VANCOUVER — B.C.’s football community has gone 12 years without the ability to anticipate, watch and debate another Shrum Bowl clash.
Consider that for a second, and you could also say that it’s been a dozen years since the coaches at UBC and rival Simon Fraser have actually had common ground on which to both greet and talk about what past generations grew to know as B.C.’s true grandaddy of university football games.
This week, however, as the countdown to Friday’s drought-quenching XXXIV’s edition of the crosstown classic (7 p.m., Terry Fox Field at SFU Stadium) hits its 11th hour, there comes tangible proof that the most unique tackle football game in the world has indeed been brought out of mothballs.
“Over the weekend, I was actually with a bunch of SFU coaches,” grizzled eight-year UBC head coach Blake Nill reported Monday morning after a Saturday spent scouting the B.C. high school Subway Bowl provincial semifinal games at B.C. Place Stadium.
“We may have been joking around a bit, but I was telling them that there might be a lot of procedure flags, a lot of illegal motion stuff,” continued Nill of the fact that his three-down bunch from the Point Grey campus were doing their best to become a crisp, four-down unit in time for Friday night’s big game.
“That presents some challenges for sure… the rules will present challenges,” added Nill of what is not only the first Shrum Bowl game since 2010, but the first to be played under U.S. rules since the 2001 season, Simon Fraser’s final campaign as a full NAIA school as it prepared to begin an eight-season membership alongside UBC in the Canada West. “But that is what makes the game so unique, so for sure I am looking forward to playing this game,” added Nill.
But what kind of UBC team will the expected sell-out crowd see at Simon Fraser on Friday?
From a talent standpoint, a pretty good one… one which came two wins shy of playing for the Vanier Cup national championship final.
UBC, which at one point this season was sitting with a 1-3 record in conference play, rallied strongly to win three straight, including a 35-29 home field win over a Saskatchewan Huskies team ranked No. 2 in the U SPORTS’ nation.
All of that ultimately catapulted the Thunderbirds into the Hardy Cup conference playoff final four, and after a 28-14 road win over the Regina Rams, UBC faced Saskatchewan in the championship final, falling 23-8 in a road rematch.
UBC has been idle since that Nov. 12 loss to the Huskies, who themselves advanced all the way to the Vanier Cup final with a 10-1 record before losing 30-24 to Quebec’s Laval Rouge et Or on Saturday.
A LATE-SEASON CHANGE AT QUARTERBACK
The biggest story coming into Friday’s Shrum Bowl from a UBC perspective is the true identity of the Thunderbirds’ offence following a late-season changing of the guard at the game’s most influential position.
Halfway through the first quarter of what would stand as its biggest win of its Canada West season back on Oct. 22, starting quarterback and Texas native Garrett Rooker — having staked the ‘Birds to a 7-0 lead over Saskatchewan before the game was even four minutes old — suffered a season-ending hip injury, thrusting back-up and fellow Texan Derek Engel into the fray.
Without question, Engel has outperformed anyone’s notion of what a seldom-used, second-year back-up pivot might be logically expected to contribute, especially by coming in cold from the sidelines during the most urgent moments of a season to spell a player like Rooker, last season’s conference Rookie of the Year.
Yet all the big-armed, 6-foot-4, 220-pounder did against what was easily the best defensive team in the conference was throw for 160 yards and two touchdowns to hand the Huskies their first loss of the season, then two weeks later throw for 176 yards and one score in its conference semifinal win at Regina. And if those numbers don’t drop collective jaws, the kid’s poise against two of the country’s top teams can’t be discounted.
Now, as he prepares to face Simon Fraser on Friday, Engel will go back to the same U.S. game he played at Grapevine (Tex.) High, just outside of Dallas.
This time around, however, he will face the Red Leafs’ hungry defence, one coming off a resounding 46-14 win over West Texas A&M, and featuring the likes of Tank Brewster (Snoqualmie, Wash.), Evan Nolli (New Westminster), Dayton Ingenhaag (Vernon-Clarence Fulton) and Jeremiah Famor (San Leandro, Cal.), a Red Leafs’ quartet which has accounted for 10 sacks on the season.
