By Charlie Pinkerton
With bragging lights over the nation’s capital on the line, three locally-raised players came together in the spotlight of the final play of the biggest annual spectacle in Canadian university sport.
With the Carleton Ravens down 3 points in double overtime of the Panda Game, quarterback Michael Arruda took the snap from the opposing Ottawa Gee-Gees 6-yard line. Arruda, a transfer from the University of Ottawa and originally from Gatineau, put the ball in the belly of Ottawa-native Nathan Carter. The Ravens had run the plau, and option, all afternoon, and Carter, who had 34 carries for 256 yards in the game, had received the ball more often than not on the day.
Gee-Gees defensive standout Jackson Bennett, a product Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School and the Cumberland Panthers, attacked the Ravens backfield untouched.
“It was double-overtime. Anyone can make a play at any time so I was really just trying to make a play,” Bennett remembers about his split-second decision.
He leaned in the direction of Carter, allowing Arruda to pull the ball away from the running back to himself and run untouched into the end zone, giving the Ravens the 33-30 victory.
“It was pretty heartbreaking,” Bennett added.
“I was relieved,” Carter reflected about watching Arruda cross the plane of the end zone to crown the Ravens as Panda Game champions on the game’s final play.
“There was a lot of anticipation that had built up playing in front of the hometown crowd of 24,000 people. There was almost a sigh of relief and excitement at the same time.”
Arruda added the exclamation point with a spike of the football and the north side of the stadium – the side designated for the Ravens’ fans – emptied onto the field at TD Place in what’s become Panda Game tradition.
“The feeling itself is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before in my life. It’s so great of a magnitude it’s difficult to explain,” Carter said of the on-field celebration.
Arruda was awarded the game ball by the Ravens while Carter was just 18 rushing yards short of the Ravens single game record that he set 2 weeks prior in Carleton’s homecoming game loss to the Waterloo Warriors.
Bennett was named the OUA Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against the Ravens. He led the Gee-Gees in tackles, had two endzone pass breakups, added an interception and had 88 kick return yards.
It was the 4th straight year that Carleton won the Panda Game. Three of those victories have come down to the game’s final play.
“I don’t think there are any other teams in U Sports that have that type of atmosphere in one game,” Carter said of the event’s rowdy feel.
Before the game, players and fans of both teams put the rivalry aside and joined each other in an emotional moment of silence to pay respect to Loic Kayembe, a University of Ottawa student and Gee-Gees football player who died unexpectedly the weekend before the game. Many Ottawa players also wore equipment with the Kayembe’s number 49 to honour his life.
The Ravens lost their next game against the Western Mustangs 51-14, but won their following matchup against the Toronto Varsity Blues 43-0. Carter has since crossed the 1000-yard mark for the Ravens.The 3-4 Ravens will need to beat the 4-3 Guelph Gryphons at home in their last game of the season on Oct. 21 for a chance to make the OUA playoffs.
The Gee-Gees rebounded from the loss with a 40-30 win against the Waterloo Warriors to secure a playoff spot. Bennett had an interception returned for a touchdown to put the Gee-Gees ahead in that game with less than 4 minutes left. He was recognized as the OUA Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts in that game. Their last game of the regular season is against the 7-0 Western Mustangs in London.