Big plays by the offence and timely stops by the defence were the difference as the Saskatoon Hilltops beat the Okanagan Sun 38-24 in the Canadian Bowl Saturday afternoon.
The Hilltops, trailing by four, found the end zone twice in a span of 2:09 late in the third quarter to take a lead they would never relinquish.
Quarterback Jared Andreychuk hit Tyson Sawatsky with a 74 yard bomb. That came two plays after a 75 yard touchdown was called back after the Hilltops were flagged for offside.
After a two-and-out by the Sun offence, the Hilltops again marched the length of the field on just two plays. Andreychuk and running back Logan Fischer connected on a long gain before Fischer found the end zone from six yards out.
The scoring outburst gave the Hilltops a 31-21 lead, a hole the Sun could not escape from.
The Sun led 20-17 at the half and had two great chances to extend the lead early in the third.
With the Hilltops in punt formation, the snap went over the head of punted Brett Thorarinsson. Cord Delinte fell on the loose ball at the nine.
Cam Bedore threw incomplete on first down and was able to gain six to the three yard line on second. However, a third down gamble went incomplete turning the ball over to the Hilltops.
Following a change of possession, the Sun took over at the Hilltops 34 but were unable to get a first down. The Sun managed just a punt single to take a 21-17 lead.
Thomas Huber hit a 42 yard field goal in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to seven but didn't threaten the rest of the way.
The Hilltops closed out the scoring when Andreychuk hit Evan Turkington from 31 yards out with less than two minutes to go.
"It was a fun game to watch," said Sun GM Jay Christensen.
"They had a span of five minutes where they were able to score on a long pass, then they got a long gain on a swing pass where we took a bad angle on the receiver."
Christensen agreed the turning point came early in the third quarter when the Sun had chances to sore but came away with just the single point.
"We had a chance to get up a significant amount of points. It could have been a different game. Before those other opportunities, we were moving the ball and, if we had completed a couple of passes..."
The Sun got the biggest break of the opening half when Layne Hull blocked a Saskatoon punt, scooped up the loose football and rumbled into the end zone in the dying seconds of the half.
After the missed extra point the Sun took the 20-17 lead into the locker room.
Kory Nagata on a two yard run and Kyle Patchell on a 17 yard strike from Bedore scored the other Sun majors in the opening half as they battled back from a 10-0 first quarter deficit to lead at the half.
The Hilltops got a 10 yard touchdown pass from Andreychuk to Turkington in the first quarter and a two yard run from Fischer on a third-and-one call in the second quarter.
Thorarinsson also hit a 45 yard field goal tom open the scoring.
"They have great athletes. They've been here a number of times," Christensen said of the Hilltops.
"In games like this there are plays you have to capitalize on. We gained a lot of experience. We have a lot of players who will be coming back next year. This will help them if we are fortunate to get back here again next year."
Christensen said he was proud of what the team was able to accomplish this year, going a perfect 12-0 until Saturday's national title game.
Hull, who is one of those players expected back in 2016, was named defensive player of the game. He had the blocked punt and touchdown to go along with an interception.
The loss was the Sun's 10th straight at a prairie venue.
It's a good thing Shane Beatty does care too much for history - at least not history involving Okanagan Sun sojourns to the Prairies.
Because, history is not on his side.
Over the 35 year history of the franchise, the Sun have made nine trips to the prairies for either a Western Canadian or national championship. They are 0-9, losing six Western Canadian championship games and three national title games.
Three of those losses came in Saskatoon where the Sun will be today as they face the Prairie champion Hilltops in the Canadian Bowl.
"We're not the same team," said Beatty when asked about the franchises lack of success on the Prairies.
"We're confident, we're fast and we're playing good football right now. It's going to be fun."
Many of those games were played in typical frigid October/November conditions. Saturday will be anything but.
The forecast calls for sunshine and temperatures hovering near 9C.
"Not so bad. We'll be in good shape."
Beatty expects this game to be won where most playoffs games are won, in the trenches where both teams boast multiple all-Canadians.
The Hilltops feature two offensive and two defensive all-Canadian linemen while the Sun had one on each side of the ball in offensive lineman Cliff Crews and defensive lineman Jonas Gering.
This one definitely will," said Beatty when asked it the game would be won in the trenches.
The game will also be a contrast in offensive philosophy and make-up.
The Hilltops are a run first team while the Sun like to set up their running game off the pass.
"They want to run the ball. They think they can run it down our throats and we have to stop it," said Beatty.
"They are pretty confident. They've been in this game (five of the last six years) so it's our job to stop them and shut them down in the run. If they think they can run the ball then we're going to get after them."
He said if the defence plays disciplined and smart like they usually do, he's confident in their ability to stop the Hilltops vaunted running game.
"And, we're adding a few wrinkles for them. We'll be alright."
