What plagued the Okanagan Sun all season came back to haunt them again in Saturday's BC Football Conference final.
The offence was inconsistent during the decisive first half in a 32-21 defeat at the hands of the regular season champion WestShore Rebels.
Four first half turnovers and timely penalties killed Sun drives as they dug themselves a 25-0 hold after the first 30 minutes.
Two of those turnovers led directly to 10 Rebel points. The last, a Foster Martens interception, came in the dying second of the half with the Sun driving deep in Victoria territory.
Offensive player of the year Jamal Lyles got the Rebels on the board with a 14-yard touchdown. Moments later, after Martens was stripped of the football, Kyle Clarke connected from 12-yards out to put the Rebels up 10-0.
Quarterback Ashton MacKinnon tossed a pair of touchdown passes in the second quarter to put the Rebels up 25-0.
He hit Tyvonn Blake from 39-yards out after a successful fake punt and Birhanu Yitna from nine-yards out following a second Sun fumble in the dying moments of the half.
The Rebels took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove the length of the field, capped by Mackinnon's 14-yard TD strike to Trey Campbell. It was his third touchdown toss of the game.
It gave the Rebels some unanticipated breathing room as the Sun, behind quarterback Keith Zyla, tried to mount a second half comeback.
Zyla drove the Sun down the field on his first possession, capped off with a one-yard run.
He hit Shamar Donalson with a five-yard strike on the final play of the third quarter before Kyler Mosely ran in from three-yards out with 10 minutes left in the game to trim the lead to 11.
The Sun had chances later in the quarter, but gave the ball away four more times, a fumble, interception and twice on downs.
The Rebels are Cullen Cup champions for the first time since 2003, when they also defeated the Sun.
They will host the Canadian Bowl in two weeks against the winner of Sunday's Prairie Conference final between the Calgary Colts and Saskatoon Hilltops.
If the first two meetings between these teams is any indication, the BC Football conference final should be knock-down, drag-out fight.
The Cullen Cup championship game between the defending champion Okanagan Sun and Westshore Rebels in the Victoria suburb of Langford Saturday will not only crown a new league champion, but will also determine who hosts the Canadian Bowl in two weeks time.
Saturday's game should be a classic high powered offence versus stingy defence.
The Rebels come in with the number one offence in the league while the Sun had arguably the number one defence.
The Sun were able to keep league rushing leader Jamal Lyles in check. Lyles, who rambled for 1,604 yards during the season, was held to just 199 yards over the two meeting with the Sun.
However, he did find the end zone three times, two of those in the Rebels 29-23 win over the Sun on the island.
Sun head coach Ben Macauley said stopping Lyles is the key to any success the Sun will have Saturday.
"As long as we are playing fundamental football in the secondary with our coverage, we like our odds in the passing game, so we'd like to shut down their run," said Macauley before boarding the team bus for Victoria.
"Then we force them to do something thy haven't done as well, and that's throw the ball consistently. They've made some big plays, but we're OK with one or two big plays."
Rebels quarterback Ashton Mackinnon did have some success throwing the ball in their win over the Sun. He completed 15 of 28 passes for 262 yards, but also threw three interceptions.
That day, the offence was unable to take advantage of those mistakes.
And, while he agrees it is a classic match-up, Macauley thinks a third phase of the game could be the determining factor.
"One of the biggest things we haven't really touched on this year from a media standpoint is special teams. We started out pretty rough in that area but we've improved.
"We have a great defence, but at times we have been putting our defence in positions where they are in no-win situations. Even if we are struggling on offence, we're able to win the field-position battle and make their drives very long."
He said if teams have to drive the ball the length of the field on a continuous basis, it could wear them down.
Offensively, Foster Martens will likely get the call under centre to start the game. Martens left the semi-final game early after taking a knock to the head. The extra week off helped him get ready for Saturday.
Martens was consistent against the Rebels, completing 27 of 38 passes for 379 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was not intercepted.
But, the team will have to move the ball, at least consistently enough, to have a chance.
Macauley said the offence has had to fight through a lot of inconsistencies with so many new faces on that side of the ball.
But, he said, they have found an identity, which is to line up with a lot of different looks and formations.
Saturday's game kicks off at 4 p.m.
The Okanagan Sun got a chance to relax Monday following a heart-stopping semi-final Sunday afternoon.
If you missed it, the Sun booted a 34-yard field goal in overtime Sunday afternoon in a 26-23 win over the Langley Rams in the BCFC semi-final.
Monday, it was awards night.
A time to celebrate individual accomplishments in a season in which the team finished second with a 7-3 record.
Linebacker Layne Hull, the heart and soul of the defence, walked away with two pieces of hardware, including the club's most valuable player.
Hull was also named the team's top linebacker for a second straight year.
Offensive lineman Michele Vecchio and defensive back Jamie Turek were also double award winners.
Vecchio, a Rutland Senior grad, was named top Okanagan high school player, and shared most popular player with running back Kasey Russell.
Turek was named most inspirational, in memory of JT Fernandez and shared top defensive back with Beck Fullerton.
