long path to the final game of the year is not in vain with everything on the line in Quebec City.

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The Montreal Carabins came into the season with plenty of eyes on them after winning the program’s first ever Vanier Cup. They had been the team that ended the 11-year dominance of Laval to take the Dunsmore Cup in 2014 and after that moved their way to the Vanier at home in Montreal. It was the great story of the 2014 season as the underdog that had been so close against Laval for the last few years and finally got over the hump. Heading into a new season they went from the underdog to a team that many expected big things from. They had questions surrounding them whether they could beat Laval again and if they had what it took to get back to the Vanier Cup. It wasn’t easy as their first game against their rivals ended in a 12-9 loss as the Rouge et Or got their revenge for the year before. A surprising loss against Sherbrook marked their only other loss of the season as they took the second match-up against Laval 22-16. That season put them in second and what many people thought was going to happened seemed to be certain. Their conference semi-final was an interesting one as they did not dominate Sherbrooke who stuck around much like their game during the season. Still they came out on top and got their chance to defend their Dunsmore Cup against the Rouge et Or. The game was very familiar to the 2014 version as both team’s had the defence to shut down the other team and it eventually came down to the smallest of margins. Two rouges and a last second field goal block gave Montreal their second straight Dunsmore Cup and a chance to defend their Vanier Cup from a year ago. They met the Guelph Gryphons in the Mitchell Bowl and despite a close start the Carabins pulled away for the convincing 25-10 win. Now they are back in the Vanier Cup after years of falling short of even making the national finals as they look to take home two in a row.

They enter the game in a very different spot than last year as many thought they were good enough but they were against McMaster. That was the team that had given Laval so many problems in the national playoffs for years before. Out of the two of them McMaster was the dominant team in the match-up so there were doubts about the ability of Montreal to take the Vanier Cup. After scrapping out that win 20-19 they enter this year as the defending champions and are taking on a team with as little experience in the big game as they had last year. They are the team to beat this year and it is a new way of going about things for Danny Maciocia and his team. They will try to make sure that their new status doesn’t affect them this time around them as they certainly can’t overlook the Thunderbirds. They definitely have the talent to get back to the top and it all starts on the defensive side of the ball. The Carabins are the second best defence in the country allowing only 13.6 points per game throughout the season. So far that defence has been the backbone of the team shutting down some good offences and only allowing one team to get over 20 points in any of their playoff games. Led by Maiko Zepeda and Zacary Alexis the Carabins have been a strong defensive team throughout the year and the playoffs. Where they struggle through is on offence as they do not have the potent attack that many teams throughout the league have had this year. It is rare that the Carabins can easily march the field and put up points. They have talent on that side of the ball though as Gabriel Cousineau returns to the Vanier Cup and has some great targets in Guillaume Paquet and Regis Cibasu. The offence is powered by the running back though as Sean Thomas-Erlington has been a workhorse with over 500 yards in the playoffs and the Carabins are sure to lean on him especially if they get ahead. The Carabins don’t score much but they have the defence that makes their offence work. They only need to score an average of 14 points in order to have enough points to win the game. They also benefit from the old saying that defence wins championships which is how they became champions in the first place. The Carabins are a strong team and although their offence is not as strong as anyone they faced this year they have overcome it all with their strong defensive play and hope to do the same this year.

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The UBC Thunderbirds began their year with questions piling up around their season as nobody expected them to be here. They had been at the bottom of the CanWest for years even finishing the 2011 season without a single win. They had been in the basement for a while but things were looking up as the 2015 season approached. The season was to start the rebuild as Blake Nill, who had led the Calgary Dinos to seven straight Hardy Cups, came into B.C. looking to turn things around. He got some help in the transfer of Michael O’Connor who had attended the IMG Academy in Florida and received a scholarship to Penn State. He decided that the NCAA wasn’t for him and became the most recruited transfer in recent memory. He decided to join Nill in B.C. to try to turn things around for the T-Birds and bring them back to the national stage. The season began tough as they had a big test against Nill’s former team and one of the top teams in the country, the Calgary Dinos. They lost 49-16 and it looked like the work was just getting underway and that they were not going to be competing with the best in the conference. A loss to Saskatchewan was the only other blemish on their schedule though as they finished with only two losses to stand in second place. They easily got by Manitoba in the CanWest semi-finals 52-10 setting up a rematch with the Dinos where they hoped to prove they were a far different team. A 34-26 win was enough to bring them back to the national picture as they were set to take on the StFX X-Men in the Uteck Bowl. They once again proved their worth with a 36-9 win to get back to the Vanier Cup for the first time since they won in 1997. The season started slow but the new additions got going at the end of the year and so far have carried it into the playoffs as they are playing their best football right now.

The Thunderbirds were never supposed to be here when the season started as many people though that they were in for a few years of struggle before they could start winning. It looked that way at the start of the season but in the last month of the regular season and throughout the playoffs the T-Birds have taken off. A lot of it has to do with their quarterback who found his groove in the Canadian game midway through the season. O’Connor has been touted as a top Canadian prospect for years after spending time in the USA and receiving a scholarship from a Division I-FBS school. There is no question about his ability as he regularly uses his big arm to go deep and stretch the defence. His two favourite receivers are Will Watson and Alex Morrison while Trivel Pinto seems to be his go-to in the red-zone catching four touchdowns in the playoffs. The inspiration for the team is in the back-field though as Brandon Deschamps is in his final year after spending four years waiting for the Thunderbirds to be great again. He has been a workhorse and a good distraction from the passing game. Their offence was top ten during the season but it has reached a new level in the playoffs as they are firing on all cylinders right now. The defence has been suspect at times as they ranked 15th in the league throughout the regular season. They are following the path of the offence though as they have played better later in the season including the playoffs. They are beginning to turn over the ball a lot more now as they racked up 14 turnovers in the regular season and have matched that in the playoffs so far. They have seven fumble recoveries and seven interceptions with everyone getting in on the action. Both Terrell Davis and Taylor Loffler have been the leaders with 19.5 tackles each along with an interceptions each a fumble recovery for Loffler and a sack for Davis. The defence is following the plan of playing their best football right now and for the Thunderbirds that is a great thing. None of these players have been to this point before and they lack that experience in the big game but a coach can only ask that they are at the top of their game when they get there. It will certainly help that their coach has been here before and although Nill has never won he has the experience to keep his team focused. If they can stay focused they can beat the Carabins but they will take on the toughest defence they have seen and a team that knows how to win the big game.

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