VANCOUVER — The UBC Thunderbirds looked so good off the opening kick-off Saturday at home to the Manitoba Bisons that it appeared like the young team’s continued resurgence was going to be high-pointed with a blow-out victory.
Alas, along the way to what was nonetheless a milestone 26-24 win over the No. 4 nationally-ranked Bisons (3-1), the unranked ‘Birds (2-2) found a way to turn a 17-0 lead after the first quarter into a 24-17 deficit heading into the fourth.
But when defensive halfback Dustin Magee intercepted Manitoba quarterback Sawyer Thiessen at the Bisons’ 28-yard line late in the fourth quarter with the home team trailing 24-19, that set the table for UBC’s magical rookie pivot Garrett Rooker to once again weave his magic.
The Texas native had come into the day leading the nation in passing yards per game, yet even on a day when, between the second and third quarters combined, he was held to a mere 18 yards on just 2-of-8 passing, he never lost confidence in his generalship.
And when receiver Trey Kellogg caught his third of three touchdown passes on the day from Rooker, this one the capper from 16 yards out with 2:12 remaining, UBC led 25-24.
Dane Kapler was unable to carry in the two-point convert attempt, but a rouge off a missed Ben Kolb field goal with 25 seconds left wrapped up the scoring.
Yet the fact that it took a second straight fourth-quarter comeback was anything but a bad thing for UBC head coach Blake Nill, whose team is not only right back in the Canada West playoff hunt with two more games to play, but sitting in sole possession of third place pending the result of Sunday’s battle between Alberta and host Calgary, each of whom carries 1-2 records into the contest.
“Wins by a point (or two) are the best thing as long as you are on the right side of it,” said Nill, whose team has now pulled the trick twice in two weeks, the latest win coming on the heels of last week’s 31-30 OT thriller in Regina.
“They are huge because it means that I’ve got enough to tear them down tomorrow, and that is ideal. You’ve got your win, now you can teach them. You give them the hard love, the tough love and tell them how they have got to be better, and it’s a lot easier to give that message when you’re winning.”
UBC came out and played a virtually perfect first quarter, it’s momentum manifesting itself in the aforementioned 17-0 first quarter.
The UBC defensive front, which behind the play of tackles Kyle Samson and Lake Korte-Moore, harassed both Manitoba starting quarterback Jackson Tachinksi and backup Sawyer Thiessen throughout, including one big play with the game’s curtain barely opened.
Korte-Moore’s hit on Bisons’ running back Victor St. Pierre-Laviolette jarred the ball loose and it was recovered by cornerback Keijaun Johnson at the Manitoba 47 yard-line, setting up Rooker’s nine-yard touchdown strike to receiver Kellogg.
Tacked onto Ben Kolb’s 37-yard field goal on the opening drive of game and UBC led 10-0.
On the last drive of the opening frame, Rooker threw a 20-yard TD strike to Kellogg, part of an 8-for-9 passing performance in which he threw for 109 yards and two scores.
Then everything took a step backwards for two quarters.
After taking one penalty for 10 yards over the first quarter, the ‘Birds imploded, taking nine for 108 yards over the second and third, a span over which time Manitoba outscored them 27-0 and out-gained them by a 100 yards (221-to-121).
Yet after UBC flicked the fourth-quarter switch like they did a week ago to beat the Rams, they repeated their heroics, and that is something that earned the praise of disappointed yet classy Manitoba head coach Brian Dobie.
“UBC had a 17-0 lead and control of the game and we stormed back, and we and kept coming back, and we took over at 24-17,” began Dobie.
“For UBC to come back, I think that is one of the hardest things to do in sports… mentally and emotionally to overcome having been overcome. So full credit to them.”
Indeed, despite all of their foibles, UBC is showing itself to ultimately be a team with equal parts resilience and backbone.
The best example might have been early in the fourth quarter, when trailing 24-17, they appeared to have gotten the break they needed to start re-discovering their early momentum.
Daniel Appiah returned a punt to the Manitoba 25-yard line, yet was dislodged from the ball when he was hit by Manitoba punter Cole Sabourin.
