QUEBEC – The Queen’s Gaels made a habit out of winning high-scoring nailbiters throughout the 2009 CIS playoffs – but they saved their wildest performance for the Vanier Cup.
Facing an 18-point deficit at halftime, the Gaels (11-1) stormed out of the locker-room in the third quarter of Saturday’s national championship, racking up 26 unanswered points against the Calgary Dinos (10-2).
Quarterback Danny Brannagan led the largest second-half comeback in Vanier Cup history as the Gaels rallied to stun the Dinos 33-31 in Canadian university football’s title game.
Fans expected a high-flying thriller between the Gaels and the Dinos – and they weren’t disappointed.
The sellout crowd of 18,628 rocked Laval’s PEPS Stadium throughout the game in the first ever Vanier Cup held in Quebec.
It was the first national championship since 1992 for Queen’s, which turned a 25-7 deficit at the half into the 33-25 lead in the fourth quarter.
Calgary scored in the final quarter to cut the lead to two, but missed the ensuing two-point conversion.
Brannagan, the game’s most valuable player, recalled how head coach Pat Sheahan kept the Gaels calm at halftime.
“We were down but we knew that we had the plays and the systems that were going to work – we just had to take a deep breath,” said the Burlington, Ont. native, who passed for 286 yards and three touchdowns.
“We had to just go out there and execute.”
With a stiff wind at their backs, the Gaels flew out of the gate in the third quarter.
Brannagan connected with Sheahan’s son, Devan, on a 60-yard touchdown pass 1:08 into the half.
The Gaels punched in another touchdown when Brannagan hit receiver Scott Valberg for a 17-yard score.
That score gave the Gaels the lead for the first time in the game – and they never gave it up.
Running back Marty Gordon attacked some big holes in the line and gave Queen’s the necessary breathing room on a 15-yard touchdown run four minutes later.
Calgary answered back at 8:22 of the fourth quarter when Anthony Parker scored on a 15-yard pass from quarterback Erik Glavic – this year’s Hec Crighton Trophy winner – to narrow the gap to 33-31.
The Dinos were driving with three minutes left in the game, but receiver Richard Snyder fumbled the ball after getting popped by Ben D’Andrea.
Queen’s linebacker Chris Smith, the game’s most valuable defensive player, recovered the loose ball. Smith also forced a Glavic fumble in the third quarter on a sack, a turnover that led to a Gaels field goal.
In the final minutes, the Gaels fed the ball to Gordon – converting a pair of third-down-and-short plays in Calgary territory – to secure the win.
Sheahan won his first Vanier Cup as head coach in his second try – he led the Concordia Stingers to the big game in 1998.
He said his son’s touchdown right after the half gave the team a huge boost.
“Then we just kept battling them all the way,” Sheahan said.
“We knew we had to score first in the second half – if we did that then we could make a game out of it.”
Queen’s eked out a victory over the Western Mustangs 43-39 in the Yates Cup and shocked the top-ranked Laval Rouge et Or 33-30 in the Mitchell Bowl.
Asked about playing in all those close games, Sheahan said it definitely didn’t hurt.
“It was great training,” Sheahan said moments before charging into the mob of Gaels players who were celebrating at midfield.
The Dinos opened the game’s scoring in the first quarter when running back Matt Walter dove over a pile of linemen and into the end zone from one yard out.
Queen’s responded on their next drive by marching down the field from their own 33-yard line when Valberg caught a nine-yard touchdown strike from Brannagan.
In the second quarter, Glavic scored a one-yard touchdown and Calgary kicked three field goals and forced a safety.
At halftime, Glavic, the two-time Hec Crighton Trophy winner, had completed 13-of-18 passes for 213 yards and had 31 yards on the ground. He finished with 354 yards, a touchdown and two picks.
Glavic was productive in the half despite leaving the game briefly in the first quarter after getting drilled by Queen’s linebacker Alex Daprato.
Dinos head coach said he decided to pass more in the first half, figuring the Gaels would stack up against his No. 1 running attack.
In the second half, he said the Dinos just didn’t make enough big plays on either side of the ball.
Nill could only look on as Brannagan picked apart the Dinos’ secondary, which finished No. 23 out of 27 teams in the regular season.
“The kid’s a good kid – you can only keep him bottled up for so long,” Nill said of Brannagan after the game.
“He made some long passes, I thought it ate the time of possession – we just had a hard time.”
Brannagan, who averaged 369 yards passing per game in the regular season, completed six of 14 passes for just 65 yards in the first half. He passed for 221 yards in the final two quarters.
Valberg piled up 109 yards receiving on seven catches and scored two touchdowns in the game.
Gordon, who finished with 106 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown, credited his offensive line for constantly clearing the path for him.
“I was just walking behind their blocks, just following them,” said Gordon, who played his last CIS game.
“We didn’t quite come out as sharp as we had hoped, we were off our game a little bit, but we picked it up – we knew we just had to stick to our game plan.
“This is my last football game … I think this is a nice send off.”
Notes: In a friendly wager on the game, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty won a case of Spolumbo’s sausages from Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. If Calgary had won, McGuinty would have shipped Stelmach a selection of wine from Prince Edward County. … This was only the second time Queen’s has ever played Calgary – the only other time was in the 1983 Vanier Cup, which the Dinos won 31-21. … Dinos head coach Blake Nill now has a 2-3 record in the Vanier Cup. … Before this game, the biggest second-half comeback in a Vanier Cup was in 1996 when Saskatchewan overcame a 12-0 halftime deficit to beat St. Francis Xavier 31-12.