By Matt Gutsch, Alberta Sports Information
EDMONTON - The University of Alberta Golden Bears football team ripped off 38 second half points to defeat the No.9 ranked Saskatchewan Huskies 38-26 before over 3,000 fans in the U of A's home opener at Foote Field on Friday night.
With the win Alberta starts the season with a 2-0 record, and picks up the program's first conference win over the Huskies since September 25, 2009. The last time the Golden Bears opened a season at 2-0 was in 2010, when they defeated UBC and Manitoba in consecutive weeks, and is the last time the Bears played in the conference post-season.
The two teams combined for 1,058 total yards of offence, including 633 through the air.
Rookie quarterback Ben Kopczynski completed 23 of 35 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing 11 times for 90 yards and a TD.
The Calgary-born pivot struggled in the first half, picking up just 39 total offensive yards, as the Bears were shut out by the Huskies 18-0 through two quarters of play.
The visitors, who dropped their home and season opener to Manitoba last weekend in Saskatoon, came out firing in the first half, putting up four points in the first quarter before runningback Tylor Chow scampered for a pair of majors, each from inside the Alberta 10-yard line, to put the 'Dawgs up 18-0.
"The first thing I said to the guys at half-time in the locker room was, we're only down 18, which means we're in this," said third-year Golden Bears head coach Chris Morris. "That first half could have been a lot worse for us. Considering how much time our defence spent on the field, they did a great job limiting a very good Saskatchewan team to just 18 points. Our defence kept us in it in the first half, they fought on every play."
In a true tale of two halves, the Golden Bears put the worst of times behind them, and moved on to the best of times by shutting the Huskies down defensively, and rolling up over 500 yards of offence and 38 points in the second half.
"I wish I could say we drew up a bunch of different plays, and changed our approach, but we didn't," said Morris about his freshman QB. "I think he took a deep breath, calmed himself down a bit and went out and started to execute our offensive package. That young man deserves a lot of credit for how he played tonight. His performance in the second half was a sign of how good he is and can be in this league."
On Alberta's opening second half possession, Kopczynski marched the Bears 75-yards on eight plays and finished the drive by rushing the final eight yards into the endzone himself. Alberta put up more points and yards on that one possession than they did in the entire first half.
After Sean Stenger hit his second field goal for the Huskies, making the score 21-7 at the 4:55 mark of the third, Alberta responded with another TD as Kopczynski and the Bears moved 94-yards on seven plays, including a six-yard TD toss to third-year receiver Tylor Henry. The Edmonton-born receiver earlier made a big catch to set up Alberta's first TD when he hauled in a 28-yard Kopczynski throw in double coverage, and now needs just one more catch to have 100 in his career as a Golden Bear.
Trailing by seven points, 21-14, Alberta's defence stepped up and forced the Saskatchewan offence to settle for a field goal tries on the next two Huskie offensive possessions, of which Stenger only made one, moving the score to 24-14 at the end of the third quarter.
Saskatchewan went two-and-out on their opening drive of the fourth, giving the Bears the ball at midfield. From there Kopczynski found receivers Jimmy Ralph and Nathan Filipek for 27 and 12 yards respectively, before handing off to Ed Ilnicki who powered into the Huskies' endzone from 17 yards out, and a 24-21 score.
Another quick out by the Huskies led to Kopczynski and the offence starting on their own 15-yard line, where he engineered a nine play 95-yard drive that culminated with Kopczynski hitting Ralph on the run for a three yard TD play, and Alberta's first lead of the game at 28-24.
Saskatchewan punted the ball away again on their next possession, but the Huskies defence sacked Kopczynski and pinned the Bears on their own three-yard, forcing them to concede a safety.
After a Stephen Fabian field goal, Ilnicki, who had nine touchdowns and 665 rushing yards last season, put the nail in the coffin with just under a minute left in the game when he ripped off a powerful 61-yard touchdown rush, on first down, to make the final 38-26.
Huskies quarterback Drew Burko, who led Canada West in 2014 with 21 touchdown passes, finished with 30 completions on 50 attempts, for 333 yards and zero TDs. Receiver Mitch Hillis caught 12 of those 30 passes, for 122 yards, while Julan Lynch hauled in seven for 74 yards.
Ilnicki rushed 19 times for 149 yards, while Ralph snagged eight passes for a game high 126 receiving yards. Tak Landry, a converted defensive back, made 10 tackles and a game high three pass break-ups to lead the Alberta defence.
"Next week is going to be tough," noted Morris. "We've done some good things, but we have work to do and that's a real good team down in Calgary. But we'll put the work in this week and get ready to play them as hard as we can."
The 2-0 Golden Bears meet the 2-0 Calgary Dinos on Thursday, September 17 at McMahon Stadium in Calgary. The two teams are tied for first in Canada West. Saskatchewan, meanwhile, will return home to host the Regina Rams on Friday, September 18.