On Saturday afternoon, the UBC Thunderbirds pulled off an incredible last-minute comeback against the University of Alberta Golden Bears, claiming the 86th Hardy Cup with a heart-pounding 28–27 victory at Thunderbird Stadium. The win gives the ‘Birds their 17th conference title and first since 2015, when they went on to clinch the national Vanier Cup.
Initially, the action favoured UBC. The ‘Birds scored on their opening possession with a methodical, six-minute drive, while the Bears' offence floundered against UBC’s defence. The ‘Birds looked steadily dominant, unphased even by an early interception on a pass from UBC quarterback Garrett Rooker. The defence reclaimed control on the following play, tackling Alberta quarterback Eli Hetlinger in his own end zone and recovering the subsequent fumble for a 14–0 lead.
However, Alberta began to gain traction in the second quarter, putting together a 76-yard drive that culminated in a successful field goal. Another long drive — assisted by a penalty — propelled the Bears to their first touchdown of the game, narrowing UBC’s lead to 14–10.
After another interception gave Alberta favourable field position, Hetlinger’s pass was picked off by UBC’s Chase Henning, who dodged Bears for a 64-yard run. To the fury of Thunderbird fans, a roughing-the-passer call invalidated Henning’s play and allowed Alberta to take a 17–14 lead, cementing a dramatic shift in momentum.
In the third quarter, the rainy weather and mounting pressure to make something happen, made the ‘Birds increasingly accident-prone. Running-back Isaiah Knight fumbled the ball, gifting Alberta the ball at the ‘Birds’ 16-yard-line. The Bears easily found the end zone, extending their lead to 24–10.
Thunderbird Shemar McBean exerted admirable effort on the punt return, but the Bears forced another fumble, again recovering the ball in UBC territory.
Against the odds, the ‘Birds forced Alberta to walk away without any points in that crucial play. After a penalty negated a would-be touchdown, the Bears attempted a field goal, but it bounced off the upright.
With less than 20 minutes left, the UBC offence finally appeared to regain their footing, putting together a 90-yard drive for their first touchdown since the first quarter.
Yet down 24-21 with time expiring, the Thunderbirds stayed desperate. Midway through the fourth, the Bears snuffed an ill-conceived fake punt for a turnover in UBC territory. A successful field goal made the score 27–21.
Amidst competing chants from the ‘Birds and Bears fans in attendance, one could feel the tension tightening around UBC. On their following possession, the ‘Birds came up short on a 3rd and 7, and with less than two minutes left, the next drive ended with a Rooker interception.
As the Bears steadily charged down the field, running down the clock, it seemed that UBC’s fate was sealed. Then, Hetlinger lost the ball on UBC’s 15 as he was tackled by Taaj Jhooty, who recovered for the ‘Birds.
52 seconds left, 95 yards to go and no timeouts left, Rooker dropped back to pass and without hesitation hit McBean with a 63-yard shot into Alberta territory.
Two penalties moved the ‘Birds back, but Rooker still connected with Sam Davenport for a 28-yard gain with 24 seconds left. A three-yard run, incomplete shot at the end zone, and short completion put UBC on the Alberta 13-yard line.
With three seconds left, UBC had time for one play. One play with everything at stake: the conference title, the fate of the season, UBC’s best shot at the Vanier Cup in almost a decade. Rooker dropped back, fired at the end zone and connected with Davenport to tie the game as regulation expired.
UBC players stormed the field in celebration to the cacophonous cheers of fans. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty moved back the extra point attempt, but it didn’t matter — the kick was good, and the game ended 28–27 for the Thunderbirds.
“I have never in my football career experienced something like that,” said Rooker. “It feels great, it feels amazing. I’m still kinda in disbelief.”
“This may change UBC for a long time,” said head coach Blake Nill. “Because we’re finally over a hump. This is our fifth Hardy Cup final since I’ve been here … [This title is] only number two for us but we’re turning into a resilient bunch, finding a way to win.”
“There’s no words to describe it, really,” said Davenport. “It’s just excitement. And onto the next, we get to play another week.”
The Thunderbirds now look ahead to November 18, when they will host the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in the national semifinal. Kickoff is at 12 p.m.