The road to the Vanier Cup once again ran into a roadblock.
Last year, it was the Manitoba Bisons that came into McMahon Stadium and wrested the Hardy Cup from the higher-ranked University of Calgary.
This time around the UBC Thunderbirds — coached by the former Dinos’ head man Blake Nill — were the ones to plunge the dagger into Calgary’s hopes and dreams for 2015, coming away with a 34-26 triumph in the Canada West championship game Saturday afternoon.
“Heartbroken … it’s tough … it’s hard to end a career like that,’’ said a tearful quarterback Andrew Buckley. “We missed opportunities throughout the game.
“We didn’t capitalize, too many penalties. We didn’t play our best that’s for sure.’’
The Thunderbirds will now go on to meet St. Francis Xavier in the Uteck Bowl in Antigonish, N.S. StFX narrowly defeated Mount Allison 14-12 on Saturday.
A two-yard touchdown run by Mercer Timmis at the 12:44 mark of the fourth quarter trimmed the deficit, but it was too little too late for the top-ranked team in the nation and gave UBC its first Hardy Cup since 1997.
“Extremely disappointing for everybody,’’ stated Calgary head coach Wayne Harris Jr.
“We played hard and tough all day. Too many mistakes, too many penalties and that was the difference in the game.’’
Penalties and turnovers were the great bugaboos in this game, as the Dinos shot themselves in the foot in numerous ways on all parts of the field. The defence also was unable to keep UBC quarterback Michael O’Connor from connecting with a plethora of fine receivers, to make the big stops when they were required.
The Dinos were flagged 17 times for 145 yards. They also lost three fumbles and turned the ball over on downs twice.
Whether it was nerves or just excess eagerness, Calgary’s offence stuttered in the onset, penalties — particularly among the offensive line — negating any forward progress they would get.
On their third possession, though, Buckley found a streaming Rashaun Simonise for an 84-yard pass-and-run play. That set up a 21-yard pass to Hunter Karl and ultimately a one-yard TD plunge by backup QB Jimmy Underdahl to put Calgary momentarily ahead.
But back-to-back throws by O’Connor to Marcus Davis — one for 12 yards, the other for 33 — made it an 18-10 advantage for the visitors.
The big play, which has haunted the Dinos periodically this season, bit them in a large way in this game. O’Connor threw a 70-yard pass to Alex Morrison and that short drive culminated in a two-yard TD run.
At that point, it was 25-10 for the T-Birds.
O’Connor threw for 374 yards, but was outgunned by the reigning Hec Crighton winner, Buckley, who amassed 447 yards in the air and threw an 18-yard TD pass to Mac Sarro. Timmis, who had a slow start, ran the ball 18 times for 109 yards.
“They were trying to take away our main weapons,’’ noted Harris.
“We had opportunities. Andrew had a great game.’’
Buckley tried to manufacture drives, but more often than not they stalled. A couple of times in the fourth quarter he went to the end zone and on both occasions the T-Birds appeared to get the benefit of the doubt on what appeared to be pass interference calls.
“(I feel) like we just lost the Hardy Cup,’’ said fifth-year linebacker Tanner Doll.
“Last game of a lot of our CIS careers. There were a couple of opportunities we let slip, a couple of plays that maybe should have been called. But we left it up to the refs a couple of times, you can’t do that.’’
On a late UBC punt, Calgary’s Robert Woodson inexplicably tried to return it from deep into his own zone and the ball popped out, to be recovered by the T-Birds with under a minute.
For Nill, the victory was in a sense bittersweet, as he built this Dinos’ squad.
“That’s why I feel heartbroken a bit, too,’’ admitted Nill, who coached the Dinos the previous eight seasons and always fell short.
“I don’t want to get into all the stuff that’s been going back and forth; the bottom line is I care about this program and I care about those kids and the coaches who are good friends of mine.
“To win a national championship, things have to fall into place. It hurts when you’re supposed to win. I can sit here and say all the right things, but I do have a lot of fondness for most of the people in that locker-room and I feel their pain.’’
(Photo: during Hardy Cup at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, on November 14, 2015. - Crystal Schick/Calgary Herald)