VANCOUVER — Two young teams came into Saturday’s Canada West opener at Thunderbird Stadium looking to discover new identities, but only one was able to leave with the answer and it likely enjoyed a raucous flight back to the prairies.
The Regina Rams looked like anything but the team picked to finish last in the preseason coaches poll as its first-year starting quarterback Josh Donnelly played with rare poise, running play-action with such deft precision that he kept an entire cadre of receivers busy for all four quarters and an opposing defence flat-footed en route to a 46-16 victory.
“Honestly, our defensive guys at practice are shocked at how good and how smooth he is,” said Regina head coach Steve Bryce, whose team trailed 7-0 early after a 20-yard keeper by UBC rookie quarterback Tommy Yanchuk.
“His nickname on the team has become Magic Man because he is so good at play action,” continued Bryce. “He makes the ball disappear. He caught me a couple of times thinking he gave the ball away.”
An equally young UBC team found its share of available magic in short supply, yet head coach Blake Nill could only be philosophical when addressing what went wrong and how his team would attempt to bounce back as it hits the road to face the Hardy Cup champion Saskatchewan Huskies on Friday (6 p.m., Canada West TV).
“It was like our first game of the year,” said Nill, whose team seemed to have all of the momentum when Yanchuk showed his confidence and stride in bolting to the end zone to cap a five-play, 45-yard drive just nine minutes into the game. “At times it looked like we were going at the right speed, but what you also saw was our inability to recapture momentum and that’s a tough skill for young kids nowadays.”
On the ensuing series after the Yanchuk major, Regina mounted a penalty-aided eight-play, 87-yard drive capped with a one-yard touchdown run by former Victoria-Belmont back Sam Varao.
As he looked back on the game, that is precisely the juncture where Nill felt the game slipped out of his team’s hands.
“That one drive was five penalties on defence, right after we scored,” said Nill. “That’s what our guys have to learn. It’s a game of momentum and momentum just doesn’t stay. Then, the next series, we had a punt blocked and we never got it back and you could see the panic in that.”
Tied 7-7, Rams’ Robbie Lowes blocked the UBC punt, Jaxon Ford recovered it, and a few plays later Varao rushed for another major and a 14-7 lead.
From there, the floodgates burst open.
Varao, in fact, would later score on another one-yard run for a 31-7 halftime lead, finishing the game with a remarkable three carries for three yards, all going for one-yard scores.
Regina’s 31 points all came in unanswered fashion.
Despite the loss, Yanchuk showed his own kind of poise in the post-game.
“It was definitely fast, a lot faster than I expected and being a freshman I knew they were going to blitz me and I knew they were going to try to rattle me… and it worked,” said Yanchuk. “It’s a big learning curve for me. I have to watch film and learn how to beat that and stay mentally in it. I have to stay smarter than the blitz.”
Yanchuk, who finished 21-of-31 for 248 yards, including spectacular back-to-back passes for the team’s only other score to receiver Jacob Patten, faced constant pressure and was sacked five times.
With an angry Huskies’ team coming off a Friday loss to Manitoba laying in wait, Yanchuk says his will to improve and rally his teammates will only grow stronger.
“You look at some of the best teams in the world and in history and they had the greatest comebacks and they started 0-6, 0-7,” he said, making a point of how important it was to stay positive. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. I believe we have the talent and we’re tenacious and we’re going to do some amazing things. We just need to keep building.”
Donnelly hit Ryan Schienbein with a six-yard TD strike and Riley Boersma with a 75-yard bomb. Trey Campbell rushed for a 20-yard score.
Patten set up his 19-yard TD catch at the back of the end zone from Yanchuk by hauling in one of the most impressive passes in team history, making an over-the-shoulder one-handed catch with his right hand, bobbling the ball but somehow pulling it in and corralling it as he hit the turf for a 39-yard gain.
When reminded of Manitoba’s win over Saskatchewan, and Alberta’s strong effort in its loss to powerhouse Calgary, Regina coach Bryce revelled in the parity.
“In the last two days, we’ve all flipped the conference upside-down,” Bryce said. “We were over-joyed to be picked last in the conference. Tell me I can’t do something and watch me do it.”
Ben Hladik led the UBC defence with eight tackles while Bashiru Side-Odaa added 7.5 tackles. Daniel Appiah returned five kickoffs for 118 yards.
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