Offensively, Beatty said he expects to see more pass that run but adds it does need to have some balance.
Cam Bedore is expected to see most of the time under centre as he has throughout the post season.
In two playoff games Bedore torched defences for 629 yards and six touchdowns. He also ran the ball for 135 yards and a pair of scores.
He threw for more than 1,700 yards and 21 scores during the regular season.
As for the opposition:
"Very well coached. Great running game. O-Line is excellent. Running back is a stud. They have a couple of big receivers (71 and 73). Number 11 is really good. Defensively they are big inside. The D-Line is really good.
"We are going to attack them with speed. We're big up front too. We just have to stay disciplined and play fast."
The Sun are looking for their third Canadian Bowl while the Hilltops are seeking their ninth since the turn of the century.
Saturday's game kicks off at 11 a.m. Pacific Time.
Statistically speaking, there's not much to choose from between the teams that will face off in the Canadian Bowl, Saturday in Saskatoon.
The Okanagan Sun were a perfect 12-0 during their run to a BCFC title, while the Saskatoon Hilltops lost just once in 10 games en route to the Prairie Football Conference championship.
The Sun averaged 48.8 points per game, allowing a mere 10.8, while the Hilltops averaged 38.3 points, allowing 17.1.
On the ground, the teams were nearly dead even – the difference was through the air.
In 10 regular season games, Sun quarterbacks Cam Bedore and Josiah Joseph passed for 3,179 yards and 30 touchdowns, while Hilltops quarterback Jared Andreychuk passed for 1,577 yards and 18 touchdowns in eight regular season games.
While numbers may be close, the Hilltops have one big advantage heading into Saturday national championship game – experience on the biggest of all stages.
The Hilltops are reigning national champions and are winners of four of the last five. Many veterans on the team have been a part of multiple national championship teams.
The Sun are in the national final for the first time in 11 years. No one has national championship experience.
"Does that help? Yeah, I think it does. It help my coaches that have been around ... we've heard it all, we've seen it all," said Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant.
"Fortunately for us, we've been able to put a team on the field and do what we expect to do. We set high goals each and every year, and it was no different this year. I'm anticipating us to coach our best game of the year, our players to play their best game of the year and we'll see where that takes us."
Sargeant said 16 fifth-year players decided to return to the team rather than pursue other opportunities.
"They came back to represent the Saskatoon Hilltops and hopefully be in the game they are going to be in Saturday."
Quarterback Andreychuk is looking to guide Saskatoon to a second straight title, and Sargeant said his experience is invaluable.
"At the end of the day, the quarterback is the most important position on the field. When you have a player that has been bell-tested, has the confidence and the belief of playmaking, what to do and how to do it, life gets a little simpler.
"You're not going to rattle Jared. He's just as gifted running or throwing. He's been that proven quarterback since he was 12 years old. He's only 21 – he's got another year next year."
While Saskatoon has the national championship experience, Sargeant said he respects the ability of the Sun.
"I see a very physical, well-coached football team that's got some high-calibre athletes. You see athletes all across the board. You can tell they recruit well," said Sargeant.
"It's two good organizations matching up again. It should be one heck of a ball game."
The two teams got to the national final in different ways. The Hilltops are a run-first football team, while the Sun, for the most part, had much more success on offensive with a pass-first philosophy.
While the Sun were stingy against the run all season, Sargeant doesn't expect his team to stray from what got them here.
"The way I coach, what I believe in, we're going to be physical, we're going to ground and pound, and we'll see where that takes us. Defensively, we know what they're going to do and they know what we're going to do.
"I believe it comes down to will and what you want. When we win, it's usually because we're running the ball better than the other team and we're stopping the run better than the other team."
The one advantage the Hilltops will not have is weather.
The forecast at kickoff is for sunny skies and temperatures around 8C.
Saturday's game begins at 11 a.m. our time.
Cam Bedore has seen it all as quarterback of the Okanagan Sun.
He was a rookie during the worst season in franchise history, a 3-7 campaign in 2012. Now, Bedore's the number one pivot on a team that snapped an 11 year title drought.
Bedore led the Sun to an easy 54-0 shellacking of the VI Raiders in Sunday's BC Football Conference title game.
The Sun raised the Cullen Cup for the first time since an undefeated season in 2004.
"It means so much," Bedore said of the victory Sunday.
"My first year here was a bit of a rough start but it's gotten better every year. I have to thank my O-line for everything today. Those guys gave me so much time and I can't thank those guys enough.
Bedore completed 14 of 19 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran the ball seven times for 71 yards and a touchdown.
The running was by design.
"We put that component of it in on Thursday and Cam and Josiah handled it very well," said head coach Shane Beatty.
The Sun got rolling early. Running back Kory Nagato hit paydirt on the opening possession, capping off a five play, 57 yard drive with a 25 yard scamper.
