Thunderbirds football stun Huskies 35-29 with late-game heroics, clinch playoff spot

In a game that contained enough drama to last an entire season, the UBC Thunderbirds (4–3) were able to shock the previously undefeated University of Saskatchewan Huskies (6–1) in a high-scoring, back-and-forth thriller, taking home a season-defining win by a score of 35–29.

With Saturday’s win, the Thunderbirds have ridden a late-season surge to overcome a 1–3 start, qualifying for the playoffs. The Thunderbirds offense gashed a stout Huskies defense that held previous opponents to an average of 13.8 points per game, powered by Isaiah Knight’s incredible 231 total yards.

With a playoff berth on the line, UBC came out of the gates with a renewed sense of urgency. After keeping the Huskies on their heels with a couple solid runs from Knight, the Thunderbirds used the threat of the run to their advantage by throwing out a quick screen pass to Knight that caught the Huskies off-guard for a 45-yard touchdown. Before the Huskies' impressive offense could even see the field, UBC had already set the tone for the rest of the game with an early 7–0 lead.

However, the T-Birds’ momentum was quickly halted by a devastating injury to starting quarterback Garrett Rooker. After being carried off the field by his teammates, Rooker was unable to return for the remainder of the game.

The T-Birds continued to push on with backup Derek Engel, who came out the very next play after the Rooker injury to throw a 33-yard touchdown pass on a checkdown throw to Knight to give UBC a 14–0 lead.

While the quick 14–0 lead was certainly an impressive feat, the Huskies quickly reminded everyone in the crowd why they came into Saturday’s matchup undefeated. Saskatchewan quarterback Mason Nyhus threw the ball with pinpoint precision on the Huskies’ next two drives, throwing two touchdowns, including an impeccably placed ball into the hands of receiver Daniel Wiebe for a 73-yard strike — perfectly over the outstretched hands of the nearby T-Birds defenders.

A crucial holding penalty on the Thunderbirds’ third drive of the game was the final nail in the coffin for UBC’s early lead, as the Thunderbirds decided to concede a safety in lieu of gifting the Huskies with prime field position. In just six minutes, the Huskies had taken back the lead, ending a hectic first quarter on top 16–14.

After that disappointing stretch, the T-Birds were able to quickly kick back into high gear. In a mere two plays, the Thunderbirds completely flipped the field, turning a claustrophobic starting point of their own 18-yard line into six points. Dane Kapler got things started when he bounced his run outside for a massive 38-yard run to get the Thunderbirds out of the shadow of their own goalposts. Not to be outdone, Kapler’s running mate Knight took the ball right up the middle on the very next play for a 54-yard touchdown run, enabling UBC to hold onto a slim 22–19 lead at the half.

UBC players embrace after Saturday's 35–29 playoff-clinching victory.
UBC players embrace after Saturday's 35–29 playoff-clinching victory. Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

While the T-Birds’ run game clearly set the tone for the first half, the Huskies started to key in on UBC’s rush-first attack. As UBC head coach Blake Nill put it after the game, the Huskies “almost [made] the run impossible,” as the Saskatchewan defense attempted to put “all the stress on the young quarterback [Engel].”

The Huskies’ lead wouldn’t hold true for long, as Saskatchewan roared back in front, driving to the UBC 12-yard line for a chip-shot field goal before returning to the end-zone with a quick seven-yard touchdown strike from Nyhus to receiver Rhett Vavra. As the UBC offense continued to struggle, Saskatchewan’s newly minted 29–22 lead seemed impenetrable.

Despite the pressure of a stagnating offense in a playoff-clinching game against the best team in the conference, Engel showed what he was made of. On a pivotal third-down play with only two minutes remaining in the game, the Huskies sent an all-out blitz towards Engel, who somehow managed to step up in the pocket and deliver a perfect ball to receiver Shemar McBean for a game-tying 18-yard score.

From that point onwards, the Thunderbirds defense carried the torch that their offense lit on the previous drive to finish off the game. They not only forced a fumble immediately after the Engel-led touchdown drive, but then also forced a quick two-and-out on a sack of Nyhus by defensive lineman Lake Korte-Moore. Despite their best efforts on those two drives — which turned into two field goals that would give the Thunderbirds a slim lead with 48 seconds left on the clock — the Huskies still mounted an end-of-game comeback attempt that gave the T-Birds a real scare. The Huskies offense got down to the UBC 17-yard line to attempt a game-winning play with two seconds left. As Nyhus’ throw to the back corner of the end-zone fell incomplete, the Thunderbirds could finally exhale and celebrate their berth in the playoffs.

As Nill reflected on this thriller of a game, he summed it up well by saying that “you sort of pick your poison, and we picked the right poison on one play more." In such a close, back-and-forth battle, it had to come down to the last play, and it did, in dramatic fashion.

The Thunderbirds will look to continue their upward ascension in the Canada West conference on October 29 in Edmonton when they face the University of Alberta in their final game of the regular season.