VANCOUVER — It is already being talked about as one of the greatest single minutes in the history of UBC Thunderbirds football.
And if you were one of the 1,966 who gathered Saturday at Thunderbird Stadium for the 86th edition of the Hardy Cup championship game, then you can count yourself among the fortunate few able to witness ‘Birds quarterback Garrett Rooker engineer a six play, 95-yard scoring drive with 52 seconds remaining on the clock, one which culminated with his 13-yard touchdown pass to receiver Sam Davenport on the final snap of the game.
It drew UBC even with Edmonton’s visiting Alberta Golden Bears at 27-27, setting the stage for kicker Kieran Flannery-Fleck’s game-winning walk-off extra point and a 28-27 victory which sends the Thunderbirds into this coming Saturday’s home date in the Mitchell Bowl national semifinal game against the Atlantic champion St. Francis Xavier X-Men of Antigonish, NS.
Yet what elevated Saturday’s game-winning drive into its deserving place atop the mountain of greatest moments in UBC football lore was everything which had immediately preceded it: On six of its prior seven drives, the Thunderbirds had not only surrendered the ball three times via the fumble, they did it twice more at the hand of failed third-down conversions and once by interception.
If you subscribe to Greek myth, it was easy to imagine the T-Birds collectively cast in the Myth of Sisyphus, that tale of a guy condemned for life to the task of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll all the way back down just as it reaches the peak.
In this instance, however, the actions of the Men of Point Grey unwittingly revealed an unmistakable esprit de corps, one which would carry them to a perfect 3-0 record on the season against one of the strongest Alberta teams in recent memory, keeping alive its bid to win the Vanier Cup national title, something which has eluded the program since head coach Blake Nill’s first season at the helm back in 2015.
“I have never in my football career experienced something like this,” admitted the Rooker, the Texan slinger who weekly seems more and more born to play the Canadian game. “It’s amazing. I am still kind of in disbelief that we went down the field. Obviously we knew we had a chance to do it, and we did it.”
That belief was every bit as strong along its defence, which as has been their habit more games than not this season, seemed prepared to weather opposition flurries as if forecast by some built-in figurative storm tracker.
“Coach Nill said something about strength and honour and we really bought into that today,” began UBC defensive back Jerrell Cummings, who in the delivery system of our local football world is about as B.C.-bred as they come, having played his high school ball for East Vancouver’s Notre Dame Jugglers, and of course starring at Simon Fraser before coming to the ‘Birds this past off-season. “The turnovers… you see it, but then you’ve got to focus on the next play.
“There were a lot of momentum swings today,” added Cummings. “Obviously we had that one interception called all the way back, and once you realize that it’s just us against the world, there’s nothing that can really stop us with our energy.”
THE JOY OF JHOOTY
That “one interception called all the way back” of which Cummings spoke?
With UBC leading 14-10 midway through the second quarter and still feeling the momentum of its early 14-0 lead, the end result of that play indeed felt, for the hometown faithful, like the figurative boulder was rolling back down the hill.
And it’s hard to imagine that anyone in Thunderbird Stadium was feeling more bulldozed than UBC defensive end Taaj Jhooty
With 5:51 remaining in the first half, Jhooty knifed through the middle of the Golden Bears’ offensive front, and with a harried Alberta quarterback Eli Hetlinger back-pedalling into what would be a rushed throw, the former North Delta-Seaquam standout managed what looked to be a clean sack.
Pressing the matter, Jhooty forced Hetlinger to put up an errant ball which was expertly intercepted by Birds’ SAM linebacker Chase Henning, who returned it 63 yards to the Alberta eight-yard line.
The play was flagged for a low hit and a 15-yard penalty, and instead of first-and-goal for UBC, Alberta scrimmaged first-and-10 at the opposition 21-yard line. Four plays later, Golden Bears’ receiver Chevy Thomas made an expert catch at the edge of the end zone, sending his team to the halftime locker room with a lead (17-14) it would not surrender until the final play of the game.
