VANCOUVER — Michael O’Connor was standing along the Thunderbird Stadium sidelines on a post-game Saturday night, far from the emptying grandstand which just moments earlier had some 9,534 fans on the edge of their seats.
At that present moment, there was nothing for the UBC quarterback to lean up against.
Yet after the ‘Birds surrendered a late lead to its arch-nemesis, the Calgary Dinos, en route to a 32-28 Homecoming Game loss which lowered their record to 1-3 at the midway point of the Canada West regular season, it was no stretch to say that the ‘Birds fourth-year quarterback could feel the figurative buttress of vertical concrete which seems to magically appear when your back is against the wall.
As UBC football goes to sleep on Saturday night, on the outside looking in on the conference’s four available playoff berths, all O’Connor could say was “Yes, we’re fighting for our playoff lives at this point. So we’ve just got to take it one game at a time, and go beat Alberta next week.”
Welcome to a regular-season ending four-game span which is sure to age head coach Blake Nill at least four full years.
But welcome, as well, to span where redemption is still possible for a gloriously talented but often times incredibly undisciplined team.
For much of a rainy Saturday, playing against the same team which just 15 days ago in Calgary, took them out behind the woodshed at McMahon Stadium as part of a 57-7 drubbing, these ‘Birds looked like a completely different team
When O’Connor fired a laser-like 43-yard strike to elusive speed merchant Trivel Pinto and watched his favourite receiver carry a Dinos defender on his back over the final two yards into the end zone with 36 seconds left in the first half, the Thunderbirds were leading the nation’s No. 3-ranked team 17-8.
Blue-and-gold nation could feel its pulsing heart skip a beat or two.
And when UBC safety Stavros Katsantonis, aka The Bakersfield Bandit, stepped in front of a pass from Calgary quarterback Adam Sinagra and took the perfect line through the Dinos’ defence en route to a 67-yard pick-six, the Thunderbirds led 25-18 with just over 17 minutes remaining in the contest.
‘Birds placekicker Greg Hutchins even booted a 12-yard field goal to make it 28-16 just under two minuets into the final quarter.
Flip the script on a season? You better believe it.
“Their offence outplayed our offence and you can’t do much when you don’t score any (offensive) points in the second half,” summed a frustrated UBC head coach Blake Nill.
Pure freshman Tyson Philpot, the Dinos’ standout from North Delta’s Seaquam Secondary, made a tremendous catch on a 35-yard TD strike from Sinagara, who then capped the comeback with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Alex Basilis with 4:10 remaining.
It was enough to make you wonder ‘Are UBC Thunderbirds actually the Detroit Lions? And are the Calgary Dinos just a bunch of guys with Aaron Rodgers under centre?’
UBC, however, still had a great chance to win.
Trailing by four points with 1:22 remaining, UBC’s blue-chip middle linebacker Ben Hladik forced a fumble which teammate Connor Griffiths recovered at the Thunderbirds’ 21-yard line.
UBC could get no further than its own 45-yard line, however, yet it almost hit a home run had O’Connor and freshman receiver Jacob Patten been able to connect on a wide-open sideline fly pattern that fell achingly short of completion.
UBC’s Pinto was exceptional with 13 catches for 162 yards. Marcus Browne opened the scoring for UBC on a 43-yard catch-and-run from O’Connor, who threw for 331 yards and two touchdowns.
As well, UBC’s Malcom Lee, playing out on an island in several instances, had four pass break-ups in the secondary, three of which could well have gone for Calgary touchdowns.
Still, the collective team effort was not there when it was needed most over the final two quarters.
“The point is, we were outplayed in the second half,” added Nill, whose ‘Birds, coming off a walk-off field goal loss last week at Regina in which it handed the game to the Rams with concurrent unnecessary roughness penalties, once again lost a game they had well in their grasp to win. “We gave up a big play on a broken coverage, and we took some penalties (14 for 137 yards) that really hurt.
“Penalties keep hurting us and these guys have to realize that you can’t win football games when you can’t play with discipline.”
Almost incredibly, the ‘Birds were whistled for identical double 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalties when two players reacted poorly on the sidelines to an interception made by the Dinos in third quarter.
Thus a UBC play from its own 40-yard line, was intercepted by Calgary, and after the 30 yards in penalties were tacked on to the return, the ball was placed at the ‘Birds 24-yard line.
One snap later, Calgary running back Robinson Rodrigues rushed right through the heart of the UBC defence for a touchdown.
So yes, on a night when UBC surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and ultimately a game they had to win, all in a span of nine minutes, there was plenty of doom and gloom to go around.
Yet if the glass is to remain half full, there is the school of thought that UBC was greatly improved from its 50-point loss of 12 days ago.
And that if that improvement can actually continue over the second half of the season, could these Thunderbirds re-invent themselves from being perhaps the most disappointing team in the nation over the season’s first half, to being a scrappy, us-against-the-world underdog over its second half?
If you’ve got a little faith left in you, and you chat it up with the team’s defensive leader, you might come away saying ‘Why not?’
“We are almost there, but we’re still making mistakes and we still need to improve on a lot of things,” said ‘Birds star defensive tackle Connor Griffiths, who returned after missing the last two games with a knee injury.
Ask Griffiths if UBC’s next four games (home-and-home with Alberta beginning this coming week, along with games against both Saskatchewan and Manitoba) can get them into playoff position, and to a place where they become post-season road warriors and his answer comes in the affirmative.
“Our team is fully capable of doing that and everyone on this team needs to realize our potential,” said Griffiths. “I believe in every single person on this team. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
Losing three straight games has happened once in the Nill era at UBC. In 2016, one season after winning the Vanier Cup, the ‘Birds lost their last three regular season games, but at 3-5 still made the playoffs, eventually losing 46-43 to Calgary in the Hardy Cup.
O’Connor wasn’t thinking about any of that Saturday.
Yet with his back and those of his teammates clearly up against the wall, there comes the realization that they’ve used up all of their free passes.
“It was a battle all game,” said O’Connor. “Our defence played a great game, but offensively, we’re still trying to find ourselves. I still think this was a big step, but we still have a ways to go. But it helped us realize that we can beat these guys.
If no one else is prepared to keep believing, it appears to guys that really matter, all still do.
So hunker down football fans. It’s in ugly times like this when, against all logical thought, an oil painting can still be produced.
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