Like a pair of Boy Scouts living up to their famous motto, UBC defensive backs Stavros Katsantonis and Malcom Lee challenged each other in the week leading up to Saturday’s crucial clash at Manitoba to ‘Be Prepared’ for any and all eventualities.
And when their turn came to turn a tight game on its ear, each responded in ways befitting an unbowed and battle-scarred former champion.
With 3:44 remaining and UBC not only clinging to a 17-16 lead but seemingly devoid of momentum, cornerback Lee’s near-interception of a Des Catellier pass kept the ball in the air just long enough for strong safety Kasantonis to run under it and make his third interception of the game.
Lee, a St. Thomas More grad, even dished a nice block which allowed Katsantonis, the Bakersfield, Cal., native, to return the pick 33 yards to the Manitoba 48-yard line, two yards deeper than the original line of scrimmage. And that’s how the game would eventually end.
Yet the deciding play in a game which now gives the ‘Birds control of their own destiny in the battle for a first-round home playoff date, was anything but random.
As Katsantonis revealed after the game, both he and Lee had talked about just such a scenario unfolding.
“Last week, in the Saskatchewan game, I tipped one and he got under it,” chuckled Katsantonis of Lee’s pick in a 29-25 win in Saskatoon. “So all week coming in, we had talked about how he was going to get me back and we were fortunate to have the chance.
“The receiver (Stephen Ugbah) was on a crossing route, a post, and I saw Malcom in man coverage,” continued Katsantonis. “It was just a thing where mentally we knew what we had to do, and he did a good job of keeping it alive in the air. Malcom even had a great block after the play so I could get a return and we could flip the field.”
And UBC might want to thank the football gods tonight because despite a youthful special teams blunder which erased a very makable 27-yard Greg Hutchins field goal with 21 seconds remaining, the Birds were able to hang on for the win, improving to 5-2, including an impressive 3-1 on the road.
Without the pick, who knows what ends up happening?
With it, UBC moved a full game ahead of third-place Regina, whom it hosts in the conference regular-season finale for both teams this Saturday at Thunderbird Stadium (1 p.m. Fan Appreciation Day). The Rams (4-3) pushed division-leading Calgary (7-0) right to the end on Saturday but fell 42-30.
That means whomever wins this coming Saturday’s game finishes second and hosts the other in the Hardy Cup conference semifinal.
UBC head coach Blake Nill could only feel thankful that Katsantonis helped that cause by playing like a force of nature.
“He just has such incredible range,” Nill said of Katsantonis as the ‘Birds headed to the airport for their longest in-conference return flight of the campaign. “If the ball hangs in the air, even a bit, he can make a play.”
Katsantonis’ two other picks each came in the end zone and the Manitoba one-yard line, and collectively they magnified the game’s trusted giveaway-takeaway axioms to such a degree that even with a somewhat uneven effort from the offence, UBC still found a way to win.
The final tally that had Nill feeling better about the W than last week when his team’s near-total fourth-quarter implosion almost cost UBC a victory against Saskatchewan?
The UBC defence managed three picks and a pair of sacks.
And the UBC offence, which shone early when receiver Trivel Pinto turned a short pass from quarterback Michael O’Connor into an 80-yard catch-and-run TD, did not fumble the ball, did not give up a sack and did not throw an interception.
UBC’s other touchdown came on a one-yard keeper from back-up pivot Cole Meyer which capped a 41-yard drive midway through the third quarter and put UBC ahead 17-13.
O’Connor, who almost broke the school’s single-game passing record a week ago, was 23-of-36 for 291 yards and one touchdown, while running back Ben Cummings provided the balance with 19 carries for 143 yards and 7.5 average per carry.
Manitoba’s Brad Mikoluff kicked a 23-yard field goal on the Bisons’ first possession of the fourth quarter to pull the Bisons within a point at 17-16, and based on the fourth-quarter struggles UBC has had this season, that one-point lead looked especially precarious.
Yet when you don’t hurt yourself with turnovers, and when you make big plays on both sides of the ball, you give yourself a chance, and that is something Nill acknowledged in the post game.
“That was how we won today, we won on big plays like the screen pass to Trivel, and we made big plays on defence.
“The atmosphere leaving the stadium right now is a lot more positive than it was a week ago,” he continued. “We know we have to be better, but at the same time, let’s talk about the fact that our young crew found a way to win a game.”
For the all-Canadian Katsantonis, whom opposition quarterbacks have been throwing away from all season, there was redemption in the fact that by sticking to the process and being prepared, he was ready for a day filled with bounty.
“I am just blessed and humbled to play this game and be in a position where I have a chance to make plays,” said the aptly-named Bakersfield Bandit, who now leads the team with four picks on the season.
“But it’s not just me,” he continued. “It’s the defensive line, the linebackers and the rest of our secondary which all do their part to make this thing work. And I think our offence is really going to start to click. We saw some great things from them today, and overall, it was a great win. We showed that we all have a lot of heart.”
That’s a message that needs to permeate their week of practice because they are facing the same team which outclassed them 36-20 in the season-opener for both teams back on Sept. 1 at Mosaic Stadium.
It’s simple: Beat Regina and host the Rams in the Hardy Cup semifinal. Lose to them, and start the playoffs in Regina.
The choice is easy, but attaining their chosen outcome certainly won’t be, but maybe they will all take a cue from their defensive secondary to be prepared.
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