There was no questioning the fact that from UBC’s perspective, that play was a 14-point swing disguised as a heavyweight champ’s open hook to the chops.
Yet for his part, Jhooty said his teammates helped him keep the faith.
“It’s a battle,” he said in the post-game. “We have just been coached to keep working and not to give up. The penalties will be there. There will be some calls that are not in our favour, but we have to just keep working and balling out.
“My teammates just told me to keep my head up,” he added. “We’ll just keep getting turnovers We’ve seen it happen. Just keep getting the ball to our offence if we keep getting stops.”
For the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Jhooty, those words would later prove to be prophetic.
In fact, it was what the second-year defensive end did the snap before Rooker lined his offence up in the shotgun and stared 95 yards down the field that made UBC’s historic game-winning drive even possible.
Leading 27-21 and facing a seemingly convertible second-and-one, Alberta elected not to kick a short field goal which would have given them a two-score, 30-21 lead with 56 seconds remaining.
Instead, the Golden Bears elected to run the ball.
Only issue was, running back Ope Oshinubi and quarterback Hetlinger got their signals crossed after the snap.
Hetlinger, lined up in the gun, took the snap and turned to his left to hand off to Oshinubi, who had come into the game as a change of pace for RB-1 Matthew Peterson, the latter nursing more than his share of bumps and bruises.
Oshinubi, however, came up on the quarterback’s right hip, and with the play broken, Hetlinger had no choice but to run the ball.
Yet as he darted into the heart of the UBC defence, it was none other than Jhooty who came barrelling through and laid the hit which would jar the ball loose. He then put an exclamation point on the moment, recovering his own forced fumble.
“I saw the QB coming down so I hit him… hit him really hard so the ball popped out and I got it right away,” said Jhooty. “That goes to my teammates. It was a huge play, all about us working hard, never giving up and to never stop fighting.”
On a personal note, Jhooty described the play as if it were the biggest play of his career. And it’s one which further cements his ascension to the heart of the UBC defensive front.
“This shows who I am and that I can make plays and shows the potential I have,” he said, nodding in agreement about how the script of a game, from start to finish, can mirror a journey in and of itself.
“I am coached by the best DC (Pat Tracey) in the nation and the best HC (Blake Nill) in the nation,” he finished. “They have put me in the best position to make good plays.”
INSIDE THE HEART OF HARDY’S WINNING DRIVE
All of this brings us full-circle back to Saturday’s final drive, one which began with a bang after Rooker reared up and let fly a ball that travelled 53 yards through the air, and was hauled for an eventual 63-yard completion on first down to receiver Shemar McBean.
“We knew that we were going to get a couple of opportunities to come down and score,” said Rooker.
“It was a six-point game,” he continued. “If we scored, we knew we’d kick and extra point to win the game. And we drew up a couple of plays where, like the big one to Shemar at the start of the drive.”
On its own merits, that singular play was breathtaking enough to serve as the game’s defining signature.
UBC football’s on-air analyst Len Catling would correctly label it as “…the best deep ball of Rooker’s career.”
And the blazing McBean, who far too often doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the verticality he brings the UBC offence, was the picture of focus and speed in making the catch, shredding the secondary and hitting another gear off the dead sprint before finally being taken down at the Golden Bears’ 32-yard line.
🏈 FB | @ubcfbl QB Garrett Rooker and Receiver Sam Davenport who connected for the game tying touchdown with zeros on the clock, right after @ubcfbl hoisted the Hardy Cup for the 17th time pic.twitter.com/NMrXzZq97y— UBC Thunderbirds (@ubctbirds) November 12, 2023
UBC was somehow able to survive back-to-back 10-yard penalties for holding and offensive pass interference when, facing near-comical odds, Rooker hit Davenport on a 28-yard strike on first-and-30.
‘Birds running back Isaiah Knight carried for three yards on second-and-two, setting up first down at the Alberta 21-yard line. From there it was an eight-yard completion to Davenport, then the high-stakes third-and-two from the Alberta 13-yard line on what would be the final snap of the game.
