MONTREAL - Coach Danny Maciocia spoke throughout the post-season of the mental toughness of his University of Montreal Carabins.
That big game attitude was evident once again as the Carabins used a fourth-quarter comeback and Louis-Philippe Simoneau's game-winning field goal to defeat the McMaster Marauders 20-19 in the Vanier Cup game on Saturday.
It gave the Carabins the title in their first appearance in the national university football championship game.
"Once again we came up big in the big moment," said quarterback Gabriel Cousineau. "I'm so thankful to have such a great team. We made it."
Cousineau threw a third-quarter touchdown pass to Philip Enchill and saw Sean Erlington run one in in the fourth before Simoneau's winning boot, his second field goal of the game, with 2:45 remaining.
But the game was far from over, as McMaster pivot Marshall Ferguson took the Marauders to the Montreal 24 in the final minute, only to see Tyler Crapigna's attempt at a fifth field goal of the day blocked by defensive lineman Mathieu Girard and recovered by linebacker Jonathan Boissineault-Glaou to secure the victory.
"I blocked the kick, but it wasn't me who won the game for the team," said Girard. "We won this together."
Wayne Moore scored on a 50-yard run for McMaster in the first half, when the Marauders took a 13-3 lead and looked to be dominating.
But five McMaster turnovers, including two interceptions by Anthony Coady and three lost fumbles, helped keep Montreal in the game.
"Us not finishing, that's been the story of our year," said Ferguson. "There are too many throws that I want back.
"And when you're a fifth-year senior and you lose your final game, you don't get any throws back unless you want to play catch with your kids in 10 years."
The McMaster defence took away the Carabins' running game from the outset, holding them to 57 yards, and Cousineau was limited to 196 yards on 17 completions. But Montreal's defence tightened when it counted, holding McMaster to field goals four times and allowing only one touchdown.
The Carabins first showed their mettle when they ended Laval's 11-year run as Quebec conference champions, stopping the Rouge et Or's 70-game home winning streak with a 12-9 overtime win.
Last week, they held on for a 29-26 win over Manitoba when Coady forced a fumble with the Bison's threatening to score from the Montreal 12 in the final minute.
Then Girard comes up with the blocked kick to give them the Vanier Cup.
"We practised a way to block kicks, but even if we gave up the three points and took the ball on the 35, there were still 50 seconds to get another field goal," said Maciocia. "Once we blocked it, we just wanted to end the game in possession of the ball. With the work of our O-line, we were able to do that."
Maciocia won a pair of Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos, first as offensive co-ordinator and later as coach and general manager. Now he has a Vanier Cup as well.
"I don't think it gets better than this," said the Montreal native who is in his fourth year with the Carabins. "To do it in front of family and friends, in a packed house at Molson Stadium. . . it was always a goal of mine to win a championship in my own back yard. I don't think the Grey Cups topped this."
A near-capacity crowd of 22,649, mostly wearing Carabins' blue and white, turned out on a chilly afternoon to see the home side struggle, particularly in the first half when McMaster took a 13-3 lead and held Montreal to only three first downs, while sacking Cousineau five times.
Cousineau said the team sang their rally song, which he refused to name, in the locker-room at the intermission and went back out confident they could fight back.
Maciocia told the players to "just to stay calm. We've seen this movie before. We know how to handle these situations. If we stick together, everything's possible."
It didn't look that way early on.
A 30-yard pass to Max Cameron set up Crapigna's 22-yard field goal 3:59 into and game. He added a 35-yard boot at 12:42.
A Montreal drive was stalled at the two and Simoneau was good from eight yards 3:25 into the second quarter.
A Carabins facemasking penalty put the ball on the Montreal 50 and on the next play, Moore found a gaping hole off tackle to the right side and ran it in for a touchdown at 5:38.
The Carabins then wasted a glittering chance when Moore was crushed on a run by Alex Cromer-Emond and Byron Archambault recovered the fumble on the Marauders' 39. But Cousineau was unable to move the ball and Montreal was forced to punt. Moore missed the next set of downs, but returned late in the half.
The pro-Carabins crowd sprang to life when Isaiah Mels fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half and Montreal's J.C. Touchette recovered at the 42. Five plays later, Cousineau found Enchill with a nine-yard TD pass.
The McMaster defence stifled Montreal's next drive, and Ferguson answered with a drive leading to Crapigna's 43-yard field goal at 9:54. Ferguson marched his offence again using a string of short passes to set up a 29-yard boot at 14:07.
But Anthony Coady's second interception of the game shifted field position in Montreal's favour early in the fourth, and a 32-yard Cousineau toss to Regis Cibasu put the ball on McMaster's three, where Erlington ran it in at 4:12.
"Unfortunately, it's the same story we had all year where our offence didn't put our team in good positions," said Ferguson, who went 27 for 41 for 195 yards. "And our special teams didn't help out as much as they have all year.
"We put it all on our defence. It's difficult to end a game like that, but it was a fantastic drive by them to finish it off."
Moore ended the game with 11 runs for 114 yards and a TD, while Montreal's running back Erlrington was held to 36 yards on nine carries.
It was a third straight victory by a Quebec conference team after Laval's wins in 2012 and 2013. McMaster, which beat Laval in 2011 and lost to them the following year, was in a third Vanier Cup game in four years.
Former McGill star and 1987 Vanier Cup winner Michael Soles and ex-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson took part in pre-game ceremonies as honorary co-presidents.