For the first time since 1995, the Dinos will be challenging to be the top football team in the country. The road was long, quite literally, after a Canada West title game in Saskatoon, the team bussed back to Calgary, then flew out to Halifax for the national semi-finals, then bussed to Quebec City for the Vanier Cup. The team travelled more than 13,400 kilometres this season and will have played their last four games in four different time zones after Saturday's final.
More figuratively, the road to the Vanier Cup for the Dinos started back in 2006, when head coach Blake Nill took over a floundering Dinos program that hadn't won a playoff game since their last Vanier Cup appearance in 1995. Nill led the team to a 2-6 record his first year, then 4-4 and a playoff loss to the University of Manitoba Bisons. In the last two years, the team has gone 12-4 in the regular season and has won two straight conference championships.
Fifth-year Dinos linebacker Chase Moore never doubted Nill would lead them this far.
"That was one of the major reasons I ended up coming to play for coach Nill," he says. "With that track record, you know he's going to bring in good athletes and he's got the coaching style to win. . . . I knew that's what I would be getting when I did decide to come to Calgary. Talking with him early on he said you're going to have a chance to play in a Vanier Cup. It all came to fruition this year, in my last year."
For a handful of Dinos, Moore, defensive back Matt Grohn, back-up quarterback Deke Junior and defensive lineman Andrew Obrecht, this will be the last game in their Canadian Interuniversity Sport career. But it's not time to reminisce about a career gone by in five short years with a national championship in sight.
"I'm just going to go out and lay it on the line," says Grohn. "There really is no tomorrow for me. . . .We just need to win the game and go out on a good note and just enjoy it. Don't get too caught up in it, but just enjoy it all."
At hand is a Queen's University Golden Gaels team that upset the defending national champion Laval Universite Rouge et Or and has one of the best quarterbacks that has ever played in the CIS in Danny Brannagan. Brannagan came in to the season with a shot at finishing on top of the all-time passing yards list and ended up finishing second to Western Mustang Michael Faulds with 10,714 for his five-year career. Brannagan would get his revenge on Faulds, though, by beating him and his Mustangs out for the Ontario University Athletics conference title.
Through three playoff games, Brannagan has 982 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. He'll be facing a Dinos secondary that finished 23rd in the country in passing yards allowed.
"[Brannagan's] probably going to be the best quarterback we play all year," says Nill.
"He's a good quarterback," Grohn agrees. "I think we need to get pressure on him and the DBs need to step up and have our best game of the year."
Though the pass defence was porous throughout the regular season, the Dinos have allowed less passing yards than Queen's so far throughout the playoffs, and they've gotten big plays in the secondary. Calgary defenders have picked off six balls so far, second behind the fallen Rouge et Or. Steve Truzak has three to himself, all in the team's first playoff game against the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
"[Brannagan's] pretty good at [picking apart zones], so we're definitely going to throw a few different looks at him," says Moore, who leads the Dinos with 21.0 tackles. ". . . We'll just match his patience and let our d-line do the work, and get some pressure on him and hopefully it'll disrupt some of his passes."
On the other side of the ball, the Dinos quarterback is no slouch himself. Erik Glavic, the Canada West nominee for the Hec Crighton award, which would be his second, was quiet in the Uteck Bowl win over the Saint Mary's University Huskies, picking up only 77 yards and a touchdown in what was mostly a running game for the Dinos, but can easily take over a game, if the Hardy Cup was any evidence. He exploded for 479 yards and three touchdowns in the air and 106 yards and one touchdown on the ground. He'll be facing a Queen's passing defence that was in the middle in the pack in the country, allowing 230.8 yards per game during the regular season and 385.7 yards so far in the playoffs.
All this, of course, ignores the potential contributions of a dominating Calgary run game, which destroyed the Huskies in the Uteck Bowl. The Dinos stampeded for 426 yards, led by former Canada West rookie and player of the year Matt Walter, who picked up 235 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 carries. Walter's 69-yard TD scamper busted the game wide open for the Dinos. Between him and rookie Steven Lumbala, the Dinos have been unstoppable along the ground.
But regardless of what has happened over the last three weeks of playoffs, and since the start of the season back in September, it's one game in a foreign province for both teams for Canadian university football supremacy.
"We're here to win a Vanier Cup, nothing else around here," says Grohn. "[Not] to have fun or joke around, we're here on a business trip."