BURNABY MOUNTAIN — As B.C.’s football gods looked down from above at the frozen tundra of Terry Fox Field on Friday night, the actions of their collective super-powers made it readily apparent that they were an immortal group of gridiron fans scorned.
Who dare deny them the pleasure that would have come from watching the past dozen straight Shrum Bowls?
Who dare cloister the greatest football rivalry our province has known, and for the longest stretch in the hallowed history of UBC vs. Simon Fraser?
And so it came to pass, as the overflow sell-out crowd of 2,922 fans at SFU Stadium eventually realized, that the success of both the visiting Thunderbirds and host Red Leafs would only be allowed to happen on the heels of each other’s mistakes.
Then, and only then, would one game-deciding drive be granted, and to the victor would go the spoils.
How else can you explain the reasons that each of the game’s first five scoring drives — all of which served as the preface to an epic finale — were initiated by a purposeful takeaway by that team’s defence or special teams?
Three forced fumbles, a blocked field goal and an interception.
Final score: UBC 18 SFU 17.
“It was a game of big plays and mistakes… that’s what it was,” said ‘Birds head coach Blake Nill who could not have spoken a simpler truth. “And that made it a game with big-play potential. And the most consistent drive of the night might have been ours at the end.”
On a frigid evening that heralded the first December Shrum Bowl ever, it all came down to a 12-play, 65-yard drive which began with 96 seconds remaining, its captain’s log scribbled by a big-boned, second-year Texan making just the fourth start of his university quarterbacking career.
“I learned a lot this game, just riding the ups and downs,” said the 6-foot-4, 220 pound Derek Engel, whose name had barely been heard in these parts until a serious late-season injury robbed UBC of its starter Garrett Rooker and made him the leading man in the ‘Birds huddle.
By the end, however, he steadied, and on the only scoring drive that didn’t begin with a takeaway, he went 5-of-9 for 52 yards, highlighted by the play of the game: A massive 14-yard completion on fourth-and-10 to receiver Lliam Wishart which had UBC sitting pretty at the Red Leafs’ one-yard line.
Engel, with 25 seconds left in the game, called his own number, his touchdown coming in advance of the team’s failed two-point convert which made the 18-17 score complete.
Suddenly, we’d all heard of the kid from Grapevine (Tex.).
“I was so pissed off that I threw that interception so I had to do something to make up for it,” said Engel, who had moments earlier set SFU along on its own lead-changing drive by throwing an interception deep in Red Leafs territory.
Engel had produced minus-two yards passing in the first half, but still finished his night 20-of-36 for 211 yards, one touchdown and the aforementioned pick. Engel went 17-of-30 for 213 yards and a score in the second half.
“That is going to help him in his offseason,” thought Nill, whose overall QB depth following a hopeful return to full health from Rooker next season might make the ‘Birds QB room the deepest in U SPORTS. “It would have been a tough off-season if we had given up the game by the mistake we made throwing that interception.”
Yet in hindsight, as both the Red Leafs and its legion of fans and alumni seated in the stands or standing just behind the end zones would have told you, that interception should have been the turning point… the final dagger of the game for the visiting blue-and-gold.
After all, when a kid from East Vancouver’s Notre Dame Secondary makes the play, and we’re talking about the ultra-talented cornerback Jerrell Cummings, the karma is supposed to on your side.
That’s the school, speaking in broader geographic terms, that sits near the foot of Burnaby Mountain and has produced a long line of Simon Fraser greats including its incomparable former quarterback and kicker Lui Passaglia.
Cummings, who has staked out the boundary side of the field as his own throughout his SFU career, got in front of an Engel pass on third-and-11, picking it off at his team’s nine-yard line.
The Red Leafs then proceeded to look better than they had all night.
Senior Red Leafs’ pivot Justin Seiber, playing the final game of his university career, had huge completions of 31 yards to Sam Davenport and 29 to Aidan Pearce before running back Mason Glover showed the offence’s balance with an 18-yard gainer. Glover later capped the drive with a two-yard TD run.
Kristie Elliott’s second PAT of the contest made it 17-12.
Afterwards, Simon Fraser head coach Mike Rigell was not in the frame of mind to sprinkle even a pinch of sugar on the performance of his team.
“You think that after you get that last touchdown, you hope that you haven’t given them enough time to score,” said Rigell, whose team was riding the high of a huge Lone Star Conference 46-14 win over West Texas A&M in mid-November. “Our defence had been solid, so you thought you could seal the deal. But it goes all the way to fourth down and they made a play.
“They earned the win,” Rigell continued of UBC. “Not going to make excuses. We tip our hat to them. They came ready to play more than us tonight and there are no moral victories. We have to understand what composure is. We were still getting pats on our back for beating West Texas. Just because (UBC) plays a different style of football, and it’s not supposed to be as physical as the level we play at, (we thought) that we could just show up and this shows you what happens when you just show up. You take losses.”
Yet like we said off the top, the football gods were not going to make anything easy for either team as a look back at all of the scoring plays which preceded the final two takes us on a comical, full-circle journey.
