UBC Thunderbirds receiver David Mann had a banner day with over 100 receiving yards, but the Thunderbirds had their 2016 season end Saturday against host Calgary in the highest-scoring Hardy Cup final ever. (Richard Lam, UBC athletics) / PNG
The UBC Thunderbirds dug a hole for themselves in the opening half of the Hardy Cup Canada West championship final Saturday in Calgary that was deep enough to engulf the entire height of the famous on-campus totem pole which inspires their namesake.
But even a second-half excavation project worthy of a world-class archaeologist wasn’t enough to pull themselves out of the mire against the archrival Dinos.
Trailing 36-10 at the half, the defending Vanier Cup champions staged a furious second-half rally and brought themselves to within a field goal on two occasions, the last in the final two minutes, before finally succumbing 46-43 in highest-scoring game in the game’s 80-year history.
Yet despite an incredible second half in which it outscored Calgary 33-10, the Thunderbirds couldn’t hide from a nightmarish first half, one in which each of its first four turnovers was turned into a Calgary touchdown.
“Total credit to the spirit of the coaching staff and the players to rally from what was a very tough situation and make it the kind of game it was,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill, whose team beat Calgary 34-26 in last season’s Hardy clash.
“But the second half wasn’t the issue. It was the first half.”
Certainly, it was a game for which the ‘Birds had plenty of motivation.
A victory would have flushed away the inconsistencies of a 3-5 regular season, and would have brought UBC back to Thunderbird Stadium to face Atlantic champion St. Francis Xavier in the Mitchell Bowl national semifinal this Saturday.
Instead, Calgary will stay at home to welcome the X-Men who toppled Mt. Allison 29-8 in Saturday’s Atlantic final. The other half of the national Vanier Cup draw will emerge from next Saturday’s Uteck Bowl where host Laval clashes with Laurier. The Rouge et Or beat the Montreal Carabins 20-17 in the Quebec final, while the Golden Hawks kicked a walk-off field goal to beat the Western Mustangs 43-40 in the OUA final.
UBC forced the issue in the second half, and its shovel brigade looked at times to be unstoppable.
When linebacker Colton Zayshley forced Calgary’s Denzel Radford to fumble the football deep in Dinos’ territory, lineman Trey Levy was able to recover, setting up Ben Cummings’ one-yard touchdown run which pulled the ‘Birds to within 39-36 with 7:01 remaining.
Jeshrun Antwi of the Dinos, however, was able to cap a 95-yard drive with a four-yard TD run and give Calgary a 46-36 lead with 3:17 left.
Unflappable UBC responded with another drive of its own, pulling to within 46-43 after a two-yard Cummings’ touchdown run with two minutes left.
UBC stalled as it drove late for the win, replays showing that a clear catch for a first down was made by receiver David Mann but ruled incomplete.
University of British Columbia Thunderbirds look on as University of Calgary Dinos' Jeshrun Antwi scores a touchdown during second half CIS Hardy Cup football action in Calgary, Saturday. Jeff McIntosh / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Still, it was clear that Nill’s halftime message resonated with his team.
“I told them that there was no sense in me losing it,” began Nill, “that we just needed to take accountability for ourselves. In the first half we just looked like we were standing around waiting for someone else to make a play. Our kids have to realize that the other teams wants it as much as they do. We have to play a full 60 minutes and that is something we failed to do all year. It has to be addressed and we have to find a solution.”
UBC’s second-half rally began with a one-yard scoring run by Kory Nagata and then a 52-yard pick-six by linebacker Riley Jones who made Calgary quarterback Adam Sinagra pay for his only miscue of the day.
The first half?
UBC receiver Marshall Cook hauled in a pass from quarterback Michael O’Connor on the first snap of the game, but wound up losing it, and had it scooped up at the ‘Birds 20-yard line by Calgary’s Hunter Turnbull. A few plays later, Antwi ran in for an eight-yard major.
O’Connor, who was punished all day by the Calgary defence, surrendered an interception which led to a score, and another after a fumble while taking a blindside hit on a blown UBC blocking assignment. Mann, who led the ‘Birds pass-catching core with nine grabs for 160 yards, later fumbled a catch at midfield that the Dinos used to take a 36-10 halftime lead.
O’Connor went 29-of-51 for 459 yards, but didn’t throw a touchdown pass and was picked off twice. He rushed for a team-high 68 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.