There were no last-minute heroics this time, no sudden surges from behind to keep the University of Manitoba Bisons football squad's Vanier Cup dreams alive.
Instead, the Bisons went into Calgary's McMahon Stadium on Saturday, where the Canada West championship game played out as most CIS fans would have predicted: Manitoba lost 43-28 to the dominant Calgary Dinos, who haven't yet lost a match this year. It's simple math, really: The Bisons pushed hard, but the better team won the Hardy Cup. The Bisons had 421 yards of offence, but Calgary nabbed 623, and had control of the ball for almost 10 minutes longer.
Hey, no shame in an honest loss, especially after a gutsy season that carried the Bisons further than some might've thought.
"I'm really proud of them," coach Brian Dobie said in the aftermath. "I just finished our locker-room talk, and I said the same thing. They still expected to win that game with 90 seconds to go. Which wasn't going to happen... But we competed, we capital-C competed, and we never succumbed or folded. We got what we wanted from our team."
That the Bisons even made it to the conference final was a triumph, remember. It all turned on the fourth quarter of the semifinal against Saskatchewan last week, when pivot Jordan Yantz found slotback Nic Demski for three straight touchdown passes to claw out a 36-35 victory. But in Calgary, the Bisons' second-half push-back wasn't enough. The Dinos were too quick to answer back -- and by the time the second half opened, the Manitoba squad was down too deep.
The Dinos struck early, and proceeded to strike often. The Bisons knew they had to shut down explosive tailback Mercer Timmis, the Canada West player of the year, but they just couldn't. Heck, Timmis scampered for 20 yards on the first play of the day; just over three minutes later, he capped off that drive with a 27-yard touchdown run. By the time the game was done, he'd racked up another major and 279 net yards on 28 carries.
Still, the scrappy Bisons fought to stay in the mix. With star running back Anthony Coombs limping on the sidelines, Kienan LaFrance picked up the slack: In the dying seconds of the first quarter he made a nifty shift around defenders to dig deep into the Dinos' zone. On the next play, he scrambled to catch up to a rifle shot from Yantz, and hauled down the 21-yard pass in the end zone to cut Calgary's lead to 9-7.
"We had to get a touchdown there, and Yantz, (receiver) Andrew Smith and I, we had to freestyle a little bit," said LaFrance, who led the Bisons with 136 all-purpose yards, including 95 in 12 touches on the ground.
But the Dinos kept on charging, rattling off two more touchdowns and a 43-yard field goal with just a second left in the half; that was a killer.
"That was a tough one, because we needed to have a closer margin at half time," Dobie said, calling the field goal "the single most disheartening moment of the game."
Still, the Bisons fought back just 1:45 into the third, when they gobbled up a Calgary punt-return fumble, and Yantz immediately capitalized with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Smith. Their momentum wouldn't last: About two minutes later, Calgary's Cuong Thai Lieu blazed out a 42-yard scoring run. That would be the game winner: The Bisons managed two more touchdowns in the fourth, while Calgary added another field goal and a 33-yard touchdown run from Mercer to finish off their scoring.
Well, the Bisons can wrap their rollicking 2013 season in a silver lining. They have a lot of talent pegged to return, including Yantz, who blew past all expectations in his first year of CIS play. And they already have their sights set on the 2014 Hardy Cup game.
"We're coming back next year," LaFrance said. "I'm really satisfied with how this team's shaping up. Jordan and a couple of the other guys stepped up and brought the swagger... Our motto is, no retreat, and no surrender."