T-Birds’ Vanier Cup bid ends with heartbreaking loss to Montréal

Playing for the national title in windy Kingston, Ontario, the UBC Thunderbirds failed to claim the 58th Vanier Cup on Saturday afternoon, coming up short in a 16–9 defensive battle with the University of Montréal Carabins. The heartbreaking loss brings an end to the football season and UBC’s best season since 2015, when they upset the Carabins 26–23 in the 51st Vanier Cup.

The Thunderbirds got off to a promising start, with Jason Soriano picking off quarterback Jonathan Sénécal on his first throw of the game. This was no small feat, as the dual-threat quarterback was awarded the 2023 Hec Crighton Trophy, given to the best player in Canadian university football.

However, the UBC offence couldn’t muster anything with the interception, struggling against Montréal’s intimidating defence who aggressively blitzed the T-Birds’ touted offensive line throughout the game.

The Carabins’ defence showed out again on UBC’s second possession, holding the ‘Birds to their own 13 yard-line. UBC conceded a safety to avoid punting, giving up their first points for a 2–0 score.

The safety pushed Montréal back to their 35 yard-line, but that didn’t stop the Carabins, who moved confidently down the field. UBC struggled to defend against Sénécal’s running ability, which allowed the quarterback to extend plays, rush for yardage and draw defenders away from receivers. The Carabins’ run game was especially effective, with a 23-yard scramble by Sénécal setting up an 18-yard touchdown run by Iraghi Muganda, bringing Montréal’s lead to 9–0.

The touchdown appeared to jumpstart the UBC offence, who finally made headway as the first quarter expired. With Montréal locking down star receiver Sam Davenport, the ‘Birds relied heavily on running backs Isaiah Knight and Dane Kapler, who led UBC on their first drive into Carabin territory. Still, the Montréal defence remained stalwart, forcing the T-Birds to settle for a 32-yard field goal.

Despite a lost fumble by Knight on their following possession, the Thunderbirds appeared to find their footing in the second quarter. The defence consistently put pressure on Sénécal, preventing the Carabins from scoring. The offence managed another long drive into Montréal territory, but were again held out of the red zone. Kieran Flannery-Fleck hit a 41-yard field goal — his longest of the season — to narrow Montréal’s lead to 9–6.

The second half began with two-and-outs from both offences, indicative of the phenomenal defence on each team.

The Thunderbirds began to gain ground on their second possession, but unpenalized pass interference against Davenport stalled the drive. On the subsequent second-and-ten, Davenport made an amazing catch to get a first down but was ruled out of bounds.

Momentum shifted in favour of the Carabins, who responded with a 72-yard drive. Sénécal displayed his running ability on second-and-goal, rolling out left and scrambling into the end zone after a convincing pump fake. The ‘Birds were left with 20 minutes to close Montréal’s 16–6 lead.

UBC got close in the fourth, driving into Montréal’s red zone for the first time in the game. Despite some amazing plays, they were again forced to settle for a field goal, bringing the score to 16-9.

The defence kept it a one-touchdown game, holding down the Carabins’ exceptional offence. But, with the clock winding down, UBC could not find the end zone.

The ‘Birds gave a solid performance in the Vanier Cup: The defence was staunch, the o-line gave up only 1 sack and Garrett Rooker threw 279 yards with no interceptions. UBC outgained the Carabins in yardage and scored more points against Montréal than anyone all postseason. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.

This season’s UBC squad was remarkable, winning the conference championship for the first time in eight years and achieving their best record in Canada West for the first time since 1999. But in the game that mattered most, they came up short. Now, they’ll have to wait a year for another shot at the national title.