It took the final play of the night for the Regina Thunder to finally turn the tide on turnovers and seal the fate for the Saskatoon Hilltops.
A game-ending interception by Tyrel Latoski snuffed out a potential scoring drive by the hometown Hilltops and put the finishing touch on a 29-26 victory in Canadian Junior Football League Prairie Football Conference action Saturday at SMF Field.
If possession is nine-tenths the law, the visiting Thunder certainly had the ball in their court. They ruled time of possession in Saturday’s PFC contest and wore down the Toppers’ defence in the second half.
Even so, the Hilltops had a chance to win it in on their final drive. With nine seconds left, and the ball on Regina’s 21-yard-line, Saskatoon still had time for one more crack at the end-zone rather than settling for a potential game-tying field goal. Instead, Latoski stepped in front of the Jordan Walls pass and that was it. Game over. Victory for Regina. “I’m here to win,” said Hilltops head coach when asked about the decision not to try the field goal.
“At the end of the day, some people think to tie, go ahead, but I coach to win. My only thought was trying to get a play. We were going to an All-Canadian in Sam Mike and their guy (Latoski) made a better play. Maybe we could have had a better throw in that situation, too.
“Ultimately, we had a chance to put the game in a different spot with a field goal earlier so you don’t think that stays in you mind a little bit and it certainly does in decision-making, as well.”
The three-time reigning Canadian Bowl champion Hilltops slip to 3-1 on the season. Regina also moves to 3-1.
“We’ve been watching a lot of film and we kind of broke these guys down offensively,” said Latoski. “Late in the game, when they started to take their shots, we knew where they were going to go. We just capitalized. We just rose above.
“We haven’t beaten these guys in three years, so it feels nice to finally get one.”
The Thunder, for the most part, were able to contain the Hilltops’ potent running game and Logan Fischer, who, outside of a big fourth-quarter run of 40 yards, was held in check and limited to 54 yards on his other 17 carries.
“Every time we’re going to play against them, we’re going to try and stop the run,” said Thunder head coach Scott MacAulay. “Sarge and those guys love to run the ball and they love to throw it to the wide side of the field.”
Overall, Regina racked up 508 yards in total net offence, including 349 yards in the second half. Saskatoon finished with 500 yards in net offence, with most of that in the first half with 322 yards.
The Hilltops held a 20-6 lead at half-time on touchdown majors by Colin Stumborg and Ryan Turple plus a pair of field goals and converts by James Vause.
In the second half, it was a different story as Regina out-scored Saskatoon 23-6.
“We just couldn’t stay on the field,” offered Stumborg. “They made some plays; we didn’t make enough plays. That’s how she goes sometimes.
“We always say that, when the Thunder come into town and we play the Thunder, you throw the stats out the window. You never know what’s going to come up.
“We went out there, played our hardest. We just couldn’t come up with the win today.”
Saskatoon takes the season series over Regina by a 63-49 margin, but the Thunder have stolen some momentum and gained some confidence.
“It’s a big one for us,” said MacAulay. “We haven’t had too much success against these guys the last couple of years. To be able to come back up here in their own house, and stuff, and be able to come up with this win, it’s a big deal for our team and I think it’s going to make us a lot closer. I’m excited to move on and get going for next week.”
Saskatoon took the season-opener 37-20 in Regina.
“We’ve got some new players and we just had to jell together,” offered MacAulay. “The other thing, just look at the mistakes we made (in the first game) on special teams, bad snaps, fumbled balls by a top receiver who is our punter as well. Bottom line, we made some mistakes we shouldn’t have been making. Tonight, we saw it maybe in the first quarter and then we switched it up.
“I think our guys started to get more comfortable (in the second half). They might have been a little too high at the beginning of the game. I think the big thing, too, is our guys believed in each other and kept on fighting for it.”
The Thunder could have scored even more Saturday night if not for two costly turnovers. Twice, Regina had Saskatoon on the ropes if not for a fumble on the goal-line and an interception deep in the Toppers’ zone by defensive end Tommy Schnitzler.
“We could have won by more,” noted MacAulay. “We left some points out there. We need to keep getting better each week and we look forward to probably seeing them again hopefully in the playoffs.”
Walls completed 27 of 41 passes for 351 yards and two touchdowns. Mike had the lone TD major for the Hilltops in the second half. Turple had nine catches for 123 yards.
Sawyer Buettner was good on 33 of 40 passes for 374 yards and two TDs. Levi Paul was the prime target with 10 catches for 120 yards. Victor St. Pierre Laviolette rushed the ball nine times for 82 yards and a major.
After watching his team blow a 14-point lead, Sargeant said there weren’t a lot of good things to talk about.
“At the end of the day, when you get outplayed and you get outcoached, you don’t think about a lot of things,” said Sargeant.
“Our players got in tight situations and they didn’t respond very well. This was a big game. We knew it was a big game. We got to see what our true colours were tonight and it’s not up to the standard that the Hilltops have been at.
“It’ll be incumbent upon me to get the right 12 on O and the right 12 on D out there and represent the Blue and Gold better than tonight.”
TOP-UPS: The Hilltops played without linebackers Cody Peters and Adam Benkic, as well as defensive lineman Conner Guillet, who is out for the season.