The UBC Thunderbirds’ youthful ways led to some anxious moments on Wednesday.
Yet its first-unit players, in all three phases, looked as devastating as they ever have as the Blake Nill-era entered its third season in the Southern Interior.
With quarterback Michael O’Connor and a healthy UBC offence, bolstered by a deep core of running backs and a hard-blocking yet light-footed offensive line, the ‘Birds built a 30-0 halftime lead en route to an eventual 33-30 triumph over the Alberta Golden Bears in the non-conference exhibition opener for both teams at Kamloops’ Hillside Stadium.
“I am comfortable with how the first unit looked,” said Nill. “But I need my players to realize that you need to play the whole game, both the firsts and the seconds.”
Still, this was an exhibition game.
And while there is no doubting UBC’s top-level talent, its back-ups, which populated the line-up in the second half, were held in check as the Golden Bears went with last season’s starting quarterback Ben Kopczynski over the final two quarters.
Yet Nill was taking the second-half in stride post game, admitting that it’s all par for the course in the development of young players.
“The second half went just as it should,” said Nill. “A bunch of young kids got in and they got to cut their teeth. It was their first game at this level and you have to expect that is going happen.
“Here’s the deal when you play an exhibition game, I look for two things. You have to evaluate your starting talent and then you have to give your first-year players a chance to get their careers going. If you don’t, they go through with a fantasy about what it’s all about to compete at this level. I have 30 kids who might not get to play again this season, but they know what it’s like now, and they can train for what it will take. That makes me happy.”
After gaining experience when he replaced injured starter Brad Baker early last season, Kopczynski’s poise on Wednesday was clearly the difference in Alberta’s improved fortunes over the second half.
Kopczynski tossed a 109-yard scoring strike to Nathan Rowe on his first play of the game. He later barrelled 10 yards into the end zone for a rushing major, then threw two more touchdown passes to give the UBC coaching staff plenty of teaching moments heading into the Canada West regular season opener Sept. 1 at Regina.
UBC’s Greg Hutchins booted a key 38-yard field goal with 2:06 remaining, giving the ‘Birds an 11-point, two-score lead cushion it wound up needing to secure the win.
Here’s our five big UBC takeaways from Wednesday’s season opener:
1. OH MY, O’CONNOR
Michael O’Connor opened his third season as starting quarterback by using every member of his deep-and-dangerous receiving core in the opening half of play, staking his team to a 30-0 halftime lead.
Considering that the Penn State transfer was the unfortunate victim of a first-half interception, he still had a QB rating 217.7 over his tidy one half of action.
How did he do it? Try 23-of-25 for 280 yards and three touchdown passes.
Said UBC play-by-play broadcaster Len Catling: “Those were video-game numbers.”
Nill reinforced just how much O’Connor has embraced an offence with which he has a custom fit.
“It’s built for Michael,” Nill said. “He is cerebral. In meetings he’s like an other coach. You know he is going to excel and tonight you saw the evidence.”
2. IT WAS 364 DAYS AGO…
It was quite a contrast. Or have you tried to erase it from your memory?
UBC opened defence of its Vanier Cup one year ago, and they looked as flat as a pancake doing it, falling 50-7 to Manitoba in a game played in Langford, just outside Victoria.
Said Nill of the 2016 opener in the days leading up to Wednesday’s 2017 opener: “We didn’t know how to respond as national champions. But we’re no longer national champions. Now we have to go out and once again prove that we can be talked about and considered in that category.
“Do I believe that we should be in that category? Objectively, I think we can be, but I don’t play the games and the kids have to understand that it’s an earned right, not something that is voted on.”
3. PRIMARY SECONDARY
Stavros Katsantonis has earned his status as one of the nation’s most deadly and effective defensive backs from his safety spot. The ‘Birds showed Wednesday that the rest of the unit is ready to keep pace.
Malcom Lee, the former St. Thomas More standout who transferred to UBC from Nevada, opened his third season with flair, making a pair of first-half interceptions.
“The first one was a gift and the second one, we had a good pass rush,” said Lee. “The defensive line was able to mount such a great pass rush that we were able to get good positions in the secondary. Our defensive ends did a great job out there, they forced the quarterback to make some bad mistakes.”
Jordan Kennedy, the former Coquitlam-Centennial standout, opened his third season with solid secondary play as well as a devastating hit on special teams, the latter something also managed by linebacker Evan Horton.
4. CATCH THEM IF YOU CAN
Last season, UBC’s receiving core looked A-plus deadly … on paper.
Injuries and double-duty extended the group to its max and limited its overall effectiveness.
But after an off-season of inspired training, and good overall health, the cache of pass catchers looked almost unstoppable over the opening half.
Trivel Pinto (116 total yards) caught eight passes, including two for touchdowns. Alex Morrison, the CFL draft pick who has returned for his senior year, made six catches for 52 yards, while Will Watson (52 yards, one TD) made five catches.
Most impressive of all? It’s a group, including Trey Kellogg, Marcus Davis, Marshall Cook and JJ Deslauriers, adept at gaining impressive yards-after-the-catch.
“They can go vertical and also if you give them too much room, they are going to go underneath and then teams have to deal with the speed,” said Nill after the win. “We can put five guys out there that can do damage.”
UBC’s improved offensive backfield featured seven different ball carriers, including freshman Shane Noel, who scored on a four-yard run late in the second quarter.
5. FIRST FAMILY, FIRST-RATE DEBUT
JJ Deslauriers, the eighth member of the football-playing Deslauriers family, made his debut in blue-and-gold as a slot receiver and Simon Fraser transfer caught four passes for 47 yards.
It was a case of the rich getting richer for the UBC receiving core.
Deslauriers is as sure-handed as they come, loves to make catches in traffic, and has the kind of blue-collar after-burners that let him rack up yards after the catch.
JJ’s football family tree?
A dad, three uncles and three cousins all played high school football at St. Thomas More in Burnaby, and all played for either UBC or Simon Fraser.
“He’ll make the sure-handed grab for you,” said Nill. “He makes catches.”
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