VANCOUVER — Playing out of position on a recreational touch football team named after a fictional television series?
In case you were wondering how UBC’s second-string running back honed his chops over the summer en route to his debut performance as a prime-time Canada West slotback, then put it all to good use Saturday night in the Thunderbirds’ season-opening victory over the Manitoba Bisons, Kory Nagata is more than happy to talk about his time with a team he and some high school buddies from Richmond named the Blue Mountain State Goats.
You’ve obviously heard about the real Goats?
They’re the fictional university football team about whom a now-defunct, turn-of-the-decade TV series was named, one which was later spun off into a 2016 theatrical release.
The important thing for UBC football fans to know is that their team might not have pulled off a 30-20 win over the visiting Bisons if Nagata had not been so darned impressive both running and catching the football.
“Believe it or not, I joined a touch football team, and basically the only position I played for them was receiver,” explained Nagata, who when pressed, admitted that team was jokingly named as an homage to the one on the TV series
“Honestly, it really helped me a lot,” said the ‘Birds 5-foot-9, 185 pound third-year Sauder School of Business running back, who found himself pressed into duty when dynamic starter Ben Cummings was injured in the opening half of play on Saturday.
The proof was in the game’s final box score.
Not only did Nagata carry 13 times for a single-game career-high 136 yards and a touchdown, he took those skills honed with the Goats to catch five passes from quarterback Michael O’Connor for 93 yards and a major.
Consider that since coming over from the CJFL’s Okanagan Sun in time for the 2016 campaign, the former Hugh Boyd Trojans product needed 14 games to rush for 306 yards the past two seasons.
Also consider that over that same span, Nagata’s combined rushing and receiving total was 333 yards.
His one-night 229-yard performance Saturday represented a chunk that was just shy of 70 per cent of what he had spent the previous two seasons compiling.
A LAUNDARY LIST OF ILLS CURED BY KORY
While the majority of the Canada West membership was able to play an exhibition game before opening for real this past weekend, UBC was not one of those teams. And boy, did it show.
“I am glad that it’s over because we didn’t have an exhibition,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill addressing the results of an evening in which his team battled through a few levels of adversity and were fortunate, in the end, to pull out a victory.
In basic matchmaking terms, Nill said UBC could not find a school to partner with and share the cost of a return flight in order to schedule an exhibition game.
Since Nill’s arrival in time for the start of the 2015 season, UBC football had played a preseason game each season.
In 2015 they traveled to Laval and stunned the Rouge et Or 41-16. In 2016, they travelled to Vancouver Island, losing 50-7 to Manitoba at Langford. Last season, they travelled to Kamloops where they built a huge lead then hung on to defeat Alberta 33-30.
The interesting fact about all of that? UBC opened its Canada West season the following week in each of those past three seasons under Nill with a result opposite to that of its exhibition game.
“This game was worrisome for me for a long time because I knew there would be a lot of rust,” continued Nill, who knew the pre-season game’s biggest bonus was to acclimate the team on the dramatic change from practice to game tempo. “At times we looked good. At times we made mistakes. Hopefully we got it out of our system, because we’ve got to be better executing and have a better idea of who our go-to guys are going to be.”
And speaking of those different levels of adversity, it wasn’t just about the fact the ‘Birds were coming in to play without an exhibition game.
Nill was debuting an offensive line in which none of its starters held that same distinction in the team’s 2017 finale, its heartbreaking last-play loss to Calgary in the 2017 Hard Cup conference championship game.
And, UBC was also playing without the services of its talented placekicker and punter Greg Hutchins, who was a late scratch.
No preseason game. A new offensive line. Position players like starting safety Stavros Katsantonis and freshman wide receiver Jacob Patten pitching in with back-up kicker Garrin McDonnell to fill the void left by Hutchins. And of course the early injury to Cummings, one of the finest running backs in the country.
It was a recipe for potential disaster and Nill would not deny it.
“Hutchins will be back next week,” said Nill. “But I was holding my breath there.”
On Cummings’ status?
“Benny is fine,” said Nill, whose team will need both he and Nagata heading into their toughest test of the season this Friday at Calgary. “If he’s not ready, we have Kory, (Calgary native and freshman Teddy) Kubongo, and even (Fort McMurray freshman) Sharique Khan, who has looked good.”
