The UBC Thunderbirds are one of four collegiate football teams in this country still standing, thanks in part to a quarterback from Texas connecting on a last-second touchdown Saturday with a receiver who transferred in when the SFU Red Leafs abruptly shut down their season.
Garrett Rooker’s 13-yard strike to Sam Davenport between a gaggle of defenders just inside the Alberta Golden Bears end zone with no time showing on the clock in the fourth quarter completed an improbable six-play, 95-yard drive in the game’s final 52 seconds. Coupled with a convert from kicker Kieran Flannery-Fleck, it secured UBC a 28-27 win in the Canada West Hardy Cup finale at Thunderbird Stadium.
UBC now hosts the St. Francis Xavier X-Men this Saturday at Thunderbird Stadium in the Mitchell Bowl, and the winner of that match-up advances to the Vanier Cup national championship Nov. 25 in Kingston, Ont.
This is the deepest UBC has advanced since winning the Vanier Cup in 2015.
Rooker, who is a third-year pivot from League City, Texas, finished Saturday 27-of-35 for 378 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. His initial connection to UBC was through academics — he’s the son of Dr. Jay R. Rooker, a marine biology professor at Texas A&M-Galveston who has had several of his students continue their studies at UBC.
Davenport’s game-winning catch, which came on a 3rd-and-2 from the 13-yard line, was his third reception on that drive. He finished Saturday with 10 receptions for 137 yards, including that one major.
The third-year receiver from Abbotsford, along with fourth-year defensive back Jerrell Cummings of Vancouver, transferred to UBC from SFU just ahead of the season.
SFU announced in April that it was disbanding its football team effective immediately, despite the fact that it had a schedule for this season, which included a Dec. 1 Shrum Bowl game against UBC. Cummings had an interception and Davenport recorded three catches for 62 yards for SFU in UBC’s 18-17 win in last year’s Shrum Bowl.
SFU cited a dwindling number of NCAA Div. II programs on the West Coast for their move, and that they didn’t want to prolong what they felt was inevitable.
The players and alumni protested, complaining that they weren’t given advanced warning and options like moving the team to Canada West weren’t fully explored. There was even a court case. The school agreed a few weeks later to hire a special adviser to research options, but the team was put on hiatus for the time being.
The special adviser’s report, which was critical of the athletic department, was made public in September. The school has yet to announce whether the football program, which dates back to 1965, will be reinstated.
In the meantime, many of those SFU players have taken to rooting for Davenport and Cummings with UBC.
Gideone Kremler, who was set to be a junior quarterback/defensive back with SFU this season, says some 30 Red Leafs products have been at Thunderbird Stadium to support the pair the past two games.
“SFU football has lived vicariously through any of us former members fortunate enough to continue playing,” said Kremler. “As a family of young men, watching their successes is everything to us. It is a testament to the four years that members from our class had put in at SFU, and also a benchmark for some of the younger guys on what proper development and dedicated effort can achieve.
“We are incredibly proud of our guys, but don’t think for a minute that we didn’t expect them to have the impact they’ve both had. Anyone from SFU could’ve told you how talented both those guys are.”
Davenport missed three games with an undisclosed injury this season for UBC (8-2), but he leads the team in reception yards (720) and touchdown catches (5), while sitting second in receptions (35).
Davenport and Cummings, who has 22 tackles in nine games this season, both were named to the Canada West all-star team. UBC had 14 players honoured.
Alberta (7-3) lost all three of its match-ups with UBC this season. They were up 27-21 on Saturday and pressing to add to their margin when UBC defensive lineman Taaj Jahooty recovered a fumble by Alberta quarterback Eli Hetlinger at the UBC 15-yard line, setting up the last-minute comeback.
STFX (10-0) won the Loney Bowl Atlantic University Sport title Saturday on their Antigonish, N.S., home turf with a 34-23 triumph over the Bishop’s Gaiters.
The Uteck Bowl, which features the Western Mustangs (10-0) visiting the Montreal Carabins (9-1) Saturday, is the other Vanier Cup semifinal.
Western was ranked No. 1 and Montreal was No. 2 in the final U Sports national poll that came out Oct. 31, while STFX was tied for No. 4 and UBC was No. 7.
This is the first meeting between UBC and STFX since the T-Birds’ 2015 national championship season, when they beat the X-Men 36-9 in Antigonish in the Uteck Bowl. UBC downed Montreal 26-23 in the Vanier Cup in Quebec City the following week.
St. Francis Xavier X-Men vs. UBC Thunderbirds
Mitchell Bowl football
Thunderbird Stadium, UBC
12 p.m. (Canada West TV)
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