“The last play we knew was going to be Cover 3, Cover 4, and that I would have to find that hole with Sam in the zone,” said Rooker. “It was just amazing.”
Just like he had outlined, Rooker rolled to his right and on the run gunned a pass to Davenport, whose precise route running had given him the cushion to sit down just a few yards inside the end zone and snare his quarterback’s perfectly-placed pass between the Golden Bears’ Reiss Flunder and Mack Bannatyne.
“This is insane, there’s no words, no words to describe it really, right?” a spent Davenport said, seated on the turf in exhaustion during the post-game award ceremony. “It’s just excitement and then on to the next… we get to play another game.”
And what chemistry the QB from just outside of Houston has forged over the season with the receiver from Abbotsford who joined UBC this season following the folding of the football program across town at Simon Fraser.
“Garrett is a great guy and knows what to do,” said Davenport. “He knows the decisions to be made and he made them today. That’s all that was needed.”
Added Rooker of Davenport: “We built chemistry all year and I have so much trust in him to make plays. I don’t think there’s anyone in this league that can handle him out there wide. And he just shows up week in and week out and makes plays. It’s amazing to see.”
And so was so much else from UBC’s perspective on Saturday.
Henning may have been denied his potential game-changing interception due to penalty, yet he more than made his mark by sacking Hetlinger in the end zone and forcing the fumble that was scooped up by free safety Ryan Baker for a major that made the score 14-0 UBC with just under three minutes left in the opening quarter.
And how about the two touchdowns UBC defenders foiled at the point of catch?
Cornerback Kaden Cook put a well-placed arm in the way to bat away a major in the end zone from receiver Kolby Hurford.
And halfback Ben Sangmuah also came through with an end zone knockdown, this one on a pass destined for Alberta receiver Jonathan Rosery.
UBC back-up quarterback Derek Engel carried it in from two yards out to open the scoring, and Rooker fired a bullet pass into the end zone to receiver Edgerrin Williams-Hernandez to pull the Birds to within 24-21 a minute into the fourth, capping the only other UBC drive in the final quarter that didn’t result in a turnover.
Davenport finished with 10 catches for 137 yards, running back Knight led the ground game with 50 yards, and McBean led the all-purpose parade with 147 yards through both the air and through both phases of the return game.
Kicker Flannery-Fleck was good on all four of his PAT attempts.
Which brings us to one huge break UBC got from the football gods in the third quarter.
Alberta’s kicker/safety Jonathan Giustini missed a 19-yard field goal attempt, and because, as fate would have it, the ball deflected wide off the left upright, a single point was not awarded.
Afterwards, with that stroke of good fortune and others on his mind, UBC head coach Nill could honour the battle between two great teams in no better way than to look at it philosophically.
While admitting the game could have gone either way, he added “…but I’ve been on lots of teams that were (deserving to win), and we didn’t get it. Luck. Luck. I’ve been on the wrong side of those, too and hey man, you know what? I am glad I am on the right side.”
UBC, of course, were stunned exactly six years to the very Nov. 11 date of Saturday’s game during the 2017 Hardy Cup final in Calgary.
On that day, the Dinos’ Niko DiFonte booted a Canadian university record 59-yard walk-off field goal to give the home team a stunning 44-43 victory.
“It hasn’t hit me yet, I guess,” Nill told me back on that day. “Your season is over, and that’s what’s bothering me. We did a lot of good things but not enough of them.”
Those are sentiments surely shared Saturday by Alberta head coach Chris Morris whose team went 7-3 overall this season, with all three of those losses coming against UBC.
And that was the story from a day that was anything but another Saturday in the Park.
Some days you’re gutted, on others you’re grateful.
And six years later, with surreal 95-yard game-winning 52-second scoring drive in his back pocket, Blake Nill and the UBC Thunderbirds could indeed say “It’s been a minute, and worth every second of the wait.”
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