VANCOUVER – It was almost a surreal scene. The Laval Rouge et Or, perhaps the finest football program Canadian university football has ever seen, were being dominated by a team in its first ever Vanier Cup appearance, trailing 23-0 and being outplayed by the McMaster Marauders in every part of the game.
It would only get more surreal from there.
Tyler Crapigna shook off a missed kick that would have won the game in regulation and nailed a 20-yard field goal in overtime to give McMaster a 41-38 win and the school’s first national football championship in a back-and-forth second half with a plenty of action and a dramatic finish.
“We kept swinging until the bitter end and we got three more points than them. How that works I don’t know. At this point we don’t care too much,” said Marauder coach Stefan Ptaszek.
Mac quarterback Kyle Quinlan threw for 482 yards, ran for 101 more and earned game MVP honours in what was one of the craziest back-and-forth games in CIS football history.
“That was the wildest game of my career,” Quinlan said.
McMaster’s 23-point halftime lead, thanks to a stingy defence and a brilliant display from the Quinlan-led offence that outgained Laval by 267 yards in the first half, had many at BC Place thinking Mac had secured the title. But the Rouge et Or, aiming for a record seventh Vanier Cup title, stormed back and scored 24 unanswered points of their own to take a lead early in the fourth quarter
Guiallaume Rioux brought a slumbering Laval team back to life with a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown – Laval’s first points of the game – just over three minutes into the second half. Barely a minute later, linebacker Frederic Plesius picked off Quinlan and took it to the house to make it 23-14.
Mac responded with a 101-yard touchdown from Quinlan to OUA MVP Mike DiCroce, but it was called back after DiCroce was ruled offside.
The Rouge et Or would then add an 18-yard field goal from Boris Bede, then took a 24-23 lead two minutes into the fourth quarter thanks to a 44-yard touchdown run from star running back Sebastien Levesque that capped an eight-play, 107-yard drive.
And that’s when things really got crazy.
“I asked my guys ‘if I told you in August that you were gonna be down 24-23 in the fourth quarter of the national championship, and you’re the best offence in the country, would you have taken that?’ And they grinned from ear-to-ear and said ‘absolutely,’” said Ptaszek.
Quinlan took over the game with his legs, escaping the pocket and scrambling for first downs, while DiCroce was able to break free from the double- and triple-teams that covered him to help Mac put together a drive that was capped off by a nine-yard touchdown run by fifth-year receiver Matt Peressini. The pair would hook up again on a two-point conversion to give the Marauders a 31-24 lead with 5:53 remaining.
Laval would storm right back, however, capping off a nine-play, 62-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bruno Prud’Homme to Julian Feoli-Gudino, making the score 31-31 with 2:13 to go – just enough time for the Marauders to drive down the field on the strength of Quinlan again and set up a 30-yard field goal attempt by Crapigna to win the game at the end of regulation.
Having weathered the storm of a second half charge by the nation’s no. 1-ranked team, the scene was set for Mac to win its first ever title. But the kick sailed left, and Laval’s Adam Thibault was able to run the ball out of the end zone to force overtime.
“It hasn’t been a smooth ride. We’ve been up and down and we weren’t gonna stop swingin’. Missing the field goal was just another thing we were gonna get back up from,” said Ptaszek.
The Marauders would respond quickly in the extra frame, with Quinlan tossing a 28-yard touchdown pass to Brad Fochesato to take a 38-31 lead.
Then, after being sacked on Laval’s first possession, Prud’Homme threw up a desperate, high pass to the end zone looking to tie the game. Mac defensive back Stephen Dennis looked to have read the route well, leaping in the air and looking to have a sure interception that would have won McMaster the game.
Somehow, it slipped through his hands on an ever-so-slightly mistimed jump. Somehow, Thibault tipped it to himself three times while falling down. Somehow, Laval had tied the game at 38-38.
The Rouge-et-Or would take the next possession, but Prud’Homme was quickly picked off by cornerback Steven Ventresca, who raced down the field, lateraled to fellow corner Joey Cupido, who then passed it off to Mackenzie Dent before a forward pass ended Mac’s desperate rush toward the end zone at the 20-yard line.
