He is nearing a quarter of a century as a head coach in the U SPORTS football world, and along that journey, UBC’s Blake Nill has seen his share of comeback victories.
Yet ask him to find something comparable to Saturday afternoon’s stunning rally from a 23-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to a 31-30 overtime victory on the road against the Regina Rams with what might be the youngest group of players he’s ever helmed, and the 59-year-old Nill very quickly places it in very select company (more on that later).
Yet the bottom line Saturday, as his team seemingly morphed from half asleep to fully amazing at the flick of a switch, was that a group which seemed content to start making plans for 2022 somehow found its collective game face, and in the process wound up saving a season at its midpoint from a back-nine run of irrelevancy.
“Sometimes you wonder… you just go ‘God, what are we gonna do?’” Nill said over the phone from Regina about the fate of a team which while still treading water at 1-2 following the win, can at least now also say that it is locked in a four-way tie for third place in the Canada West with the entire spectrum of playoff possibility still within its grasp.
And all of it comes on the heels of his decision to gamble on a game-deciding two-point convert — a pass from rookie quarterback Garrett Rooker to veteran receiver Trey Kellogg — which Kellogg so dramatically cradled to turn what was starting to look like a shutout loss into what may wind up being the first team-defining moment in the post-Michael O’Connor era.
“But man, the kids dug down,” Nill continued as new Thunderbirds with names like Rooker, Isaiah Knight, Robert Lutman, Keijaun Johnson and Stephane Tshimibi, each playing in just their third-ever university football games, passed through a rite of Canada West gridiron passage with stretch-drive play that belied their birth certificates. “I am just so proud of them.”
TRUSTING IN THEIR STRENGTHS
So how the heck did it all happen so suddenly?
Well, if you took Nill’s comments earlier this season following losses to both Alberta and Saskatchewan about just how talented but inexperienced his team was, and that what his raw core group of 20-or-so first-year players needed most was meaningful reps in the crucible of moments like Saturday, and understood them to be nothing more than a coach’s crutch, you were proven wrong.
Check out the fact that UBC came into the game Saturday with a 42.9 per cent success rate in the red zone, good enough for dead-last in the conference.
Then consider that early in the first quarter, on a march into said red zone, Rooker was picked off by Regina’s Jackson Sombach on a pass he had tried to get to Lutman.
Regina took that turnover and turned it into a 90-yard touchdown drive, capped by quarterback Josh Donnelly’s 31-yard touchdown pass to give the Rams a 7-0 lead with 5:35 left in the first quarter.
History looked like it was going to continue to repeat itself, because from that point forward, UBC would not reach the red zone for the rest of the game until the rookie running back Knight powered himself straight through belly of of the Regina defence on a 60-yard run to the Rams’ one-yard line early in the fourth quarter
Fellow rookie running back Dane Kapler capped it off with a short touchdown run and UBC was finally on the board, trailing 23-7 two minutes into the final stanza.
It was, however, UBC’s response on its next drive which most clearly stated its refusal to budge from the identity Nill and his staff new they were beginning to form. To them, its offensive line and running game had shown significant growth despite the fact that before its rally from 23-down had begun, it had been outscored 110-34 over its previous seven quarters.
So, even though they were trailing by 16 points with a quarterback clearly capable of going on an aerial blitz, Nill, offensive coordinator Taylor Nill and offensive line coach Kirby Fabien had a meeting of the minds and a realization they were going to put their trust in that run game.
“The bottom line is the strength of our team is still our offensive line and we had to ask them to shoulder some of that load,” said Nill. “That’s how we did it. And you could see Isaiah Knight start to show the signs that, not only could he break one, but he could run tough between the tackles.”
So from there, it literally took two snaps to turn the game on its ear.
First, a hand-off to Knight for seven yards. Second, another to Knight for 11 yards.
Based on his 60-yard run on the previous drive, and the yards he was eating up on both first and second down, the schematics of the field seemed to change. All that didn’t work for three quarters was suddenly available in the fourth.
On back-to-back plays Rooker first went 11 yards to rookie receiver Jason Soriano, and then 33 more to Kellogg, and presto… UBC was at the Rams’ six-yard line.
The drive ended with a one-yard Rooker keeper to make it a one possession game at 23-15 with 8:53 remaining.
Then, Regina’s attempts to re-capture the momentum it had owned for a full three quarters seemed to run dry when rookie Keijaun Johnson, a former Vancouver College teammate of Soriano’s, high-pointed a Donnelly pass and picked it off, giving his team the football back at the Rams’ 52-yard line.
From there, Rooker just kept doing what he had been over the previous two drives, mixing in handoffs to Knight with passes to his bevy of receivers.
This time, he hit second-year man Edgerrin Williams with a 16-yard scoring strike, before calling his own number on a two-point convert that tied the score at 23-23 with 2:52 remaining.
