My biggest takeaways from Saturday evening’s UBC football game which featured the biggest crowd I have seen for a university sports event in the 16 seasons since I got off the NBA beat:
THE REAL NUMBERS GAME
You’ve no doubt heard the number.
The ‘Birds filled the Thunderbird Stadium stands, the grassy knoll and virtually every other game-viewable space on Saturday to the tune of 9,524 fans for its Homecoming weekend.
The 31-10 win over Saskatchewan was announced as the third-largest crowd to ever view a Canada West conference game.
As someone who has worried about the health of university sports in our province from a bums-in-seats perspective, it was a moment to behold.
I walked around Thunderbird on Saturday paying almost as much attention to the crowd as I did the actual game because it drove home the point that something well-promoted will thrive because the actual product has always carried huge entertainment value.
The photos taken here by UBC’s Rich Lam illustrate this fact.
Afterwards, UBC head coach Blake Nill said: “I sent out a Twitter message this morning that said that ‘UBC Homecoming is one of the top U sports football events in the country each and every year.’ I am basing it on 2015, 2016 and 2017. It’s incredible. Our challenge at UBC is to make this an everyday event. These kids want to play, they want top be in front of everyone. We want to be the talk of the school and represent athletics and for it to become a bigger showcase for UBC because it’s all about showcasing the pride and prestige of your school.”
Unfortunately, too many in this country will not understand the significance of Saturday’s crowd count and the spectacle it provided.
They see 100,000 fans watching Air Force lose at Michigan on Saturday morning and then de-value what 10,000 fans means at Thunderbird Stadium.
It’s a shame, because simply stamping something NCAA doesn’t guarantee huge crowds, and a huge number of football games played Saturday in the U.S. were well under the crowd count at UBC.
What do you think the two highest-ranked schools in NCAA Div. 2 which played home games Saturday, drew in terms of their announced crowds?
No. 2-ranked Ferris State drew 6,042 while No. 3-ranked Texas A&M Commerce drew 9,233.
And the most comparable NCAA Div. 1 program not playing in Pac 12, but rather the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS)?
At its home opener last weekend, Eastern Washington drew 10,231 fans for its game against North Dakota State.
That’s just over 700 fans more than UBC.
Of course we’re in a huge urban centre compared with tiny Cheney, Wash., but we’re not supposed to have the same football-imbedded infrastructure that flows from high school through university and makes the huge numbers at so many other schools commonplace.
Any way you slice it, 9,542 fans is exceptional, and it speaks well not only of UBC athletics and the marketing efforts it began directing at its students in 2014, but of the potential which exists at all of our local schools and all of our varied post-secondary sports programs.
I heard Saturday at UBC president Santa J. Ono, in his previous gig as president at the University of Cincinnati, once crowd-surfed at a Bearcats football game.
When I heard Ono would attempt to do the same on the hillside berm at T-Bird Stadium, I had to watch.
My final impression: His presence is subtle yet he is like a rock star to the student body. And the importance he pays to athletics has permeated throughout the entire campus.
Again, Nill provided some great perspective: “I can’t help but think that this guy is just what our school needs. There is a genuineness in the way that he interacts with our students and the importance he places on athletics.”
Watching him celebrate the moment with his students was special and it made me think of how only a few short years ago, a Sports Targeting Review at the same school had aims on shutting down the football program.
LET THE SCIENCE DECIDE
The theme of depth within the UBC roster has been a huge topic this season.
Last week, the ‘Birds dispatched Manitoba despite the fact its leading offensive weapon, Trivel Pinto, was ejected before the end of the first half.
Yesterday, UBC beat Saskatchewan with another missing superstar after a knee injury suffered in practice earlier in the week by Marcus Davis kept him in street clothes on the sidelines.
Sustaining through short-term injuries are one thing, and trying to keep your best players on the field all season to beat the very best in the conference and the nation is another.
So it is with fingers crossed this week that UBC finds out the exact nature of Davis’ injury, one which could be short or long term.
“I don’t think it is (serious),” Nill said when asked in the post game. “That’s why I am going to pay for an MRI. Marcus was walking very well today. So let’s let science find out, let’s let the MRI decide.”
DIFFERENT KIND OF NO-NAME DEFENCE
UBC held the vaunted Huskies offence to just 10 points, including a lone field goal in the second half of a game in which the road team was in a state of perpetual second-half rally.
It seems strange to say, but Saturday’s effort by UBC’s Pat Tracey-schemed defence was so good and so complete that you couldn’t single out a specific player or two as its big-play stars.
The Huskies had no rush of longer than 10 yards and the 45-yard completion from Kyle Siemens to Chad Braun was a complete outlier when placed against the Huskies’ 55 other offensive snaps.
In fact if you take that one play out of the equation, then Saskatchewan averaged just 3.9 yards-per-play the entire game, hardly reliable in the wide-open three-down game.
And the defence is young.
Its two leading tacklers on Saturday — Elliot Graham and Payton LaGrange — are in their first seasons with the team.
And the nation’s best safety, Stavros Katsantonis, has such a deserved reputation as a game-changer that passes have very rarely even been thrown in his direction this season.
So as I told a Twitter follower on Saturday, apologies, but the UBC defence was so good at all three levels that you almost began to taken them for granted.
Maybe that’s the highest compliment you can pay.
Their 64 points allowed through three games is the best in the conference.
CUMMINGS IS GOING GREAT
Lots of things along the offence have worked over the two-plus seasons that Nill has run the UBC program.
But no one will argue that there have been stretches of ineffective play at the running back position.
That’s no indictment of the talent because when it mattered most, Brandon Deschamps was blue-chip elite and more during the 2015 Vanier Cup run.
The problem, in a lot of instances, was a lack of depth at the position.
Nill himself expressed surprise that in his first season, with just one proven running back, that his team was able to win a national championship.
Nowadays, there is three-deep depth, and although Shane Noel and Kory Nagata are valuable for their change-of-pace presence, learning man Ben Cummings is thriving in the current system.
A perfect run-pass blend with the sublime Michael O’Connor at the controls, and Cummings so familiar behind his offensive line.
That and the fact that the three running backs all think team first, has Cummings in a place where he is playing his best football as a ‘Bird.
With 145 yards rushing last week, and 178 this week, there can be no stronger barometre of the team’s rising fortunes on offence.
You can’t live in a vacuum.
Yes, UBC is on a two-game win streak and that season-opening debacle at Regina is looking more like an anomaly.
The ‘Birds are locked in a three-way tie for second in the Canada West at 2-1 with both Regina and Saskatchewan.
But at the very top sits Calgary, Nill’s former team. And you can’t dispute the statement made Saturday in Winnipeg when the Dinos dumped Manitoba 76-17.
UBC plays at Alberta (0-3) this coming Saturday, then returns home open the second-half of the season against Calgary on Sept. 29.
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