“That defensive unit had their nose bloodied in the second half, and they wanted to stick the dagger in the heart of the beast and finish him off. I appreciate that they were doing that. With Tyler Crapigna being an All-Canadian field goal kicker, they should have maybe not been so liberal with their decision making,” said Ptaszek with a grin.
Instead, the Marauders got the ball from the 30-yard line, and Laval took an unthinkable Too Many Men penalty, allowing Mac to set up a 20-yard game winner for Crapigna.
The kicker, who just minutes before had been the loneliest man in Vancouver, ripped the ball through the uprights, pumped both fists in the air and was engulfed by a jubilant sea of maroon players and coaches.
“Either it was gonna be through the uprights or it was gonna be out of the stadium. I just smashed it right through,” said Crapigna.
“He’s money. We had all the faith in the world in him that he was gonna ice it,” said Quinlan of his team’s faith in Crapigna not letting a second chance slip away.
Ptaszek said that no mentorship on his part was required before his kicker’s second attempt to seize victory.
“I walked over just before the second attempt in overtime, and he said ‘Coach, I’m gonna get it for you.’ I go, ‘I know.’”
While perhaps not a David-and-Goliath type upset, the Marauders were certainly in deep facing the revered Laval program.
“We played a very good football team today. They’re deserving champions. Hats off to coach Ptaszek and his staff,” said Laval coach Glen Constantin, whose program has become respected and imitated by teams across the country. The Rouge et Or operate on a $2-million budget with its own Board of Directors and have transformed the competitive nature of CIS football.
The win gives McMaster its first-ever Vanier Cup title, an outcome that seemed far-fetched just three weeks into the 2011 season. After a 48-21 loss at home to Western and the three-game suspension handed out to Quinlan for allegedly assaulting a police officer during an incident at a campus bar, it looked as though the 2011 season may have gone down as a lost year for the Marauders.
But if there’s one thing Mac showed in overcoming their midseason uncertainty and reaching the title game, it’s that they’re a team capable of overcoming great adversity.
That was never more clear than in the wild second half of this game.
“It hasn’t been a smooth ride. We’ve been up and down and we weren’t gonna stop swingin’. Missing the field goal was just another thing we were gonna get back up from. We were gonna keep goin’ until we got the job done,” said Ptaszek.
“We came out a little bit slow, and I guess we got ahead of ourselves. To bounce back like we did is awesome,” said DiCroce, who finished with 102 yards on seven catches. “We’re so used to battling back from adversity. We knew we could come out and compete with Laval. It showed a lot of character.”
“We weren’t comfortable with the lead to say the least. [Laval] is as good as it gets in the country. We knew they would make a game out of it. Every time they got something, we had to respond and respond and respond,” added Quinlan, who said his three-game suspension (and ongoing legal process – the case is still before the courts) taught him a lot about dealing with obstacles in his way.
“There’s really only one choice when you face adversity and that’s to battle back with everything you’ve got.”
“None of my coaches and none of my young men are perfect. We’re all going to make mistakes. If there’s anything they learn from this year, it’s what you do with those mistakes and what you learn from them that makes you a better person,” said Ptaszek.
Mac receiver Robert Babic tied a Vanier Cup record with 12 catches, picking up 135 yards in the process, while defensive Player of the Game Aram Eisho racked up 11 tackles. Levesque finished the final game of his CIS career with 139 yards on 17 carries, while Prud’Homme went 21/30 for 239 yards.
Ptaszek has now won three Vanier Cup titles in his career: as a receiver and offensive coordinator with Wilfrid Laurier, and now as the head coach of the Marauders. The six-year bench boss says the sense of accomplishment from winning the Vanier Cup hasn’t settled in yet for him or his players.
“We’ve got our whole lives to figure out what this means to all of us. We barely know what we’ve done right now.”
“The Yates Cup took a little bit to sink in. Now that it’s all over, it’ll sink in soon, but I’m not sure when,” added safety Michael Daly.
In winning the Vanier Cup, this McMaster team has accomplished something its predecessors had failed to do in the 47-year history of the championship. It’s a moment that will live on in the history books of not only the team, but the entire McMaster community.
“It’s just as much theirs as it is ours. You saw how many fans we had out there. It’s crazy. People are making trips to Moncton, to Vancouver just to watch us play,” said Daly.
Quinlan was not lost on the significance of the victory his team had just accomplished.
“The first in McMaster history. It feels incredible to be a part of that.”