EDMONTON - For the second time in two weeks, the fate of the game came down to a two-point convert. But, for the first time in nearly four years, it was the University of Alberta Golden Bears that made the game-winning play. Fourth-year middle linebacker Connor Ralph sacked Regina Rams quarterback Noah Picton, preventing the two-point conversion from happening, which cemented a 44-42 victory for the Golden Bears on Saturday night at Foote Field.
“He’s one of the guys on this team we count on,” Bears head coach Chris Morris said of Ralph making the pivotal defensive stop. “He makes plays when it’s important for us, and it’s great that he made one at the end of the game.”
“To be honest,” said Ralph, “I was just kind of lucky. My back end and my coverage guys did a great job of making the quarterback hold the ball, and I just got my motor going and got there.”
It is Alberta’s first win since November 3, 2010, when they defeated the Saskatchewan Huskies in the Canada West semi-finals, and it was the program’s first regular season and home victory since October 26, 2010 when they defeated Manitoba.
The Golden Bears lost their home-opener last weekend, 42-41 in OT to Saskatchewan, when their two-point convert attempt was snuffed out.
“It’s obviously just one win and we have to understand that,” Morris noted. “We got another game next week. We get to cherish this moment for the weekend, because come Monday, we’re back to work. It’s great to celebrate, and I hope they have a great time tonight, but we can do some things if we do it together and start playing well. We can't just be satisfied with winning one.”
The Bears had built up a 28-13 half-time lead on the Rams, but quickly found themselves in a tie game, 29-29, heading into the fourth quarter.
Fifth-year quarterback Curtis Dell, who last week threw for the fourth-highest passing yards total in Golden Bears history with 413 yards, tossed a 13-yard TD strike to Yembeh Moiba just 1:50 into the fourth to put Alberta up 36-29.
Sophomore runningback Ed Ilnicki then rumbled for a two-yard touchdown plunge five minutes later, and the Bears were looking golden, up 43-29 with under nine minutes to go. Kicker Stephen Fabian then added a kick-off single to bump up Alberta’s score line by one.
After a pair of possession changes by both teams, Regina drew within eight points when quarterback Noah Picton marched the Rams on an eight-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in an 11-yard touchdown toss to Jared Jonotta.
The Bears then appeared to shoot themselves in the foot by taking a pair of penalties on their next offensive possession and forcing a punt situation. But, after kicking back to Regina, Alberta’s defence stepped up. First, it was fifth-year linebacker Tyler Greenslade almost intercepting a battered Picton pass, and then it was freshman defensive back Drew Belgrave with another near interception, and suddenly Alberta was getting the ball back with less than two minutes to play.
However, the offence could only chew up seven yards total, which forced Alberta to once again punt the ball back to Regina, now with just over a minute to go.
Facing a first-and-10 from their own eight-yard line situation, Picton stunned the Foote Field faithful when he connected with a streaking Addison Richards, who burned through the Alberta secondary, en route to an 85-yard scoring play, as well as a 44-42 score line with just 57 seconds remaining in the game. The Rams then elected for the two-point convert, but a scrambling Picton was caught from the blindside by Ralph, ending the game and sending the crowd at Foote Field streaming onto the turf to celebrate the win.
“For a game like this to happen, obviously it’s been too long for this group, for this team, for this organization,” said Dell. “So, to finally get that win, there are so many things that go through your head, so many emotions, it’s tough to focus on one. But, obviously, we’re very excited and it’s been a long time coming.”
“It’s kind of mixed emotions,” added Ralph. “It feels good any time you get a win. But at the same time, we need to get past this and win more games, to be honest. I’m not satisfied with just one win. I think, internally, we believe that. Now, we’ve got to prove that. But for now, I’m just happy we got one.”
Dell finished his second consecutive start by completing 17 of 27 passes for 271 yards with four touchdowns, and no interceptions. Alberta’s offence totaled 462 yards on the night, including 192 rushing yards. Runningbacks Levon Hawreliak (64 yards) and Ilnicki (52) combined for 116 of those yards, while multi-tool threat Aundrey Webster added 63 yards hauling the rock. Ilnicki finished with a pair of TDs as well. Receiver Jimmy Ralph reeled in five passes for 62 yards, while Adam Zajdel had three catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns.
Ralph recorded a game-high eight tackles in the game, including the game-winning sack on Picton.
The freshman Rams’ quarterback, who stepped in to play after starter Cayman Shutter was knocked out of the game with an injury in the second quarter, was very impressive in his CIS debut, as he completed 28 of 36 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 40 yards on seven carries. Regina, in fact, was superior on offence to Alberta, racking up an incredible 705 yards in a losing effort. They gained 191 rush yards, including 51 from Jens Johnson, but got big mileage from Janotta and Richards in the receiving corps. Janotta, a fourth-year, caught 12 passes for 154 yards, while Richards snagged nine passes for a whopping 225 yards. Richardson had two TDs, while Janotta had one, while runningback Dillon Dawson also picked up a major for the Rams. Before leaving the game, Shutter racked up 99 passing yards on eight completions.
But for the Golden Bears, the only numbers that really matter correspond to the end of their losing streak. First on-field win in 26 games, or three years, 10 months and 14 days. All of which were negative numbers that, in spite of blue-chip recruiting classes and oodles of positivity around the rebuild, had the second-year coach starting to doubt.
“Oh, absolutely,” Morris said. “I’ve only been here for 10 of the losses in a row, and even myself, you start doubting yourself and you start thinking, ‘OK, man, should we start doing this a little bit differently? What should we do?’ So, to get that win, it really justifies ... it makes what you’re doing feel right. What we’re doing is right and I’m been saying that to them all along.”
The Golden Bears, now 1-2, will next be in action when they travel to Vancouver to take on the 0-3 UBC Thunderbirds on September 27th.
“I feel so happy for these guys that they get the win,” Morris continued. “We’re not a one-win team, we’re better than that. I hope they understand that. Let’s stay the course and believe in what we’re doing. Everything we’re doing is right here, and I’m glad we finally won, because it’s easier to sing that song when you win”
Regina, also 1-2, returns home to face their provincial rivals, the 2-1 Saskatchewan Huskies on September 27th.