It might be the most anticipated game of the 2015 CIS football season even though it contains two nationally-unranked teams. That's because the 2014 edition of the contest was not only a great game but it featured an outstanding finish.
The Panda Game and the subsequent rivalry are back. In its first year back at a neutral site in the brand new TD Place Stadium, the 2014 Panda Game was one for the ages. The play that went viral and reignited a once fierce Ottawa collegiate rivalry is "the Panda Prayer". A Hail Mary from Jesse Mills to Nate Behar that gave Carleton a 33-31 win and its first Panda title since 1994.
Down 31-27 with five seconds to play, offensive coordinator JP Asselin called "1–4 Hank Gretzky". The one and four signifies the formation and four receivers on one side. The Gretzky represents "99" or in other words all go routes.
If you are the one CIS fan who hasn't seen it yet, here it is:
Mills' was the unlikely hero as he wasn't the starter in the contest but was the designated deep-ball thrower and relieved Nick Gorgichuk to go 1-for-1, 55 yards and one TD. It was the most important pass Mills would make all year. Although 12, 500 witnessed it live and thousands more have since viewed it online, the perspective of the passer and recipient are the most intriguing. On the eve of the Panda Game encore, here is an oral history of the Panda Prayer as told by Nate Behar and Jesse Mills.
NATE BEHAR – "It was more serious than 2013. The first year was a wake up call. It wasn't just more intense it was played at a higher level. Both teams were executing. They brought more stuff to the table. I think they knew we'd be better and we had realized the intensity from the year before so this time around we weren't surprised. The atmosphere was crazy."
JESSE MILLS - "In a sense it does show the resiliency of our team in that particular moment. Coach preaches you have to play the full 60 minutes. We literally did that."
NB - "At that point I think we had the ball back with 30 seconds and no timeouts. The play before was an incomplete pass. That was fortunate for us as it stopped the clock. When the refs saw Jesse coming in the 20-second clock started."
JM - "Everyone wants to be playing, especially a quarterback, but Nick was having a great game. We were in a no-huddle situation. At this point the clock was running. Nick threw the hitch. They were thinking that was the last play of the game. Luckily it was high and incomplete and that gave us another shot. We had six seconds left. At that point I knew it. I knew I was going in. I was ready."
NB - "There was no time to think really. We just got the play call in and lined up. We had walked through the play. Done it a couple times in practice. It's like when you ice the kicker, he has time to think about it. Well, we had no time so we really didn't think about the gravity of the moment."
THE PLAY CALL...
JM - JP made the call from upstairs. He was on the headset with Coach Sacobie. I was on the sideline. I had the clipboard. Everyone was scrambling. Then he said "You're in, you're in, we are running Gretzky."
NB - "I think we kind of at that point knew it was coming. We had a lot of time in Canadian football but as soon as Jesse was coming in we knew that was the play call".
JM – "It was called 1-4 Hank Gretzky. We've since renamed it to 1-4 Panda. Luckily we haven't had to call it since."
JM - "You have to show your confidence in the play itself. We knew the situation, we knew it was going to happen. I just wanted to be calm but confident in the huddle."
NB – "I don't think our sideline believed we were going to lose at any point. There was deafening calm in the huddle. No panic for some reason, it was strange for me. Over the course of the 59 minutes and 55 seconds I never thought we were going to lose."
JM - "They didn't bring another guy over. That may have been a mistake on their part as most teams would rotate and match. Nate was open on the sideline but the safety was coming over. I just wanted to put it in a good spot. I got hit on the play so I didn't know what happened. I just heard cheering and then looked. On the ground I saw Nate running and I knew we had won."
NB - "You assume with how good DB's are nowadays that you can't just throw it up amongst a group of people and expect one guy to come down with it unless you have Megatron Calvin Johnson on your team. So normally you send one guy out there as a sacrificial lamb and he comes down with it if he can but more than likely tips it back to guys waiting. For us that sacrificial lamb is Dexter Brown."
JM - "Dexter was going to tip it. After the game people were saying it was fluke. It wasn't a fluke. It is something we go over every day, we practice it every Friday before a game. We were prepared."
JM – "I kinda rushed it a little bit. Usually I take five steps and one or two hitches and then let it fly. I had some pressure so I only took a three-step drop."
NB – "It's about a 60-yard throw to the end zone. We never second-guess him making it to the end zone. Jesse normally puts that in the end zone 99% of the time."
JM - "In a practice I could get it like 70-75 yards. We were at the 55. I was just trying to get it fairly close to the goal line. The way coach JP teaches it we don't want it on a rope. We want some hang time but I put way to much arch on it. Nate caught it on the seven so I didn't get it as far as I usually do."
NB - "It is kind of like punt coverage. I'm not going to chase the ball. If I run down the field full speed with my head up I'll get blown up. I'm looking to see people react. I knew they were going to track the ball. At that point I'm just trying to find some space off them. On its way down I saw every one turn and start to jump. From there it was just natural instinct."
NB - "It was unbelievable. I don't remember. I remember it being in my hands. I remember my favourite picture that the OUA uses is me putting the ball in the air at the 5-yard line. Everyone is in shock, nobody was moving. My eyes were so big, like how do I have this? How did this happen? I remember running and I remember slamming the ball down in the end zone. In between my mind went blank. I don't remember anything in between."
JM – "I think running to the end zone is the fastest I've ever run. The linemen actually got down there faster than anybody somehow. J.R. Edwards, our Director of football operations, he was in a suit and dress shoes and he sprinted to the end zone faster than anyone. We watched it on game film quite a few times."
NB - "The best moment, the one I will recall forever. Kyle Van Wynsberghe and Wilson Birch grabbing me in the end zone. They were down there looking for the ball on that play also. In the deafening roar all three of us mobbing to each other, we were just mumbling to each other "We won? We just won? We just won!" Both saying it as a statement but as a question, asking ourselves if it was real. 80 guys in five seconds were in the end zone with us. Next thing you know guys who were in my class on Thursdays in jeans and a sweat shirt were on the field grabbing me and hugging me".
JM – "Pretty much every one was screaming, "we won, we won". I found Nate at the bottom of the pile. That was special for us as we were the first two players to commit to the team, so for us to be a part of that play was special as we are close on and off the field. By the time I turned the entire team was there and our stands had emptied. It was pretty insane."
JM - "The next day I was at Costco with my parents with my Carleton jacket on. People were coming up to me saying "We saw that game, it was crazy". They had no idea I was part of the play. It just shows that everyone was excited."
NB - "I think it's easy to say that, because of the media attention, it had an effect. But I don't think it's so much how we won it is because we weren't expected to win that game. The 59 minutes that happened before it we went toe to toe with a good team, a playoff team. That's why it mattered."
JM - "I watched it a few times. Mainly right after it happened. Nate and I have watched it a few times together. We will be linked by it forever".
NB - "The week right after it I watched it countless times, probably over 50. Since then if we had recruits up we'd show them and talk about how Panda was."
JM - "To have all the alumni talk about the Panda non-stop shows the enthusiasm. We get calls from alumni all week, this week. I've gotten alumni seeing how we are doing this week, asking about our preparation. A lot of the football alumni schedule it on their calendar. It's more for them not just a game we circle."
NB – "I'd say so on the top shelf of plays I've made. I'll save room for a big play in the Vanier. I think you have to think you will. I think every good player does. You know yourself, Donnovan, you want to go to sleep dreaming of those plays. We are playing a team who we expect to be in man coverage so I think we expect to. I am hoping to make some big plays."
JM - "I hope it doesn't come down to that situation. I hope that's the only time I have to do it. I'm 1-for-1".
Source: Carleton Ravens