Thunderbirds football wins close matchup against Simon Fraser in Shrum Bowl XXXIV

Despite the winter chill that has settled over the province, things heated up on Burnaby Mountain this Friday, with the unthawing of a 55-year-long rivalry that saw the UBC Thunderbirds take down the Simon Fraser Red Leafs by a slim margin of 18–17.

With Simon Fraser’s campus located a mere 45-minute drive from UBC, the idea of pitting these two football programs against each other in a rivalry game seems obvious, and it was. From 1967 to 2010 Shrum Bowl games took place almost every year.

While, by that point, the Shrum Bowl had become a tradition for many, a wrench was thrown into any plans for the game’s survival: the Red Leafs moved out of the Canada West Conference to join the NCAA as a part of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.

Now not only operating on a different set of rules from their cross-town counterparts, scheduling conflicts between the two leagues made another matchup almost impossible, and the teams put the rivalry on ice for the next 12 years. Despite the long hiatus, the Shurm Bowl was revived for its 34th installment at the Terry Fox Field.

A unique quirk of the Shrum Bowl that becomes quickly apparent is that while the two teams are about as geographically close as two major university football programs can be, Simon Fraser’s participation in the NCAA meant that the game was played under American rules. This shift in protocol forced the Thunderbirds to adapt to a smaller field, an extra down, a lack of pre-snap motion on offence and one less player on the field.

UBC snap on Friday's Shrum Bowl at SFU.
UBC snap on Friday's Shrum Bowl at SFU. Ethan Cairns / SFU Athletics

Even with the initial advantage given to the Red Leafs through the familiar rulebook, they could not capitalize early, as both teams played tentatively, struggling through some ugly football as they figured each other out after 12 years apart.

The only chances at any offence in the first half came from big plays on special teams. UBC muffed a line drive punt in the second quarter that instantly put Simon Fraser in scoring position, leading to a field goal that set the Red Leafs in front with just six minutes left in the first half.

UBC’s passing game was non-existent in the first half. Quarterback Derek Engel could not complete a pass for positive yardage throughout the game's first thirty minutes, with his three completions going for a total of two negative yards.

After the game, UBC head coach Blake Nill blamed these early passing struggles on a lack of experience. “Just rust in a young quarterback … [Engel is] like a dear in the headlights. That’s what it was, and credit to SFU. They brought the pressure and made it even tougher on him rather than sitting back.”

With the score standing at a mere 3–0 advantage for Simon Fraser, it seemed the game would be a defensive battle, with neither offence showing any signs of life. However, UBC was able to come into the third quarter with renewed energy. Engel methodically led his team down the field for the first T-Birds touchdown of the game. Receiver Edgerrin Williams capped off the drive with a nifty backstep to make multiple Red Leaf defenders dive and find a path to the end zone.

UBC running back Dane Kapler (#33) runs the ball.
UBC running back Dane Kapler (#33) runs the ball. Ethan Cairns / SFU Athletics

This drive by the T-Birds sparked both offences, as Simon Fraser took advantage of a UBC gaffe on a blocked field goal to turn a possession that started at their 11-yard line into a touchdown in just two plays.

Red Leaf receiver Ethan Beselt showed off his impressive speed, outrunning all UBC defenders on two streaks up the sidelines for catches of 34 and 55 yards.

“That kid is good," said Nill about Beselt after the game. "[The Red Leafs] just did a good job, and it’s lonely out there if you’re a defender. They just saw a matchup they liked and went for it.”

As the teams traded scores late in the game, the Red Leafs seemed to have a chokehold on the game when they went up by a score of 17–12 with only 1 minute and 36 seconds remaining. However, the T-Birds were able to claw back in front with a brilliantly executed two-minute drill, taking advantage of the open spaces in the SFU defence.

The drive was highlighted by a critical fourth-down conversion, with Engel — in direct contrast to his early struggles — showing no fear in the face of a free rusher. He delivered a strike on a slant to receiver Lliam Wishart for a first down to set up a Dane Kapler touchdown to take the lead with only eighteen seconds remaining in the game.

With that key comeback drive, UBC was able to take home the win in Burnaby, taking their first Shrum Bowl since 2007. SFU still holds the all-time advantage in the matchup, having won 17 games to UBC’s 16, but the T-Birds will look to even the record next year when they host the matchup on home soil at Thunderbird Stadium.