After a scoreless first quarter, Simon Fraser’s Giovanni Linuzzi booted a 25-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead, the score coming after the Red Leafs’ receiver Robert Meadors, while on special teams, recovered a mis-played punt return by UBC’s Edgerrin Williams.
In the third quarter, however, Williams, a quicksilver receiver who led his team with 10 catches for 90 yards, capped a nine-play, 56-yard UBC scoring drive when he hauled in an 18-yard scoring strike from Engel.
“The whole time we were just going to stay positive, that was the big thing on the sidelines, don’t let one mistake hurt you,” said Williams, who felt it was important to square up in the giveaway department with Friday’s football gods. “I made one myself so I had to make sure I got my get-back for that.”
Of course there was also nothing clean about the way that drive started or ended.
Thunderbirds’ tight end Tyler Hodgson forced a fumble by Meadors which was recovered by linebacker Stephane Tshishimbi at the Red Leafs’ 44.
Yet even after Williams found the end zone, the ‘Birds couldn’t finish the job. Former starting kicker Ben Kolb, pressed back into duty with UBC’s kicking game in a mighty struggle, had his PAT blocked by SFU’s Dakota Lepine to limit UBC’s lead at 6-3.
Early in the fourth quarter, the bad karma continued.
UBC’s Kolb had a 20-yard field goal blocked by SFU’s on-rushing front-liner Tank Brewster, who twice left the field with injury and was forced to watch the dying moments of his final game while waiving crutches from the sidelines.
Cummings scooped it up and returned it to his own 22-yard line where from there, Seiber hit the team’s most dangerous player, receiver Ethan Beselt, with passes of 34- and 55-yards, the latter for a major score later capped by Elliott’s PAT for a 10-6 Simon Fraser lead.
Coming full circle on a scoring log filled with turnovers, an SFU fumble three minutes into the fourth quarter by running back Somto Anyadike was forced by UBC linebacker Luke Burton-Krahn and recovered by tackle/end Natale Frangione inside the SFU red zone.
Two plays later, running back Dane Kapler, who led UBC on the ground with 15 carries for 85 yards, rushed for a 17-yard touchdown and a 12-10 lead. Engel’s two-point convert pass failed as part of a night in which all three of its major scores went unconverted.
Frangione’s fumble recovery was just one of his defensive highlights.
Incredibly, as part of a night in which UBC sacked SFU quarterback Seiber a total of 11 times, Frangione finished with two sacks, the plunders not only coming on the very first series of the game, but on its first and third snaps of the contest, a turn of events which immediately hinted at the edge in physicality the ‘Birds were set to enjoy and enhanced by the U SPORTS’ nation’s leading tackler, ‘Birds linebacker Ryan Baker, who capped his 2022 second-year season with a game-high three sacks.
“I think that has to be some kind of record,” the North Vancouver native Baker thought afterwards of helping push that team number into double digits. “But (SFU) are a solid football team top to bottom and it came down to the wire like it should, but we got it done.”
And in what was perhaps Shrum Bowl XXXIV’s most illogical stat, the magic number was 11, as in the number of UBC sacks and the total number of SFU first downs.
Kyle Samson finished with 1.5 sacks and Ban Sangmuah with a half-sack. Single sacks were recorded by Burton-Krahn, Mitch Townsend, Kaishaun Carter, and the dominant pass-rushing specialist Lake Korte-Moore.
Yes, his team was leading the game until 25 seconds remained, yet SFU head coach Rigell was not about to shy away from questions about the failings in his team’s protection of Seiber, who owing to those 11 sacks was dinged for a gruesome negative-89 yards rushing, part of the minus-two yards overall rushing net for the Red Leafs.
“Disappointed, obviously,” said Rigell of the loss in general. “There’s a lot of things that were at play. We just didn’t show up tonight. They physically dominated us up front. This game of football is a game of inches and it starts in the trenches. They were not only physically faster than us, but they were bigger than us and they were stronger than us, and if you can’t win up front and sustain drives you will be hooped either way you look at it. At the end of the day it’s just very embarrassing to give up that many sacks. We tried to alleviate it but they just had our number tonight.
“We had many chances to make plays and we didn’t and they did, so I take my hat off to Blake and his staff for having those guys ready too play. They did a damn good job.”
For Nill’s part, the game finished with a resounding ‘Yes’ when it comes to determining just how quickly the Shrum Bowl’s health has seemingly been restored.
“I thought coach Rigell’s staff did an incredible job preparing their young men,” he said. “I can’t say enough about that. And I really thought our guys showed some resiliency coming back a few times. They showed some ability to adapt in a unique game situation. So I think there’s positives on both sides. That’s something Mike and I talked about pre-game… the feeling that both programs are trending in the right direction. I thought tonight was an example of that.”
And yet in a game that means so much to both teams, the leader of the losing squad was understandably crushed.
“It’s tough to put in words,” SFU quarterback Seiber explained afterwards as UBC pulled to within 17-16-1 in the all-time series. “That game was battle. We knew it was going to be a rivalry game that came down to the wire. We scored the late touchdown and thought we had it. So a heartbreaker at the end. Now I have to count on my boys to bring it home next year.”
Yes, next year. We can all hardly wait.
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