Comparing offence, defence and special teams to see who has the edge in the 2022 Hardy Cup
In 2021, the Saskatchewan Huskies snapped a string of ten consecutive years of the Hardy Cup being hosted by the Calgary Dinos at McMahon Stadium (where the Dinos won seven times).
The Huskies took the field at Griffiths Stadium and defeated the Manitoba Bisons 45-17 for their first title since 2018. Now, after running away with the conference in the regular season, the Huskies head back to Griffiths Stadium as they host the UBC Thunderbirds in 2022 and look to repeat as champions for the first time since they won three straight Hardy Cups in 2004 through 2006.
Standing in their way is a UBC Thunderbirds side that finished 4-4 on the regular season but grabbed wins in three of their last four regular season games before upsetting the Regina Rams 28-14 in the Canada West semifinal.
The Thunderbirds have not won the Hardy Cup since 2015 when they defeated Calgary 34-26 on the way to their 2015 Vanier Cup title. They make their first appearance in the final since the end of three straight appearances between 2015 and 2017.
The Huskies were well on their way to a perfect 8-0 season but ran into a roadblock on Oct. 22 in the UBC Thunderbirds, who took them down 35-29, thanks mainly to an MVP-level performance from Isiah Knight. Knight picked up 151 rushing yards, a TD, 80 receiving yards, and two more TDs to carry his side to the win.
Back in the Hardy Cup, Saskatchewan almost certainly has revenge on their minds, with a greater goal of getting back to the Vanier Cup that they lost in 2021.
Let’s break down the sides.
Describing the Huskies’ offence has to start with Mason Nyhus. The fifth-year quarterback had a legitimately record-breaking season for the Huskies on the way to winning Canada West Player of the Year. His 18 touchdown passes put him first in the conference, while his 352 passing yards per game put him over 100 yards higher than the Manitoba Bisons’ Desmond Catellier’s 238 in second place.
Beyond that, Nyhus’s 2759 total passing yards on the season broke the Huskies’ all-time record and put him fifth all-time in Canada West history. Of course, a top quarterback needs talent around him, and the Huskies delivered that in spades.
Ryker Frank led the offence on the ground, finishing second in Canada West with 109 carries and 641 rushing yards while grabbing three touchdowns. He was outpaced on the ground by backup QB Ethan Watson who picked up four rush TDs on 17 carries to finish third in Canada West.
In the air, Rhett Vevra and Daniel Perry finished second and third in receiving yards in Canada West with 648 and 625, respectively. Vevra picked up six touchdowns, while Perry clocked in two of his own.
On the other side, one of the people tasked with protecting Nyhus through his MVP season was freshman offensive lineman Jack Warrack who, for his efforts, walked away with Canada West Rookie of the Year.
The calling card for the UBC offence in 2022 was in their ground game, as Isiah Knight’s league-leading 794 rushing yards helped the Thunderbirds average nearly 30 more yards on the ground than the next closest team. Knight picked up three rush touchdowns on the year.
The big challenge for UBC was in who would be calling their offence as sophomore quarterback Garrett Rooker went down with an injury in the second last game of the year for the Thunderbirds, forcing backup Derek Engel to take control of the ball.
Engel threw for 351 yards and a TD pass in a season-closing 15-12 loss to Alberta and 176 yards and a TD pass in the UBC semifinal win over Regina.
Shemar Mcbean and Jason Soriano were the most called-on receiver under Rooker, each hitting the top 10 in receiving yards in Canada West while grabbing three and two touchdowns each, respectively.
Engel, though, has also turned to third-year Edgerrin Williams, who picked up a TD pass in Engel’s first start before leading the team with 48 receiving yards in their win over Regina. In that win, though, it was the ground game leading the way again, with Dane Kapler picking up a team-leading 71 yards and a touchdown.
Starring for the Thunderbirds on the offensive line was Theo Benedet, who took home conference honours as the Most Outstanding Lineman.
Advantage – Saskatchewan: The Thunderbirds offer strong pieces, but Mason Nyhus has been unstoppable this season and squaring off against a raw (but successful so far) quarterback in Derek Engel gives the hard edge to Saskatchewan
Just as they ended the year with the top offence, the Saskatchewan Huskies ended 2022 with the top-ranked defence in Canada West, thanks to some valuable pieces across the field.
The three main defensive pieces for the Huskies were defensive back John Stoll, cornerback Katley Jospeh and halfback Charles Ringland. They each ended the year with Canada West all-star selections and helped the Huskies in different capacities.
For Stoll, he finished fourth in Canada West with 3.5 sacks while also picking up three interceptions. Ringland joined on the interceptions list, tying with him for first with three himself. Not to be outdone, Katley Joseph grabbed a pair of interceptions while forcing a fumble.
Second-year linebacker Lane Novak provided extra support, with 5.6 tackles per game, putting him fourth in Canada West.
Facing an overpowering offence, the Thunderbirds need strong defensive pieces and bring that to the table in 2022. They finished third in overall points allowed per game, but UBC had leaders in all facets of the defensive game.
Fourth-year Lake Korte-Moore finished second in Canada West with five sacks on the way to an all-star selection. He was joined there by linebacker Ryan Baker and lineman Theo Samson. A second year, Baker led the conference with 7.5 tackles per game, averaging 1.3 more than the next closest. While Samson, a third-year, finished with three sacks himself. The Thunderbirds saw six players pick up interceptions which landed them fourth in the conference.
Advantage – Saskatchewan: This one is much closer as the Thunderbirds have pieces that can cause some havoc, but Saskatchewan has enough parts and the pedigree to give them the edge.
Ted Kubongo earned kick-returner of the year for Canada West, and it was for a good reason. The third-year was the only player to get a kick return touchdown on the season while picking up 28.1 yards per return. For punt returns, the Huskies split duties between Daniel Weibe (who led Canada West with 15.3 yards per return) and Rhett Vevra (who followed him up in second place with 11.1 yards per return)
David Solie walked away with place-kicker of the year for Canada West thanks to hitting a league-high 19 field goals. He wasn’t as successful punting as he was fifth-best at 37.8 yards per punt.
The Thunderbirds split both punt return and kick return duties to mixed results.
On kick returns, Shemar McBean finished fourth in yards-per-return at 22.8, while Edgerrin Williams was not far behind in sixth at 19.8. On punt returns, though, Nick Pollitt led the team in fourth with 8.7 yards per return while Williams sat just behind him at 8.6. Jason Soriano also took nine return attempts but finished last in Canada West with just 4.2 yards per return.
The Thunderbirds struggled with kicking as sophomore Keiran Flannery-Fleck had a tough year. For punts, he finished in sixth place in the league averaging just 36.3 yards per punt, but it was place-kicking where Flannery-Fleck struggled. At 8/15, his 53.3% conversion rate put him sixth in Canada West, ahead of only Chris McLean of Calgary, who took just three FG attempts.
Advantage – Saskatchewan: Flannery-Fleck’s struggles with the boot and Kubongo and Solie taking home awards make special teams a clear advantage for Saskatchewan.
Prediction: Yes the Thunderbirds beat the Huskies but everything in the numbers says that that game was the outlier. UBC should definitely make this a fight but the Huskies will likely be headed out to the winner of the AUS for the Uteck Bowl.