UBC head coach Blake Nill loves the presence Engel brings to the position, especially in such a big game, yet will also admit that his starter has only just begun his university career as a starter.
“He’s a competitor, he has a big arm and he doesn’t lack confidence,” Nill began of the big-timbered forestry major.
“Derek is a very good quarterback, but he just hasn’t had the reps yet that we had invested in Garrett over the last two years,” continued Nill of Engel, who makes just the fourth UBC start of his career Friday. “So where we asked Garrett to do much more in terms of reads, giving him much more responsibility and more individual freedom, we just don’t have the capacity to do that yet with Derek. But that’s just something that is earned through time and experience.”
Still, he’ll have had almost three weeks of study time for Simon Fraser behind him by kick-off time Friday, and since becoming his team’s unquestioned starter, he’s faced the gauntlet of his conference’s two best teams a total of three times over 21-day span.
In almost anyone’s book, that has to be considered something of a next-level crash course in Shrum Bowl prep 101.
Yet you can bet Simon Fraser’s homegrown standout cornerback Jerrell Cummings (Vancouver-Notre Dame), as well as it’s all-B.C. safety combo of Gideone Kremler (Victoria-Mt. Douglas) and Evan Currie (North Van-Handsworth) will likewise, have been just as studious in their prep.
A FLOCK OF THUNDERBIRDS
How about the rest of the Thunderbirds who will look to make an impression Friday atop Burnaby Mountain?
UBC boasts one of the conference’s top offensive lines, led by its star right tackle Theo Benedet, the 6-foot-7, 305-pound North Vancouver-Handsworth product who was named the winner of the J.P. Metras award as the top lineman in U SPORTS.
“They can be the group that we build the program around,” added Nill of a young rotation which also features first-year left tackle Riley Scheffer (Victoria-Belmont), third-year left guard Gio Manu (Pitt Meadows), second-year centre Gavin Coakes (Winnipeg) and fourth-year right guard Brandon Sanford (Salmon Arm). “We’ve said all year that they can be a main catalyst for us to do well, and at times they have lived up to it, and at times not. But the consistency is more or less due to the fact that they are mostly first-, second- and third-year guys, and no seniors. So there is going to be an element of youthfulness in there.”
The receiving core is led by a quintet of ‘Birds, each of whom have made at least 20 catches on the season, led by former Vancouver College standout Jason Soriano, Calgary native Shemar McBean, Hamilton native Edgerrin Williams and Kamloops-Valleyview product Lliam Wishart.
And then there is the ground game.
Ottawa’s Isaiah Knight led the Canada West in rushing (754 yards) and average yards-per-game (94.3), while Dane Kapler (Venture, Cal.) and Lucas Mastrodomenico (Kirkland, Que) have brought added toughness and depth.
On defence, there has not been a greater success story across the conference than Ryan Baker, the former high school quarterback with North Vancouver’s Windsor Dukes.
Baker not only made a successful switch to linebacker, he moved into a fulltime starting role this season and wound up tied for the lead in tackles-per-game nationally at 7.3 stops a contest.
“Every time I talk about Baker, it’s always taken with a grain of bias, but when other coaches bring up his impact, it truly is an indication of the of the kind of season that he had,” said Nill of Baker who finished second on a tiebreaker to Montreal Carabins’ outstanding linebacker Nicky Farinaccio for The Presidents’ Award, presented annually to the Most Outstanding Defensive (stand-up) Player in U SPORTS football.
Similarly, a number of other UBC players worked themselves into vital roles on the defence, and by the end of the playoffs were all coming off their best seasons yet.
Some of those players included safety Zach Herzog (Windsor, Ont.), corner Keijaun Johnson (Vancouver College), linebackers Mitch Townsend (North Vancouver-Handsworth) and Daniel Kwamou (Calgary), and a defensive front anchored by the likes of Lake Korte-Moore (Ottawa), Kyle Samson (Hamilton), and Natale Frangione (Ottawa).
Look for more stories this week right here at Varsity Letters as we continue the lead up to Shrum Bowl XXXIV.
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