Rooker would finish 31-of-47 for 335 yards while Williams would make 11 catches for 131 yards.
Regina had a chance to win the game in regulation but kicker Aldo Galvan’s kick sailed wide left.
The Rams got the ball first in overtime at the 35-yard line, and promptly scored to go ahead 30-23, forcing UBC to do the same if it wanted to force a second round of overtime.
Rooker did just that by erasing the memory of his first quarter interception, fittingly looking for Lutman again, and this time connecting with the former Handsworth Royal for a key 17-yard gain.
Knight eventually rushed for a one-yard touchdown, setting the stage for UBC’s gutsy two-point call and Rooker’s subsequent clutch completion to a sliding Kellogg just inside the goal line.
And what a breakout day it was for the UBC ground game.
Knight carried 20 times for 146 yards and the team rushed for 200 yards on the game.
THE HISTORY THAT MATTERS
To open this tale of dramatic season-saving and all that goes with it, we now tell the story of why UBC coach Blake Nill placed Saturday’s comeback among his all-time top three or four.
It goes without saying that with his previous stops as a head coach at both St. Mary’s and Calgary, before arriving here in 2015 and subsequently winning the Vanier Cup, that there are plenty of other big games to consider.
Yet to him, two seemed to stand out above all others, the first as an example of how one key win can be a firestarter for an entire roster of players, and the second as the origin story behind his decision to go for two points and the win in overtime.
Nill remembers back some six weeks into the 2007 season, just his second with a then-rebuilding Calgary Dinos squad, when his struggling team played on Oct. 13 of that season in Saskatoon against a Saskatchewan Huskies team ranked fifth in the nation.
A 51-yard field goal by Calgary’s Aaron Ifield with no time left on the clock lifted Nill’s team to a 19-17 win that day.
“It was a win that helped turn around the fortunes of the Calgary program,” remembered Nill.
Nill referenced another Calgary win over Saskatchewan, this one in 2009.
In that game, Calgary had a chance to win the game in regulation on another Ifield field goal, this one from 47 yards, but a time count violation backed things up 10 yards and forced them punt instead on the way to overtime.
The game went to a second round of OT, and after Saskatchewan scored to go up 34-27, the Dinos scored a TD to make it 34-33, then elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win. They missed and they lost.
Said Nill that day to the Calgary Herald: “When you’re that close, just five yards from the end zone to win the game in a very tough place to play, I think you go for it. I thought we had the right play called, but unfortunately it just didn’t work out for us.”
On Saturday, when the situation once again presented itself, Nill knew what he wanted to do and it was clear that so too did a pair of his former Calgary players that day back in 2009: His son Taylor Nill and Fabien.
“Coach Taylor and coach Fabien said ‘Are we going for it?’ and we all agreed because the three of us, we had a similar experience back in 2009 in Saskatchewan when they were both athletes for me,” Nill referenced without hesitation Saturday after the win. “There was no point in not going for it.”
And so perhaps the play in which Rooker found Kellogg for two points and the win becomes symbolic of much more than just a single regular season victory?
“It was sort of a half of a play that we run,” Taylor Nill said afterwards. “I kind of drew it in the dirt a little bit, but it’s a play we’ve worked before, and Garrett and Trey have a great connection.
“We’ve said before that ‘If you get a one-on-one you can run a hitch route with Trey’s big body,’” continued the younger Nill. “And for Garrett, it’s just second nature. He is is gonna put it right on him. Which he did.”
A GAME SO BIG, IT WAS MORE LIKE TWO
Following UBC’s disappointing 43-15 trucking at the hands of Saskatchewan two weeks ago at Thunderbird Stadium, a loss which dropped his team to 0-2, Blake Nill vowed that he would not give up on the season and that his job was to try and accelerate the development of his young team.
By Saturday, it was starting to look like he had gotten a good start on that process.
After the Manitoba Bisons stunned Calgary 28-20 to improve to 3-0 and a spot all alone atop the conference with a stunningly similar fourth-quarter rally, UBC suddenly found themselves as part of a four-way tie for third place in the standings with Calgary, Regina and Alberta. Saskatchewan sits in second place at 2-1.
UBC will host Manitoba this Saturday, and in a conference that has just now hit its midway mark, albeit a little earlier than usual, there is enough parity to suggest that it’s anyone’s guess how the second half will play itself out and who the final four playoff qualifiers will ultimately be.
Without its comeback win Saturday, it would have been hard to include these ‘Birds in any of those discussions.
“We are just going to have to continue to grow up,” the head coach summed, elated but clearly exhausted by its conclusion. “That game today, honestly, was two games. For three quarters we showed no emotion on the sidelines and we kept making critical mistakes at just the wrong times.
“Bottom line, though, this is a game of momentum and making plays, and today, by the skin of our teeth, we made enough of them to win. Maybe that was enough for the dam to break.”
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