Hardy Cup slips away from Calgary Dinos in upset loss to UBC Thunderbirds
In the end, an era of Calgary Dinos football that held so much promise will be remembered mostly for what might have been.
A 34-26 loss to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds on Saturday ensured there will be no national championship for Andrew Buckley, Mercer Timmis and the crew of one-time overachievers that lost in the 2013 Vanier Cup final.
They had two more years to get their hands on the trophy, but fell short in the Hardy Cup championship for a second time in a row on Saturday, undone by penalties, two late turnovers and a brilliant performance by Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O'Connor.
"(I'm) heartbroken, it's tough. It's hard to end a career like that," said Buckley, who went 31-for-43 for 447 yards in the air. "We didn't play our best, that's for sure. It's those little things that kill drives and kill momentum."
As difficult as any season-ending loss would be for the No. 1-ranked team in the country, Saturday's must have felt particularly painful. The Dinos were nowhere near their best, picking up 17 penalties for 145 yards and fumbling the ball four times.
Of those fumbles, the sting of the last two will surely linger.
Down five points with just over a minute to go, the Dinos slotted in Canada West defensive player-of-the-year Robert Woodson to receive a punt deep in their own territory. Taking punts isn't usually part of Woodson's job description, and the Thunderbirds were quick to recover the ball when it came loose as Woodson attempted to gain a few yards.
Three plays later, the Thunderbirds kicked a field goal.
The stage was set. The Dinos were down eight with less than a minute on the clock, but the ball was theirs. It wasn't ideal, but at least it was a one-possession game. Putting the ball in the hands of Buckley, who happens to be the reigning CIS MVP, meant there was still hope.
A couple plays later, Buckley found Brett Blaszko near the sideline, only for the ball to pop out of the receiver's hands as he went to the turf. The Thunderbirds recovered.
Game over. Season over.
"With 40 seconds on the clock, we still thought we had a realistic shot of getting in the endzone, going for two and going to overtime," said Dinos head coach Wayne Harris. "But again, just another mistake and a fumble and guys trying to make a play, and that's all that happened.
"Sometimes, when you're down and behind and a great team, you try to force things to happen and when you force things instead of letting them come natural, it comes back to haunt you sometimes."
The Dinos will almost certainly be in contention again next season, as there's no shortage of depth in the program and there are still pieces left from the 2013 team that lost to Laval in the Vanier Cup final.
One thing that's for sure, though, is they won't be alone in fighting for the Canada West crown. Under the tutelage of former Dinos head coach Blake Nill, the Thunderbirds emerged mid-season as a powerhouse.
With O'Connor -- who transferred from Penn State in the offseason -- calling the shots, the Thunderbirds pushed the ball upfield again and again and were able to control the clock late. Nill's long been considered one of CIS' top recruiters, so Saturday may have been the birth of a new rivalry.
It may be a heated one, too, but Nill was cautious with his words after the win.
"I care about this (Dinos) program and I care about those kids, and the coaches are good friends of mine," said Nill, who called the Dinos the best team in the country. "We had a lot of good times and a few times like this together, you can't just not feel sympathy."
(Photo: University of Calgary Dinos tackle Brandon Deschamps from the UBC Thunderbirds. UBC went on to win the Hardy Trophy in a 34-26 victory over the University of Calgary Dinos in Canada West university football action at McMahon Stadium in NW Calgary, Alta. Saturday November 14, 2015. Stuart Dryden/Calgary Sun/Postmedia Network)
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