VANCOUVER — Over the four seasons in which they have turned home games on the Point Grey campus into appointment viewing, the UBC Thunderbirds football team’s national success has introduced a wave of star players to the growing fan base of the blue-and-gold.
Yet while many, from Taylor Loffler to Terrell Davis to Dakoda Shepley, have departed via graduation since the Vanier Cup-winning season of 2015, two of the most pivotal have remained together.
Even on those rare occasions when they are at their most pedestrian, quarterback Michael O’Connor and receiver Trivel Pinto have shown their combined abilities are enough to win almost any game.
On special days, however, like the one we all got to witness Saturday at the old ball yard, they have a way of transcending the amazing to become something magical, producing numbers that become statistical anomalies.
Just three weeks ago, after a loss in Alberta to the formerly winless Golden Bears, UBC had hit rock bottom at 1-4, sitting in last place in the Canada West.
On Saturday, with O’Connor and Pinto seemingly back in possession of the holy grail of football synchronicity, the ‘Birds closed out the home portion of its regular season schedule with a 30-11 playoff-clinching win over the same Golden Bears (2-5), a victory which pushed their record to 4-3 ahead of this coming Saturday’s finale in Winnipeg against the Manitoba Bisons.
As simple as it can be stated, if UBC wins that game, it will finish second in the conference and play host to a Hardy Cup conference semifinal game.
And so how good were the pair?
All O’Connor did was set a new UBC program record by completing his first 16 passes of the game, eight of which were caught by Pinto.
On the day, O’Connor went 30-of-35 for 427 yards and two touchdowns against no interceptions, producing a quarterback rating not too far from perfect using the NFL/CFL gauge.
He caught 11 passes for 198 yards, including a game-opening 13-yard touchdown catch.
And during O’Connor’s 16-for-16 game-opening spree in which the UBC pivot spread to ball to five different receivers for 273 yards, Pinto caught half of them, those eight receptions going for 154 yards.
It was all a part of a night in which Pinto also added six punt returns for 39 yards and two kick-off returns for 57 yards to finish with 294 all-purpose yards.
And afterwards, on a rare night in which a few moments could be taken to savour a job well done, the longtime teammates from Ontario couldn’t help but express the fortune they have felt for being brought together here on the west coast four years ago.
“That feels really good to hear,” Pinto said of learning in the post-game interviews that O’Connor had set a new program completion record. “Mike’s a great player and he puts in the time that people don’t see. Mike is a student of the game and he does all the hard work when nobody is looking. I’m happy he was able to get a record like that.”
Suggest to Pinto that his Montana-to-Rice like chemistry with O’Connor can seem like magic on many nights and his eyes light up.
“I love it,” he says.
“Mike is a guy that can fit it in anywhere,” Pinto says of those tight-window targets he’s more than happy to provide. “Over the years we’ve built some great chemistry.”
When the reaction Pinto had to O’Connor’s record was later relayed to soft-spoken pivot, there was another smile, this one relishing the moment. After all, for a pair of draft-eligible players so proficient, their time together could well end sooner rather than later.
“That is awesome to hear,” said O’Connor. “We got here together at the same time, and to come out here today on Seniors Day and potentially to have played our last regular-season game together…it’s been nice to have him.”
Yet despite having both O’Connor and Pinto in the prime of their university careers, it’s hard to put a precise finger on why the team as a whole has struggled until just recently. Perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that only in the past few weeks have the pair been concurrently healthy.
And to hear Nill’s post-game comments is to realize both the standard to which he holds each of the pair, and the pride he takes in their individual successes.
“I didn’t know that but it doesn’t surprise me,” Nill said when told of O’Connor’s 16-for-16 opening salvo. “The offensive line did a very good job of keeping Mike on his feet, and Mike’s had a tremendous year. People talk about ‘Where are his stats?’ But if you look at his completion percentage (69.7 per cent, 2,213 yards, 10 TDs, 3 INTs) and how many dropped passes he’s suffered through, he’s having a pretty good year. I know he’s carrying a big reputation, but I think he’s living up to it.”
Interestingly enough, O’Connor’s first incompletion Saturday against the Golden Bears came on third-and-one deep in the Alberta red zone.
UBC elected to go for it, and O’Connor’s short pass to Pinto was on the money.
That play, however, happened to be one of Pinto’s two drops on the night, although you feel silly even beginning to nit-pick when the entire body of his work on the day is put up for examination.
Yet as Nill would say afterwards “He had a tough game and he fought the ball. Trivel doesn’t mind being called out. He knows what his role is in our program and he’s still our guy.”
Trust us when we say that’s a compliment.
On a night when Pinto caught 11 passes for almost 200 yards, and has almost 300 all-purpose yards, you get the idea how high Nill sets the bar for a kid he once said had the talent to be the No. 1 pick in the CFL draft.
“When that kid showed up on campus, he was about 30 pounds lighter than he is now, and he never said a word,” remembered Nill.
“People don’t realize the difficulties he has had to overcome,” the coach continued. “Now he’s been here four years. He’s grown intellectually and emotionally. I am very proud of him, and he means a lot to me. I have his back all day long.”
There were many other great stories Saturday for UBC, most surrounding the younger core of players that represent the success of a program able to recruit on its status as a Vanier Cup champion.
We’re going to have fun telling the stories of running back Sharique Khan for example, in coming years.
On Saturday, the native of Ft. McMurray who sat in anonymity finally got his chance as RB-1 and he didn’t disappoint with 14 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown, and seven catches for 89 yards.
First-year free safety James Vause had two interceptions.
And first-year receiver Nick Pollitt caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from O’Connor.
Those three and so many others played big roles.
Dante Vigini, the ex-STM standout and fifth-year Thunderbirds’ defensive lineman was seemingly everywhere, as was second-year middle linebacker Ben Hladik.
And a guy you could call the quarterback of the future, pure freshman Michael Calvert, got a chance to take a couple of snaps and complete a five-yard pass.
Yet as two of the so-called greybeards from UBC’s breathtaking 2015 Vanier Cup run, Michael O’Connor and Trivel Pinto have been both the heartbeat and the barometre of the Thunderbirds.
“It’s a crazy conference, and going from losing in Alberta to being potentially in second, it’s been quite a whirlwind,” O’Connor stated. “But at the end of the day, we got a playoff berth. From this point on, anything can happen.”
For Nill, however, just trying to see the next day with his football team has become a battle to open the playoffs on Vancouver soil.
“It’s been a year where we’re just trying to survive, right?” said Nill. “We’ve had moments when we are ready to take a significant step, and then moments where it looks like we don’t want to take that step.
“But it’s like I told the kids, we have three days to get ready for a big game in Manitoba,” he continued. “We’re lucky to be in position to be able to play for a home playoff game, which can mean a lot.”
So, too, can the presence of a very special duo.
Football can get complicated, but it’s always most fun when it remains simple.
And so with everything else being equal, in a game of throw-and-catch, where experience and chemistry count for a ton, there isn’t a duo in the country you’d want more at this time of the season than Michael O’Connor and Trivel Pinto.
That much UBC fans seemed to feel for certain as they left Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday night, more and more confident that they would be back again in just a couple of weeks.
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