Vancouver, British Columbia – Will an an AUS team finally win the Mitchell Bowl? That’s the big question.
It’s no secret that the AUS has struggled as a conference in the final four of U SPORTS football. The last AUS team to reach the Vanier Cup came when the St Mary’s Huskies made it all the back in 2007 thanks to a Uteck Bowl win over Laval. In the six times a team from the AUS has appeared in the Mitchell Bowl though, they have never won.
For the St.FX X-Men, back in the national semifinals for the third consecutive season, this year marks perhaps their best chance to finally get it done.
Though StFX had a smooth path to the U SPORTS semifinals coming out of their third straight Loney Bowl win, they’ll have their biggest test yet in a UBC team that is primed for their first Vanier Cup run since 2015.
If you had to choose which team had the most challenging run to the final four it would easily be the UBC Thunderbirds.
The Thunderbirds tied with the Alberta Golden Bears at 6-2 for top spot in Canada West but took the conference thanks to a 23-10 win in Week 8 over Alberta. That gave them a semifinal matchup with the Manitoba Bisons where the struggled, falling down 17-3 halfway through the second quarter. The Thunderbirds fought back though and a pair of timely touchdown passes from Garrett Rooker across the last two and a half quarters helped UBC to a 29-21 win.
That gave UBC a Hardy Cup matchup against the Alberta Golden Bears, and it feels like we’ve all seen the play that ends this game by now. With zeroes on the clock needing six points to tie, Garrett Rooker found Sam Davenport in the end zone to tie the game before Kieran Flannery-Fleck sent the extra point through the uprights and sent Alberta home.
For his young UBC team, it’s that ability to continue fighting until the end that has impressed UBC Head Coach Blake Nill.
“This is a group that in the last four games we’ve been in involved in fourth-quarter games where we’ve had to make plays to keep going,” Nill said in the Mitchell Bowl Press Conference. “I think it’s created resiliency for us, I think they’re starting to understand what it takes to be one of the best, to be playing in November.”
The key for all of UBC’s success this season belongs to Rooker. The third year QB out of Texas finished the season with the most passing yards (2266), the best completion rate (70.2%) and the most touchdown passes (16) in all of Canada West.
After injuries forced Rooker out of the Hardy Cup a season ago, and he watched the Thunderbirds fall 23-8 to Saskatchewan, in his own words, “This is a huge game, it’s probably the biggest game I’ve ever played in.”
At the same time Rooker has seen what his coach has seen, a UBC side game by game learning how to win,
“I think every week has looked a little different for us, but it’s taught this team a lot, it’s taught us how to come together and battle through adversity,” Rooker said, “We know games in November in U SPORTS, every game is gonna be a battle so it should set us up to kinda try to understand how to perform in those scenarios.”
Maybe this time it can be different.
That’s the message the St.FX X-Men will have to bring to Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday as after losses at this hurdle in 2021 and 2022 they play in the semifinals for the third straight year.
The point doesn’t need to be overstated, the AUS has struggled as a conference in bowl games for a long time now. The St Mary’s Huskies’ win way back in the 2007 Uteck Bowl made them the last AUS team to make the Vanier Cup and St.FX enters Saturday trying to break the streak for the third straight year.
The X-Men faced the machine of the Western Mustangs in the 2021 Mitchell Bowl where the fell handily 61-6 before a year ago, playing Saskatchewan in the Uteck Bowl and falling 36-19.
For St.FX head coach Gary Waterman, each time his team has played in this game though it’s meant an opportunity to get closer to their goal.
“Each time you play in one of these games you learn a little bit about the moment,” Waterman said. “Your players, as they grow, they learn a little bit about themselves and managing the nerves in the situation and I think we’ve grown each time we’ve gotten the opportunity.”
The X-Men swept the AUS regular season going 8-0 with their closest game being a wild 34-31 triple-overtime win over the Bishop’s Gaiters. That sent them to the AUS playoffs in top spot. After a 36-20 win over the St Mary’s Huskies got the X-Men back in the Loney Bowl for the third straight year, a 34-23 win over Bishop’s gave StFX the Jewett Trophy and sent them out west.
For the X-Men, Silas Fagnan at quarterback along with running back Malcolm Bussey are the straw that stirs the drink offensively.
A two-time AUS Most Outstanding Player of the Year, first in 2021 and again this season, Fagnan led the AUS with 2075 passing yards and 13 touchdown passes. Not to be outdone, Bussey led the AUS with 1038 rushing yards and eight touchdowns himself.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for StFX in this game will be travel. After only needing to travel to London in 2021, and hosting in 2022, this year they travel across the country from Antigonish in Nova Scotia to Vancouver, British Columbia.
“We knew that the winner of our conference this year was gonna go somewhere out west,” Waterman said. “We tried to make sure that all season we sort of put ourselves in situations to face some adversity.”
Still for an X-Men team who has been here together in this moment before, the focus will simply be on getting it done.
“We’re a close group of guys,” StFX defensive lineman Alex Fedchun said at the Mitchell Bowl press conference “We’ve played together for a while now in all sorts of games so we’ve faced adversity but you know with our coaching we’re able to adapt and overcome that.”
The Mitchell Bowl kicks off at Thunderbird Stadium at 3 p.m. EST and is available here.
With files from Alex McComb