Somehow, Appiah recovered it at the Bisons’ 16, however on back-to-back attempts from the Manitoba one-yard line, running back Isaiah Knight was stuffed by a stout Bisons’ goal-line stand.
Even after all of that, however, the ability to, as Dobie so eloquently put it to ‘overcome being overcome’, the ‘Birds kept themselves in the game and mounted their comeback.
“We know that these games are all about momentum,” said Rooker, who went a scrappy 12-of-20 for 145 yards and three touchdowns on the day. “We had it in the first quarter, lost it in the second and third a little. But this whole season has been about riding the highs and the lows and we did that. We came out in the fourth, executed and got the win. I am so proud of my team. We are a bunch of dogs and we keep on fighting.”
Behind an offensive line which took another step forward Saturday, the UBC run game, while part of an offence which couldn’t finish drives for fully half the game, was nonetheless the best it has looked this season with 43 carries for 252 yards.
Last week, Knight rushed 20 times for 147 yards against Regina.
This week, while he was still effective with 16 carries for 79 yards, fellow running back Dane Kapler showcased UBC’s backfield depth behind 17 carries for 134 yards and an enviable 7.9 YPC average.
Kellogg finished with five catches for 76 yards and three scores, easily the most efficient outing of his UBC career, and his YAC fakes and feigns often times froze Manitoba defenders in the open field.
Yet without the play of the UBC defence, which had its best overall outing of the campaign Saturday, the ‘Birds would not be in the place to at least receive what should be some votes in the next U Sports national poll.
While on the sidelines Saturday, Kellogg admitted they were impossible to miss.
“Of course,” he said of the defence’s play, especially the front seven, which on Saturday was led by Kyle Samson, the 6-foot-3, second-year nose tackle out of Hamilton.
“We have been playing some good team football and trying to stay on field as long as we can to help them out,” said Kellogg.”They have been making plays. When we turn the ball over they are getting it right back, so today from both sides, it was a total team effort.”
Samson and fellow front-line tackle Lake Korte-Moore were perhaps the two most visible from a pressure and penetration standpoint.
Linebackers Ryan Baker, Jadyn Pingue and Stephane Tshishimbi were also among a group noticeable for their relentless pursuit.
When asked in particular about Samson, whose 5.5 tackles Saturday included 4.5 for loss of yardage, and one sack, Nill’s expression reflected both delight and pride.
“A friend of mine in Hamilton, who played for me at St. FX, told me that Samson was a guy I had to go out and get, and when we signed him (as part of the 2019 recruiting class) I was fired up,” Nill began.
“I can remember he didn’t get into school (Sauder School of Business) until June of that year, and at first, we thought we were going to lose him to Western,” he continued. “But now, over these last two games, I think you can see why we fought so hard for Kyle Samson. His last two games have both been incredible.”
Yet truthfully, while Samson may have flashed brighter than anyone on the defence Saturday, there are so many others making the kinds of palpable climbs from week to week that you need to figuratively crane your neck to gaze towards its overall ceiling.
Now, with a Saturday (1 p.m.) visit to Calgary, the team which has frustrated UBC more than any other over the past five seasons, their challenge comes full circle.
A team that one week ago was a fourth-quarter away from falling to 0-3, is now 2-2 with a bullet.
And not about to catch anyone by surprise.
“We had two good quarters here today,” said Kellogg. “We took a bit of break in between, but we know how we can play now. We’re 2-2 and right back in it with everyone. It’s a new season now.
BISON BITS — Manitoba scored all of its points consecutively, including a 21-yard touchdown catch by receiver Gavin Cobb, the former Mt. Douglas Ram and SFU standout, who finished with two catches for 40 yards.
Surrey native Nick Conway, the WILL linebacker, finished with seven tackles, including five unassisted stops.
Duncan native and Montreal Alouettes draft pick Brock Gowanlock, a senior defensive end, had five tackles.
Manitoba plays host to Saskatchewan this week in a battle of 3-1 conference leaders.
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