By Charlie Pinkerton, CIS Football Correspondent
Cross-town rivals clash in the capital this weekend, as the Ottawa Gee-Gees take on the Carleton Ravens in the annual Panda Game.
Next to bragging rights, the game's prize is Pedro the Panda, the mascot and trophy of the game, awarded to the victor each year, dating back to the game's birth in 1955.
The cancellation of the Ravens football program after the 1998 season put the series on hold, but since its return in 2013, the contest has produced a number of classic moments.
Last year's game in its entirety was one of them. Carleton won in double overtime, in besting the Gee-Gees in a 48-45 shootout in front of 17,000 students, alumni and fans at TD Place.
University of Ottawa's Bryce Vieira may have felt the sting from the loss the worst. The running back watched a chance at victory slip through his fingers when he dropped a pass on third and four on the Gee-Gees final overtime possession.
"I felt so empty. It stuck with me for the weeks after that," said Vieira.
On the ensuing Carleton possession, kicker Michael Domagala nailed a field goal from the 17-yard line to seal the deal for the Ravens.
"I just felt the weight of the world on my shoulders after that," said Vieira. "I had a hard time dealing with it. I had to call home and talk to my parents to try and ease out the pain. It was tough to swallow that one."
Gee-Gees heartbreak wasn't new in 2015. The Ravens first kindled final-play magic the year before.
Following a fourth quarter Ottawa comeback, the Ravens started a drive at their own 10-yard line with 25 seconds to go. A pair of completions brought the Ravens to midfield when Jesse Mills, serving as the backup in that game, checked in to throw his only pass of the game.
Nearly 12,000 fans came to their feet as Mills heaved the ball deep. The Hail Mary pass came up short of the endzone, but was tipped by an Ottawa defensive back into the hands of First Team All-Canadian receiver, Nate Behar, who took it the rest of the way into the endzone for the lead with nothing but zeros left on the clock. Behar was mauled by a mix of teammates and Carleton students who emptied the stands to celebrate with their team on the field.
"(Ravens wide receivers) KY (Kyle Van Wynsberghe) and (Wilson) Birch tackled me to the ground and everyone was piling all over us and we were just whispering all over again, 'we just won Panda, we just won Panda,'" said Behar. "From that moment until about 1 p.m. the next day we were just riding a high that you couldn't even imagine."
University of Ottawa fans, meanwhile, left TD Place disappointed, with their Ravens adversaries celebrating the win on the turf below.
The 2013 game was the first of the new era, but after returning to its traditional playing field in Lansdowne Park in 2014, Panda-monium returned in full force.
"The Panda Game is like the home opener on steroids," said Vieira. "Twenty-some thousand people are going to show up, it really ups your gameplay. It's a thrilling feeling to score a touchdown in that game or make a play in that game or just to witness the feeling of it going on. It's something you can't really explain unless you feel it."
For Behar, it's not the desire to recreate the infamous 2014 Hail Mary, but rather the feeling of resentment from a cheeky Ottawa play during their 35-10 blowout of Carleton in 2013, that motivates him against his team's biggest rival.
With a large lead near the end of the game, Ottawa attempted an over the head backwards pass at the goal line.
"That was an attempted slap in the face and there's nobody on our team that is going to forget that game or that play. Every single time that we line up against them and we have a chance to rub it in…or to get an extra couple of points in the game we will always remember that and never hesitate," said Behar.
The rivalry between the universities linked by the Rideau Canal has an old school feel -an intensity that ensures that there will be no love will be lost between the teams on Saturday.
"There's nobody on the team that I'm going to sit down for lunch with at any point," Behar said of his relationship with the Gee-Gees.
"There's a tension between the two teams. If we see their guys on the street we're not likely to stop and say hi," added Vieira.
Carleton running back Jayde Rowe will lace up for his first Panda Game this weekend. Rowe connected with Ravens head coach Steve Sumarah following a brief stretch at the University of Regina last year.
The former standout at Agincourt Collegiate Institute in Toronto and, later, at Chabot College in California came to Carleton to beef up the backfield and form a one-two punch with Jahvari Bennett, the third-leading rusher in CIS last year.
"I came here for my recruiting trip and I saw a lot of guys I grew up playing against and I saw it was a good environment," said Rowe. "There was a lot of GTA guys and it felt like family. I felt like I fit in."
With Bennett sidelined due to injury, Rowe has been on a tear. He leads the CIS in rushing yards and set a single-game Ravens record with 258 rushing yards in his personal homecoming against the York Lions this past weekend.
Despite his thus-far short stint with Carleton, Rowe has already bought into the hype surrounding the game against their same city rivals.
"This is a game that has been talked about prior to the season even starting," said Rowe. "Everyone is amped for it. Everyone is ready to go. I can't wait. I'm juiced. Every game I get excited for, but I would say Panda is what I'm most excited for."
This Saturday marks the 48th edition of the Panda Game. Ottawa leads the all time series 33-14, but since the reboot of Carleton's football program three years ago, the Ravens have the edge with a 2-1 record.
No. 7 Ottawa (4-0) and No.10 Carleton (3-2) are both ranked in the CIS Top 10 and both teams will march high-powered offences onto the field on Saturday.
Ottawa and Carleton rank fourth and sixth in the nation in points per game, respectively. An outcome similar to last year - the highest-scoring affair in the history of the game - won't surprise anybody.
"They're a good offence and we're a good offence and offences score so it will be fun," said Behar.
With possession of Pedro the Panda, and potential playoff implications on the line, the matchup between the two early Vanier Cup contenders is bound to be a treat.
"It's very significant no matter what happens to either of our teams during the rest of the season," said Gee-Gees head coach Jamie Barresi, who was team's quarterback from 1976 to 1979. "The team can go into the Panda Game, win it, and feel like they've had a good season - just so they can brag about that one game that year."