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UBC Thunderbirds defeat Montreal Carabins 26-23 to win Vanier Cup

UBC Thunderbirds players celebrate after defeating the Montreal Carabins at the Vanier Cup Saturday, November 28, 2015 in Quebec City.
UBC Thunderbirds players celebrate after defeating the Montreal Carabins at the Vanier Cup Saturday, November 28, 2015 in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger

The UBC Thunderbirds have won the Vanier Cup.

After a wild final two minutes, Quinn van Gylswyk hit a 20-yard field goal as the clock ran out, giving UBC the national championship in Canadian university football with a 26-23 victory over the Montreal Carabins.

With 92 seconds to go, van Gylswyk had a 42-yard field goal attempt to take the lead, but was unable to get the kick off before he was swarmed. But 13 seconds later, Anthony Blackwell intercepted a Carabins pass at midfield, giving UBC one more chance to win the game in regulation.

The Thunderbirds stormed out to a 16-0 lead halfway through the second quarter, but the Carabins, who won the 2014 Vanier Cup, slowly chipped back. They eventually tied the game halfway through the fourth quarter on an Samuel Nadeau-Piuze touchdown.

Marcus David caught a touchdown pass and Brandon Deschamps ran one in for UBC, whose offence was led by a spectacular performance from first year quarterback Michael O’Connor. O’Connor was named MVP of the game and Stavros Katsantonis was named defensive player of the game.

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“I knew they weren’t going to let us run the ball so I had to play well for my teammates if we were going to win this game,” said O’Connor, considered by many to be Canada’s best quarterback prospect since another Ottawa native more than a decade ago, Jesse Palmer.

“We came out hot in the first half. A bit sloppy in the second half when I’d like to have some throws back, but hey, we pulled out the W.”

O’Connor completed 31 of 51 passes for 389 yards and 1 touchdown for UBC, while Gabriel Cousineau completed 31 of 41 passes for 291 yards and 2 touchdowns for Montreal.

The win completes a remarkable turnaround for the UBC football program, which just 24 months ago was in danger of being eliminated after a decade of poor play and mediocre attendance and support.

WATCH: The UBC Thunderbirds football program has staged an amazing turnaround. Jay Janower looks at how the “Birds” have taken flight.

But last offseason, UBC recruited star coach Blake Nill, who had taken the University of Calgary and Saint Mary’s University to the Vanier Cup. Nill was then able to recruit O’Connor, who was considered one of the top quarterback prospects in all of North America before a disappointing year at Penn State.

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Still, after a 2-6 season in 2014, the team was considered at least a year away from true contention.

But UBC managed an upset victory over the Calgary Dinos in the western Canada final, and followed that up with a 36-9 victory over the Atlantic Champion St. Francis Xavier X-Men last weekend.

Now, for the first time since 1997, they can be called national champions.

“We made it tough on ourselves but that’s what you expect from a young team,” said the 53-year-old Nill. “This group of guys, I don’t even think they were picked to make the playoffs in Canada West this year.

“What they have done is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen. I can’t grasp it right now.”

– With files from The Canadian Press