Playoff football’s most defining moments have a way of coming out of the shadows and taking our breath away.
Yet beyond the most obvious ways in which they dole equal parts joy and despair to their most loyal fans, they also seem to deliver, with barometric precision, a universal truth about their victors.
That’s what I was thinking Saturday when UBC’s Keijaun Johnson, on a blustery, sleet-filled day at Regina’s Mosaic Stadium, appeared to come out of nowhere midway through the fourth quarter to pick off Rams’ quarterback Noah Pelletier and return it 46 yards to opposition four-yard line, in what to that point had been an ugly, mistake-filled Canada West Hardy Cup semifinal game seemingly locked in a perpetual 14-14 tie.
Two plays later, however, power back Lucas Mastrodomenico took a hand-off and vaulted over Regina’s goal line welcoming party, ultimately giving UBC a 21-14 lead en route to what would be a remarkable 28-14 Thunderbirds’ victory.
The universal truth at play here?
When playoff season hits, and you are playing defence the way UBC is right now, it’s not hard to surmise on what side of the ball that breathtaking play is going to be coming from.
“Our defence, it’s peaking at the right time,” UBC head coach Blake Nill said in the post-game, just moments after his team booked what was safe, if not improbable passage to next Saturday’s 85th edition of the Hardy Cup championship in Saskatoon against the first-place Saskatchewan Huskies.
A decided road underdog heading in, the defence which Nill so efficiently described, played so well Saturday that it not only set the table for the ‘Birds two late, game-breaking touchdowns, it could also be imagined to be a kind of grit, which when figuratively sprinkled over UBC’s stretch-drive, has given this unexpected late-season renaissance its undeniable blue-collar sheen.
Consider that in its biggest game of the season yet, the ‘Birds defence not only held No. 9-ranked Regina pointless on its own home field in the second half, it held the Rams’ offence out of the end zone the entire game.
“Coach Tracey and the entire staff have done an incredible job developing these kids,” Nill said of defensive coordinator Pat Tracey, and a quintet of defensive assistants in Shomari Williams, Dom Termansen, Jamahl Knowles, Noah Cantor and Spencer Boehm. “We’re starting to see them make plays… the kinds of plays they should be making.”
And it’s with all of that said that UBC’s defining moment Saturday, one which announces these Thunderbirds as legitimate Vanier Cup national championship challengers, came from a defence that has done nothing but grow stronger and more together with each passing week.
Johnson’s play this season has been a bright and hopeful step forward… one in which the former Vancouver College Fighting Irish standout has been a vital part of coach Tracey’s scheme as a fearless cover corner.
And as he has slowly but surely put his growing pains behind him, Saturday’s 46-yard pick stood as the kind of play which can catapult a player to a new level of confidence and proficiency.
“He is a very aggressive football player and it has sometimes bitten us,” prefaced a proud Nill of Johnson. “But we’ve also benefitted from that aggressiveness and today, he jumped a route and he made a hell of a play. That was definitely the spark we needed to finish it off.”
So many others shone defensively for UBC on Saturday.
From all-everything outside linebacker Ryan Baker, to fellow backers Skylar Griffith and Dan Kwamou; to a fearsome front including the likes of Lake Korte-Moore, Mitch Townsend, Kyle Samson and Natale Frangione; to a secondary starring, among others Zach Herzog, Max Kennedy, Dustin Magee and Will Hunter.
None of this, of course, lessens the journey of UBC’s unflappable offence, one which has managed to keep its course despite losing starting quarterback Garrett Rooker a few weeks back to a season-ending injury.
On Saturday, fellow Texan Derek Engel stepped under centre and in just his second career start, continued to remain the model of poise.
Neither Engel nor his rival, Rams’ pivot Noah Pelletier, put up the kinds of numbers that indicate a track meet in progress. But with cold, wind, sleet and later snow, this was a game with an entirely different feel.
Yet within Engel’s seemingly inefficient 12-of-29 for 176 yards, was a critical 46-yard touchdown strike to receiver Shemar McBean in the first quarter.
Ask his coach about the kid from Dallas who, in only 11 quarters played, has now beaten two nationally-ranked teams in Saskatchewan and Regina, and gets another chance at the Huskies this Saturday on the road in what doubles as a national championship quarterfinal, and he’s firm in his beliefs.
“He has given us a chance,” Nill explained after the heartbreaking injury to Rooker forced Engel — ready or not — into an immediate starting role. “And I don’t think he’s thrown a pick yet. Today, the conditions were brutal, and the kid went out and made throws. He still has to learn and grow, but he just won us a big playoff game today.”
Against Regina, a boondoggle by the special teams on a short field-goal attempt resulted in the Rams’ Donovin Small scooping up a blocked punt and returning it 58 yards for a 14-12 Regina lead at the half.
And if the UBC passing game was far from crisp under tough conditions, Engel was still in line for a much bigger passing day if not for a number of key drops.
Yet on the whole, in appreciating how far a team which started the season with a 1-3 record has come, Saturday’s victory was the one that told you anything is indeed possible.
The ‘Birds ran it 35 times and passed it 29, and that balance did nothing but offer the deception so key on a late third-and-one call in which running back Dane Kapler took it right up the middle for a game-capping 27-yard score.
Likewise, the defence had similar moments, like when a desperate Regina team handed off to running back Olivier Savard trying to keep a drive alive on third-and-one. But there was UBC’s Townsend squaring up to make the stop and force a turnover on downs which ultimately led to the Kapler major score.
Yes, Saturday was one of those days.
The kind that make you vigilant and focussed as you now prepare to tread on a title stage most deemed, for you, too lofty.
The kind which has you working even harder to produce that next big play… the kind that in playoff football, seems guaranteed to take your breath away.
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