UBC Thunderbirds complete last-minute comeback to win first Hardy Cup since 2015

Photo courtesy: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

The UBC Thunderbirds are Hardy Cup champions for the 17th time after a last-minute comeback over the Alberta Golden Bears on Saturday afternoon at Thunderbird Stadium.

Trailing 27-21 with less than a minute to go and Alberta deep in UBC territory, T-Birds defensive lineman Taaj Jhooty forced a fumble by Golden Bears’ quarterback Eli Hetlinger.

Starting at his own 15-yard line, UBC quarterback Garrett Rooker quickly moved the ball downfield with a 45-yard strike to Shemar McBean, who added another 18 yards after the catch to move down to the Alberta 32. Several plays later, on third down with no time remaining, Rooker aired it out to Sam Davenport who leapt up to haul it in, tying the game. Kieran Flannery-Fleck was money on the ensuing convert to seal a 28-27 comeback win.

“We’re turning into a resilient bunch finding ways to win the last four weeks,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill, who earned his eighth Hardy Cup victory. “This reminded me a lot of the 2017 Hardy Cup on the big field goal on the last play (in Calgary). You’ve got to give full credit to Alberta. They came in here, they did what they did, they had a chance to win it and just … luck. I’ve been on the wrong end of those, too. I know it’s an old saying but it’s a shame someone had to lose, but hey, I’m glad I’m on the right side.”

Rooker, who finished the game with 378 passing yards and two touchdowns, went a perfect eight-for-eight to start the game, helping UBC build a 14-0 first-quarter lead.

Photo courtesy: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

Derek Engel entered on short yardage on UBC’s first possession and called his own number, running wide and diving into the end zone for the game-opening score.

Forcing the Bears to punt for a second straight drive, McBean put up a 28-yard return as Rooker got the ball back in his hands already well into Alberta territory. Once again down to the two-yard line, the T-Birds gambled on third down and it was Alberta’s defence who stopped Davenport short, ending the drive with the turnover on downs.

But with Hetlinger backed up into his own end zone, UBC defensive lineman Chase Henning quickly got his way to the Alberta pivot for the strip sack, recovered by Ryan Baker for the defensive touchdown, doubling the T-Birds’ lead.

The Bears got their offence rolling late in the opening quarter. Hetlinger hooked up with Jaxon Hume for a 34-yard gain to the UBC 25-yard line as the clock hit zeros. Continuing the drive into the second, the Bears were forced to settle for a 21-yard Jonathan Giustini field goal, getting the visitors on the board.

Quickly getting the ball back on offence after a UBC punt, Hetlinger moved the Bears deep into UBC territory. After penalties both ways prolonged the drive, Alberta ended it with their first touchdown of the afternoon when Hetlinger found Dakota McKay in the back of the end zone to cut the T-Birds’ lead to just four points.

Rooker continued his red-hot start to the game with an eighth straight completion on UBC’s ensuing drive. But the next play saw a pass deflected off a receiver’s fingertips and into the hands of Tyshon Blackburn, the first of two interceptions on the afternoon.

It appeared as if the T-Birds earned a pick of their own two plays later when Henning read Hetlinger’s pass leading to a massive return the other way before being taken down. But a roughing the passer penalty negated the play, continuing Alberta’s drive.

Hetlinger proved his poise after being flushed out of the pocket. He ran wide and then threw to Chevy Thomas who made an equally impressive athletic catch, making sure to get a foot down in bounds as the Bears took their first lead of the game, 17-14 nearing the three-minute warning.

A nightmare sequence for UBC midway through the third quarter saw the hosts turn the ball over twice within a seventy-second span. As the rain began to fall heavily, the effects quickly became apparent as the ball came loose on a Rooker hand-off to Knight with Yohann Akale recovering at the UBC 16-yard line.

Two plays later, the Bears made the T-Birds pay as Hetlinger found Carter Kettyle for a 12-yard touchdown pass, giving Alberta a two-possession lead.

On the ensuing kickoff, McBean had the ball knocked out by Matteo Trasolini with Alberta once again recovering for instant field position. Giustini lined up for a 19-yard field goal attempt but he nailed the upright to come away with nothing, keeping it a 24-14 Alberta advantage.

Photo courtesy: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

Rebounding nicely from the last two possession gaffes, UBC’s offence methodically moved downfield and into the red zone, capping off the drive with an 11-yard Rooker pass to Edgerrin Williams-Hernandez, UBC’s first receiving touchdown of the game.

Giustini added a 36-yard field goal to make it a six-point Bears advantage with 4:26 remaining.

The T-Birds weren’t done with the turnovers, however, as they turned it over on downs followed by an interception on their next two possessions, the latter of which gave Alberta control at the 42-yard line with 1:48 left on the clock.

Jhooty then made his game-saving forced fumble, setting up the unlikely comeback victory to secure UBC’s first Canada West title since 2015.

The T-Birds are now one of just four teams left standing across the country on the road to the Vanier Cup as UBC will host the AUS champion St. Francis Xavier X-Men in the Mitchell Bowl next Saturday at Thunderbird Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:00 p.m. EST.

This article was provided courtesy of UBC Athletics.