VANCOUVER — On Friday, the calendar turned to October as the UBC Thunderbirds kicked off one of their latest home-openers on record.
Yet in the aftermath of a 43-15 loss to the visiting, No. 9-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies before a sell-out crowd of 2,500 at the stadium, just the team’s second game of a shortened six-game Canada West season, ultimatums were already being uttered and must-win game scenarios were being spelled out, each without a hint of hyperbole.
“Bottom line is we’re 0-2, and we’ve got to find a way…,” UBC head coach Blake Nill began, trying to sum up the repercussions which have resulted from a game filled with bloopers and blunders.
“I am not prepared to give up on the season,” continued Nill, whose team thankfully has two weeks to re-trench before heading to Winnipeg for a battle with the Manitoba Bisons. “We have to find a way to win a game. This Saskatchewan team is just… they are a good football program, too.”
UBC’s roster, as currently constructed, has the promise to very good, yet with some 30 players, as Nill reminded Friday “playing in their first home games” the road to getting there will not be paved with roses.
Instead, get ready for those film room sessions in which the learning moments will be tough to watch.
Like Saskatchewan’s third-and-13 play late in the third quarter, a special team’s nightmare for the UBC in which Huskies’ punter David Solie, on a pre-designed play, simply tucked the ball and rushed 49 yards to the UBC 13-yard line, setting up an eventual one-yard TD pass from quarterback Mason Nyhus to receiver Colton Klassen for a 34-7 lead.
“We had breakdowns in all three areas, we had breakdowns on defence, two special teams breakdowns that cost us two touchdowns, and then there was our red-zone execution.”
UBC, which found itself down 27-7 at halftime, was 2-for-4 in red zone opportunities on the night, and those two misses, both in the second half, were huge.
“Obviously the games haven’t gone the way we wanted them to,” said UBC’s first-year quarterback Garrett Rooker, who went 25-of-34 for for 283 yards with no touchdown or interceptions. “As you see, we get going as the game goes on, but we’ve got to do that as soon as the game kicks off. We have to be ready to play.”
If not, come Oct. 16 in Regina against the Rams, another afternoon of playing from behind.
And those missed red-zone opportunities?
On the first, the ‘Birds mounted a 12-play, 102-yard drive in the third quarter which featured a 21-yard pass from Rooker to receiver Trey Kellogg, and an 18-yard scamper by running back Dane Kapler.
Yet the drive stalled inside the Saskatchewan one-yard line when running back Isaiah Knight was held just shy of pay dirt.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Rooker took UBC 73 yards down field, but had a promising drive stall at the Huskies’ five-yard line when his 10-yard completion to Edgerrin Williams on third-and-goal came up shy.
Compounding matters on that latter drive, Saskatchewan took over on downs, and went 105 yards on five plays as Nyhus hit Klassen from eight yards out for a 43-15 lead. That drive saw Huskies’ running back Adam Machart turn a simple screen pass into an 83-yard chunk play, the longest of the night for either team.
Simple math tells you that if you convert on both of those stalled red-zone trips, then prevent Machart’s big play, and it’s 36-29 with enough time to have a final say.
For Nill, it’s all so close and yet so far.
“We should have probably put up more points than 15 points, but the key is that what you are seeing, and I truly believe this, is the maturing of a bunch of kids. It’s just a baptism by fire. There are just no easy teams in this conference.”
The Huskies had it firing on all cylinders.
Nyhus (18-of-27 for 351 yards and three TDs) fed two 100-yard-plus receivers in Sam Baker (7 catches, 108 yards, 2 TDs) and Daniel Perry (6 catches, 123 yards).
Running back Josh Ewanchyna’s numbers were as gaudy as could be (seven carries, 114 yards, 1 touchdown), while Machart not only carried 11 times for 93 yards and a score, he also caught two passes for 97 more.
UBC’s two touchdowns both came off the legs of Rooker, who called his own number from six yards out in the first quarter to cut the score to 14-7, then did likewise in the fourth from 14 yards to make it 34-15, the latter including a two-point conversion along the ground by receiver Jason Soriano.
Kellogg, who missed the team’s opener last week at Alberta, got the eligibility clearance to tug his No. 21 jersey out of mothballs, and the fifth-year senior proved a reliable target for Rooker with six catches for a team-high 70 yards.
Running back Isaiah Knight had another solid effort out of the backfield with 85 yards on 11 carries. Fellow freshman Kapler was forced to leave after taking a hard hit after making a reception near the goal line. He finished with six carries for 33 yards.
“For me, just being a fifth-year veteran on this team, I am just trying to help these guys go in the right direction,” said Kellogg. “We have things we need to fix but it’s there. We just have to be ready to work through it.”
Kellogg, in fact, came out of the team’s post-game huddle with some numbers of his own that add, however you care to translate them, add up to urgency.
“I am going to do everything I can to get my team there,” he said “It’s 3-1 we have to get to in our last four games and I think we have the matchups to do it. So now we have to go out and win.”
It’s just that simple.
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