And how about that offensive line? On a night when nothing seemed to come easy, the veteran coach was delighted to speak about the hogs up front.
“The biggest component that put a smile on my face tonight was our offensive line,” said Nill, who said that position coach Jordan Filippelli’s efforts have resulted in plus-level performances from the group so early in the campaign.
“It’s four different offensive lineman that we finished the Hardy Cup with from a year ago,” said Nill, of a group that included veteran and regular starter Levi Hua (5th year, W.J. Mouat), who was injured for a stretch last season, as well as former reserves Steve Martin (2nd year Ballenas), David Edwards (2nd year, South Delta) and Saeed Hosain (2nd year, Centennial).
“They looked good,” said Nill of a group whose first game together saw them to run-block for a respectable 161 yards and help quarterback Michael O’Connor pass for 309 yards while surrendering just one sack on the evening.
In fact when O’Connor threw his 21-yard TD strike to Nagata midway through the third quarter for a 23-13 ‘Birds lead, he tied Danny Smith for the all-time program record with 71.
THE ULTIMATE TEAM PLAYER
Think back to the 2015 Vanier Cup championship season and one of the enduring memories was the season-long excellence along the ground by senior Brandon Deschamps.
Before Cummings’ true emergence was complete that following season, Nagata had arrived on the scene after helping the Okanagan Sun reach the Canadian Junior Football League championship final the season before.
Nill, in fact, named Nagata the starter for the 2016 Canada West season opener that year as UBC took a No. 1 national ranking into its opener against Alberta.
Cummings, the Robert Bateman product, has since shown himself to be one of the country’s very best, and over that same stretch, Nagata has been nothing but a faithful soldier, pitching in wherever he can and just making his team and his teammates better.
So clearly, it was a heartfelt moment when the entire UBC roster which erupted along the sidelines late Saturday.
Clinging to a 23-20 lead over the Bisons, but mounting a drive down the field, Nagata exploded on his way to a game-clinching 10-yard touchdown run with 1:20 remaining for a two-score, 30-20 lead.
Inbetween smiles, you could almost hear Nill exhale.
“Benny got hurt, and Nagata, he’s been No. 2 all year,” said Nill. “And where he is really dangerous is coming out of the backfield and catching the ball. Look at him. He’s lost 20 pounds. He’s faster. He has legitimate slotback speed, and if he gets a crack, he’s trouble for sure.”
As prepared as Manitoba was, they certainly couldn’t have anticipated the full force of the Blue Mountain State Goats’ go-to guy. No one would have.
And if Nill didn’t know a thing about Nagata’s touch football team, he and offensive coordinator Stefan Ptaszek still knew how best to depoly him.
“You saw what was happening throughout the game,” said Nill. “They were starting to go with seven in the box and blitz, go cover zero. And we’ve got a system to get the ball out quickly. Cory gives us one of the weapons to go out and do that.”
Said O’Connor, who loved not only what his new O-line was giving him, but what Nagata was delivering: “Kory came in and had such a great camp. It’s unfortunate that Benny went down. But Kory is a great back and he really stepped up tonight.”
Cummings still saw enough action to score off a one-yard run before his injury, and safety Payton LaGrange was dynamic in returning a fumble recovery 42 yards to the end zone for the game’s most dramatic play.
Yet without Nagata, UBC would not have won, and the resulting figurative football dominoes would certainly be sitting with a more precarious balance heading into Calgary this Friday.
Of course, you can’t be the perfect teammate and enjoy talking about yourself. Nagata lives up to that by talking instead about others.
“Honestly,” he says, “the O-line did all the work tonight and I just got what they were able to give me. Honestly, our O-line is the strongest it’s been in the entire Nill era and coach Ptaszek’s new offence is just opening everything up.”
Who knows what next week brings in terms of Nagata’s siutation.
Maybe he plays a ton. Maybe not at all.Whatever happens, he is ready for it.
The late, great Chuck Knox would so often say that teams win when “Football players make football plays.”
Nagata did all of that and more, yet if he’s asked to take a backseat again, all he’s going to do is make sure he’s ready if called upon.
“It’s alright,” he says of waiting in the shadows. “I know Ben is a hell of a football player and if the coaches feel he is the best person for the job, I’ll totally back that and I’ll accept my role whatever it is.”
Yet this past Saturday, the all-pro receiver with the Blue Mountain State Goats showed you there is really nothing he can’t do.
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