VANCOUVER — In the Canada West football world, there is only one magic pill… one way to turn a down-trodden season around in one afternoon.
Beat the Calgary Dinos.
For most of the first half Saturday, the UBC Thunderbirds (0-3) looked like they had Houdini on their side.
A blocked punt and ensuing touchdown by the UBC special teams just over a minute into the proceedings raised the pulse of the 6,363 on hand for Homecoming weekend and had the ‘Birds leading 7-0.
And while lacking quality statistical numbers at the half, UBC certainly was right in the ball game, trailing just 14-13.
Then, en route to what was an eventual 47-13 loss that leaves the ‘Birds at 0-3 to start a Canada West season for the first time since 2014, the football gods snapped a collective finger.
And boy, was it a hum-dinger.
Within a span of 35 seconds, it made UBC’s football karma disappear in what was effectively a 14-point turnaround.
“The big thing is, we’re not making plays,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill whose 0-3 start is worst of his career since he went 0-6 to start his first season with Calgary back in 2006. “We had two dropped passes on the one-yard line and then (gave up) another special teams touchdown. I believe that is 42 points (surrendered) this year off of offensive turnovers and by the special teams. We have to start taking responsibility for it, man.”
Early in the third quarter, UBC receiver Jacob Patten had the misfortune of having what looked like a sure touchdown pass from quarterback Tommy Yanchuk somehow elude his grasp at the goal-line.
On the very next play, Yanchuk had his pass intended for Sharique Khan deflect off the running back’s fingertips and right into the hands of Dinos’ defensive back Deane Leonard, who took the pick-six 42 yards to the end zone.
So instead of UBC taking a 20-14 lead, they trailed the U Sports No. 4-ranked Dinos 21-13, and the worst was yet to come.
‘Birds punter Garrin McDonnell, enjoying one of the best single-game punting average days in UBC history at 45.0 yards per boot at the time, had his opening punt of the third quarter deflect off the back of teammate Brendan Devane at the UBC 36-yard line.
Calgary’s Alessandro Molnar, who was pressuring Devane on the play, reacted quickly, and took the ball down to the four-yard line where Dinos’ quarterback Adam Sinagra threw a four-yard TD strike to former Nanaimo-John Barsby standout Nate Durkan for a 28-13 lead.
So in a span of just three minutes, UBC went from staring at a one-point halftime deficit to trailing by 15 and, for all intents and purposes, free-falling into the abyss.
Calgary continued to pour it on, and by the time the score clock expired, all of the Dinos’ 47 points had come in unanswered fashion.
With a Saturday trip to Winnipeg to face the Manitoba Bisons (1-2) up next, Nill is aware that his team has shown a trend of solid first-half play over the last two games, followed by forgettable seconds.
In fact he sees a lot of comparisons between this 2019 UBC team and his 2006 Calgary team which, after that 0-6 start, beat UBC and Simon Fraser over their final two games of the 2006 season.
“We were just a young team back then and that is who I compare this team to,” he said. “What we need is maybe a little bit more focus on who is leading in the locker room because there is a lot of youth there and there are guys (playing) who shouldn’t yet have to be on the field.”
A win against Manitoba could go a long ways towards flipping the script.
“With young teams, we need to win a game, and if we do, you may see a quick turnaround,” Nill said. “But the reality is that as we falter, we dig ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole. And it’s going to take a Herculean-type effort to get out of it.”
Although UBC highlights weren’t plenty on the day, linebacker Nick Cross had a game-high 13.5 tackles, including 12 solo stops.
Freshman Edgerrin Williams had 117 all-purpose yards, including 91 from punt returns.
Running back Sharique Khan had 97 all-purpose yards, 47 by rush and 50 on kick-off returns.
Punter Garrin McDonnell averaged a sparkling 44.4 punting average on eight attempts. He also kicked two field goals.
UBC has been outscored 133-36 in three games. Over the past two, the Birds have been outscored by a combined 31-20 in first halves, but 56-0 in the second halves.
A look at the first two quarters of play on Saturday:
The Birds stopped Calgary on a third-and-one at the Dinos’ 49-yard line, and their ensuing drive was capped by McDonnell’s first career U Sports’ field goal, a 27-yarder to put the home team on top 10-0.
The big play on the drive was a 19-yard completion from Yanchuk to freshman receiver Williams.
UBC went up 13-0 on a drive that once again featured Williams and McDonnell.
The freshman Williams returned a punt 26 yards, leading to a 43-yard McDonnell field goal.
Calgary pulled to within 13-7 with about three minutes left in the half when Sinagra hit former North Delta-Seaquam standout Jalen Philpot in the end zone with a 12-yard touchdown strike.
The Dinos then jumped out to a 14-13 halftime lead when kicker Niko DiFonte booted the point-after on back-up quarterback Josiah Jospeh’s one-yard scoring run.
The Dinos got the ball at the goal-line after UBC was whistled for a pass interference call on a pass intended for Calgary’s Philpot.
The ‘Birds opened the scoring in stunning fashion.
Michael Calvert blocked a Dinos’ punt deep in Calgary territory where it was scooped up by Mitchell Townsend and taken 17 yards into the end zone for a major score and a 7-0 lead.
UBC was extremely active and effective both defensively and on special teams in the opening quarter, while the offence centred largely around the offensive line creating effective creases for running back Khan.
While ‘Birds were unable to mount a consistent drive into the Dinos’ red zone, Khan found success over the opening quarter, either rushing or catching the ball on eight of UBC’s first nine offensive snaps.
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