Hosting their first playoff game since 2018, the Thunderbirds put on a show on Saturday, beating the University of Manitoba Bisons 29–21 in the Hardy Cup semi-final. While a slow start nearly doomed them, the T-Birds picked up momentum going into the second half to erase a 14-point deficit.
In what has been a concerning trend for the T-Birds this season, both sides of the ball struggled out of the gate. While the teams would trade field goals to end the opening quarter 3–3, Manitoba’s rushing attack took over in the second.
A creatively designed play on the goal line led to Manitoba’s offensive lineman Matteo Vaccaro punching in a 1-yard touchdown rush on their first drive, before running back Vaughan Lloyd followed up with a 41-yard touchdown on their next possession. Down 17–3 with less than 4 minutes remaining in the first half, things looked bleak for the top-seeded T-Birds.
When asked about this sluggish start, head coach Blake Nill described it as a learning process.
“It's [about] learning to deal with high expectations. They're stressed and you see they've never been in these positions before,” Nill said. “But every game, when you're at the top and you win—especially tough games like this—you become more and more able to deal with those expectations.”
With less than a minute in the half, the Thunderbirds finally got their feet back under them, as running back Isaiah Knight punched in a touchdown to close the Bisons’ lead to seven. However, that momentum was short lived, as UBC’s first drive of the second half resulted in a rouge off of a missed field goal. Manitoba then converted a field goal of their own, stretching the lead to 20–11 with only five minutes left in the third quarter.
While things again looked bleak, a big play from the T-Birds’ defence turned the game. Deep in Manitoba territory, defensive lineman Mitchell Townsend popped the ball loose from the opposition, which UBC recovered and converted into a touchdown a few plays later.
Manitoba got an early rouge in the fourth quarter, but now only down 21–18, the UBC offence finally took over. After the UBC rushing attack had been defended well all game, they switched to a system that featured more run-pass option (RPO) plays. This opened up the offence, with quarterback Garrett Rooker executing a magnificent drive, capping it off with a 15-yard go-ahead touchdown run that sent the crowd into a frenzy. In the final minutes, UBC added a rouge and a field goal to bring the score to 29–21, fully completing the comeback.
Nill highlighted the adjustments made to the offensive scheme. “They were beating us on the line of scrimmage. We had to get to more of an RPO package that allowed us to at least let Rooker do more than just hand the ball off.”
With the win, the Thunderbirds return to the Hardy Cup final, where they lost last year. This time, however, the ‘Birds have home field advantage, something they haven’t had in the Hardy Cup Final since 1997.
They will face the University of Alberta Golden Bears—whose only losses have been to UBC—at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Thunderbird Stadium.