While the offence managed just a 29 yard Thomas Huber single the rest of the quarter, the defence threw a blanket over the Raiders offence.
The Raiders ran just 11 plays from scrimmage in the first quarter, gaining a mere 24 yards of offence.
The Sun front four seemed to be in the backfield even before the ball was snapped.
The offence got untracked in the second quarter, finding the end zone three times and, for all intents and purposes, put the game away.
Bedore found Kyle Patchell with a 15 yard strike one play after a Layne Hull interception.
Abdi-Nasir Abdi ran in from two yards out and Bedore ran one in from 23 yards away. Huber added a 19 yard field goal to put the Sun up 34-0 at the break.
It was much of the same in the third quarter. Nagato ran in his second touchdown of the game and Bedore found Kasey Russell from four yards out.
Huber, the special teams player of the game added a pair of fourth quarter field goals to wrap up the scoring.
"The kids are talented, dedicated and played fast today," said Beatty.
"They faced a bit of adversity for a couple of series but turned around and just smashed them in the mouth."
Beatty said from day one the goal was to go 1-0 each week and to get better each week.
"We're getting better every week and we still can get better. We left three touches on the board today so, we'll get better.
"There's not a selfish kid over there of the 75 kids here. That's the nice thing about it."
The defence allowed just 127 yards in total offence throughout the game. They harassed Raiders quarterback Liam O'Brien on almost every snap.
The front four got to O'Brien four times but could easily have had a dozen sacks or more had it not been for the strength and athleticism of the Raiders quarterback.
Brennan Van Nistelrooy, the league's defensive and special teams player of the year was also named the top defensive player in the final.
Van Nistelroy had two interceptions and broke up numerous plays in the secondary.
"This is unbelievable. It's nice to see us come back to what everybody expects and what history has shown for this program," said Van Nistelrooy.
"We just tried to take it one week at a time and focus on the task at hand. I think that's an advantage for us because we don't look ahead."
The Sun, who scored nearly 500 points in the regular season, outscored their opponents 129-7 in the playoffs.
Sunday's win was the first ever for a Sun team against the Raiders in the playoffs.
Now, the Sun must win where they have never won before, the Prairies, if they hope to win a national championship.
The Sun face the Prairie Conference champion Saskatoon Hilltops in the national championship game Saturday, Nov. 7 in Saskatoon.
The reigning national champion Hilltops beat the Calgary Colts 39-18 in Sunday's PFC final.
It's been 11 years since the Okanagan Sun were able to hoist the Cullen Cup.
They look to end that drought this afternoon (Apple Bowl, 1 p.m.) when they host the VI Raiders in the BC Football Conference championship game.
It would be somewhat ironic if the Sun were able to win a league championship against a team that owned the title, and the Sun, for the better part of the last decade.
Their last title came in 2004, a 25-14 win over the Victoria Rebels at the Apple Bowl.
Since then, the Sun are 0-6 in league championships, losing four times to the Raiders and twice to the Langley (South Fraser) Rams.
In fact, since 2004, the Sun season has ended six times at the hands of the Raiders.
The tables have turned over the past three seasons. Under head coach Shane Beatty, the Sun have won seven of eight meetings between the two clubs, including six in a row.
This past regular season, the Sun posted wins of 27-3 and 28-7.
In those two games, the Sun defence held the Raiders to just 162 yards of total offence, including a season-best 40 yards in a 28-7 win at the Apple Bowl back on Sept. 13.
In that game, the defence sacked quarterback Liam O'Brien 13 times. In fact, Raider quarterbacks found themselves at the bottom end of a Sun defensive team meeting 23 times. Defensive end Jonas Gering had 5.5 of those sacks.
"Our D-line is very good and we get everybody back healthy on defence, and it showed last week when we executed and stopped Kamloops for 128 yards," said Beatty in reference to his defence.
"We'll be ready."
On the offensive side of the ball, the Sun were able to do just enough to beat a Raiders defence that played them tough in both games.
The Sun amassed more than 700 yards in those two games, but the Raiders allowed the Sun to reach the end zone just four times.
In the first game in Nanaimo, Thomas Huber's five field goals and a pair of conceded safeties were the difference.
The Sun didn't have a lot of success running the ball against the Raiders, but Beatty knows they have to be able to establish the run Sunday.
"It's tough to run against them. They put seven and eight men in the box," said Beatty.
"But, Kory Nagato looked good at the end of the game (against Kamloops) and (Abdi-Nasir) Abdi is still a force at 205 pounds. We have to run the ball, we can't just sit back and throw the ball all game long."
Conversely, Beatty said the Sun are able to throw a lot of talented receivers on the field on every down.
"We'll take advantage of what we've got."
Sunday's winner will face the winner of the Prairie Conference final in the national championship in two weeks time in the park of the prairie champ.
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