Thunderbirds’ football season ends with loss to Saskatchewan in the Canada West conference final

In a snow-covered Griffiths Stadium this Saturday afternoon, the UBC Thunderbirds fell 23–8 to the conference-leading Saskatchewan Huskies, losing the 85th Hardy Cup title and the opportunity to advance to the national semifinals.

Three weeks prior, the T-Birds had handed Saskatchewan their first and only loss of the season, securing a spot in the playoffs at the cost of starting quarterback Garrett Rooker. Rooker left the field in the first quarter after enduring a season-ending injury. Back-up quarterback Derek Engel was thrust into a challenging situation, leading UBC into the post-season in place of Rooker — the 2021 Canada West (CW) Rookie of the Year — with only one career start to prepare him.

Though they were underdogs, the Thunderbirds didn’t look outmatched at the start of the game, keeping step with the Huskies for much of the first quarter. The offence failed to score but played capably, putting together the longest drive of the quarter.

The Huskies gained momentum towards the end of the first, as quarterback Mason Nyhus appeared to find his rhythm. Saskatchewan dominated the second quarter, forcing a turnover on UBC’s first possession and eating up the play clock with a seven-minute drive.

Nyhus, recently named the CW Player of the Year, led the Huskies inside the UBC 25 on three separate drives in the second. The UBC defence rose to the occasion, holding Saskatchewan’s powerhouse offence to a field goal each time.

Trailing 9–0 with 2:13 left in the half, the Thunderbirds needed to score if they hoped to keep things close. Engel started to look shaky, but penalties on the Huskies' defence propelled the T-Birds to their opponents’ goalline, setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Lucas Mastrodomenico.

UBC head coach Blake Nill on Saturday's final.
UBC head coach Blake Nill on Saturday's final. Electric Umbrella / Huskie Athletics

In a position to take the lead, UBC opened the second half with an effective drive, again aided by penalties. Engel played the best he had all game, throwing his only incompletion on second-and-ten from the Saskatchewan 17.

Facing third-and-ten, kicker Owen Brown lined up for a critical 24-yard field-goal attempt. If he succeeded, UBC would take the lead at 10–9; instead, the ball soared left of the goalposts, bringing the score to 9–8 with a rouge. UBC would not score again.

The Thunderbirds’ worn-down defence eventually cracked, allowing the Huskies their first touchdown as the third quarter expired.

Saskatchewan’s 16–8 lead was certainly conquerable, but the UBC offence became desperate.

With their season on the line, a panicked Engel began attempting dangerous throws in gambles for yardage. He threw a pair of interceptions on consecutive drives — the first of which was run back for a touchdown — and many of his other passes were batted down or nearly intercepted.

The Huskies and the T-Birds in the Hardy Cup.
The Huskies and the T-Birds in the Hardy Cup. Electric Umbrella / Huskie Athletics

Down 23–8 with less than nine minutes to play, UBC was trapped in a catch-22: the passing game deteriorated as time ran out, yet the winding clock and lack of progress forced UBC to rely further on its failing passing game.

The Thunderbirds fought to the end, attempting three third-down conversions in the last quarter. Only one was successful.

The defence kept UBC’s hopes alive, allowing no points in the fourth despite the favourable field position afforded to Saskatchewan. In the end, it didn’t matter; UBC’s inability to score in the final quarter cemented the loss.

Defending their Hardy Cup title, the Huskies now advance to the Uteck Bowl, one of the national semifinals, where they will face the St. Francis Xavier X-Men. The winner will advance to the Vanier Cup, the U Sports national championship game.

On December 2, UBC will play SFU in the Shrum Bowl, a rivalry game isolated from the U Sports season. But the Thunderbirds’ 2022 season is over; they’ll have to wait another year for a shot at the Vanier Cup.