Other award winners include:
- Scoring Leader – Kealey Heintz (Kicker)
- Community Award – Kian Ishani (Receiver)
- Most Improved Player – Tye Kitzman (Defensive Back)
- Most Sportsmanlike Player – Foster Martens (Quarterback)
- Special Teams Player – Eli Haynes (Linebacker)
- Top Offensive Back – Kasey Russell (Running Back)
- Top Receiver – Lliam Wishart
- Top Defensive Lineman – Jonas Gering (second consecutive year)
- Top Offensive Lineman – Quinn Horton
- Rookie of the Year – Conor Richard (Linebacker), and Liam Hamlyn (Offensive Line)
The Sun will now begin preparation for the Westshore Rebels in the CJFL Canadian Bowl BC Conference Cullen Cup Championship game on Saturday Oct. 29 at the Westhills Stadium in Victoria.
The winner of that game will host the 2016 Canadian Bowl on Nov. 12.
The Okanagan Sun and Langley Rams took fans at the Apple Bowl on a ride so wild it would put Disneyland to shame.
Sunday's BCFC semi-final wasn't decided until Sun kicker Kealey Heintz nailed a 34-yard field goal in overtime to send the Sun to the league title game in two weeks in Victoria.
But, in a game that featured more twists and turns than the Fraser Canyon Highway and so many momentum swings, nothing was more bizarre and, had more disastrous consequences than a decision by the Sun to run a fake punt on third and 10 from their own 20 with less than a minute to go in a tie game.
It was the gutsiest, craziest or dumbest of calls. You're a hero if it works and a goat if it doesn't,
"It was probably a combination of all of them, but, we felt situationally, if we gave them the ball back with too short a field, they were going to kick a field goal and potentially win the game," explained Sun head coach Ben Macauley.
"It was risky but I had confidence they hadn't seen that formation yet. We almost didn't get it but it was superior effort by our blocking team and Raquille (Cespedes) was the man of the day."
Cespedes had to dive for the first down sticks and made it by only a few inches.
"Coach called the fake but said if it wasn't open, I had to kick it," said Cespedes.
"I started running toward the sidelines and saw a guy coming. I went to kick it, but I saw a little hole and put my head down and just prayed I made it there."
In overtime, in which each team had a chance to move the ball from the offensive 25-yard line, it was the Rams with the first chance to score. After an incompletion on first down, Sun lineman Elias Rodriguez broke through and sacked Rams quarterback Tommy Robertson at the 42.
The Rams set up in field goal formation, but ran a fake that came up short.
On their attempt, needing just a point to win, running back Kasey Russell ran the ball twice to the 27, setting up Heintz's game winning boot.
This game in reality could have, should have, been over in the first quarter.
Cespedes picked off two Rams passes in the quarter and Conner Novak recovered a fumble. The Sun managed just 10 points from those turnovers and the field position they provided.
The Rams were able to hit a pair of Tiernan Docherty field goals late to pull to within 13-6.
But, in the dying seconds, Keith Zyla, after replacing an injured Foster Martens, heaved his first pass for a 75-yard touchdown to Shamar Donelson to give the Sun a 20-6 lead at the break.
Martens left the game the series before after taking a high, hard hit in the pocket.
"We want Foster to be alright. When you're talking about anything involved with the head, we're not going to roll the dice at all. No football game is worth a head injury," said Macauley.
The Rams shut down the Sun in the third quarter, allowing only 15 yards of offence. And, they produced the only score of the quarter, a seven-yard touchdown pass following a Zyla interception.
Another Rams major on a 51-yard strike and a 41-yard field goal put the Rams ahead 23-20 early in the fourth.
Heintz evened the score at 23 with a 30-yard boot with four minutes to go.
The Rams had a chance to win it in regulation time, but the sure-footed Docherty was wide right with a 32-yard field goal attempt.
That set the stage for high drama before the Sun were able to win it in dramatic fashion.
The Rebels will host the BCFC title game in two weeks after they squeaked past the VI Raiders 34-29 Saturday night.
The Sun and Rebels split their two regular season meeting, both winning on their home turf.
The winner of that game will host the national title game.
The Okanagan Sun and Langley Rams will meet for the third time this season, Sunday at the Apple Bowl.
This time, everything is at stake.
By mid-afternoon, one team will be heading to the BCFC title game, while the loser will clean out their lockers for the final time.
The Sun earned the right to host Sunday's semi-final by virtue of a 44-24 win over the Rams in the final game of the regular season two weeks ago.
That win also put the Sun on the right track, coming into that game losers of three in a row.
The Sun beat the Rams twice during the regular season, but head coach Ben Macauley said they're not worried about the odds of beating the same team three times.
"It kind of plays right into our hands with what we've been saying all year, we're going to measure ourselves by ourselves" said Macauley.
"It really doesn't matter who we play. Things change match-up wise, but we want to play better than we played last week."
Despite seeing each other twice already, Macauley said he doesn't expect a ton of changes from the Rams.
"You might see a few wrinkles, but I can't imagine there's wholesale changes.
"If you're changing everything this time of the year, clearly you're not confident that what you've one is working."
Macauley said his coaching staff and players are confident in what they've one.
"It's more about execution and discipline."
Discipline, the Achilles heal of this Sun team from day one, improved during the win over the Rams two weeks ago.
After being assessed a team record 32 penalties in a loss to the Raiders the week before, the Sun were flagged only seven times against the Rams.
Sunday's winner will take on the winner of the other semi-final Saturday night between the Westshore Rebels and the VI Raiders.
Kickoff Sunday is 1 p.m.
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