VANCOUVER — Precious little has gone right for the struggling and winless UBC Thunderbirds over the first two games of the Canada West season.
Yet in a figurative sense, as UBC (0-2) gets set to welcome its undefeated, conference-leading nemesis, the Calgary Dinos (2-0), for Saturday’s crucial Homecoming Game (3 p.m., Canada West TV) at Thunderbird Stadium, at least one player on the blue-and-gold’s roster seems to represent an upswell of hope and the thought that every underdog can have its day.
Jacob Patten, a second-year receiver from Hamilton’s Bishop Ryan Catholic is that player.
Despite absorbing respective 46-16 and 40-7 drubbings at the hands of the visiting Regina Rams and host Saskatchewan Huskies the past two weeks, Patten has been something of a revelation.
Not only has the 6-foot, 170-pounder stepped up to lead a depleted pass-catching core with 11 catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns (UBC has only scored three TDs), he made a catch so spectacular in the team’s season-opening loss to the Rams that it stands alone as a reminder that anything is possible.
On a second-and-nine play from its own 52-yard line in the fourth quarter against Regina, UBC rookie quarterback Tommy Yanchuk lofted a deep pass to Patten on the boundary side of the field, just shy of him being able to make a comfortable catch based on his position and the Rams’ defensive coverage.
Yet Patten, while falling backwards, extended his right hand and made, within this recent era of reliable documented footage, a catch which just might be the most incredible in UBC football history.
🏈 FB | ICYMI, this was potentially the catch of the year by 2nd year T-Birds receiver Jacob Patten (@KingPatten4K) @SportsCentre @SportsCenter @USPORTSca @CanadaWest @FarhanLaljiTSN pic.twitter.com/gSNBzuB41P— UBC Thunderbirds / @UBCTBirds (@ubctbirds) September 1, 2019
Sure, you can call it one play in a game in which the ‘Birds had no shot to win late, but when you’ve been outscored 86-23 in two games, it’s foolhardy not to hang your hat on whatever hooks you can find.
“Honestly it has helped in a lot of ways,” the 20-year-old Patten explained Wednesday afternoon before stepping into team meetings. “Tommy can almost use that (kind of throw) as an outlet if he needs to. He can feel comfortable throwing a deep ball one-on-one in that kind of a situation. I feel like that catch built a lot of momentum around our team and we had a lot of juice after that drive.”
That’s a perfect description because the play which immediately followed it helped UBC fashion its most impressive back-to-back snaps of the campaign.
The circus catch went for 39 yards, and on the very next play Yanchuk dropped a 19-yarder in the bucket, confidently finding Patten at the back of the end-zone with a touchdown strike.
“That was just instinct,” UBC head coach Blake Nill said of the one-handed catch. “It’s just a skill set that you have, to be able to focus and contort your body, and Jacob has that. He was one of the top soccer players in his city growing up and he knows how to move his body. He’ll only get better as he gets bigger, faster and stronger.”
And while the humble Hamiltonian looked as flashy as Odell Beckham Jr., in making his big catch, the best part about the grab is how practical it was, and how old school Patten actually is.
“At practice, no matter who is throwing, if it’s Tommy or Gabe (Olivares) or (Ryan) Baker, I will try to make one-handed catches just to get comfortable with it,” begins Patten. “That’s because defensive backs can get away with holding one hand, so you just have to be able to use the other. When I saw the opportunity I had, the ball was too far to reach with two hands. So to give myself a chance, I had to keep my eyes on the ball and use my right hand. But if I can, I always try to use two hands.”
Nill has sure-handed returnees in the team’s pass-catching cadre led by Lliam Wishart, Trey Kellogg and J.J. Deslauriers. Yet you can’t lose a 1,000 yard-plus weapon like Trivel Pinto and expect to maintain traction without multiple receivers stepping up and demanding to make opposing defences pay.
And as Yanchuk works to build confidence himself at the controls, having Patten step up to the next level has been an essential part of an offence desperately seeking any kind of positive identity.
“That’s a first-year quarterback and a second-year receiver and you know what, they are going to show some longevity there,” said Nill, who like all coaches, knows how elusive verticality can be when it can’t be found on a regular basis.
“Initially, his shortfall was his size,” the coach continued. “But he’s been in our strength program for a year and he’s becoming more physically prepared. He has above-average physical skills and now he’s learning how to play the game technically at this level.”
Nill loves to use the word ‘sponge’ when it comes to Patten’s daily habits and his attitude to learn the game.
So it’s no surprise that when you ask Patten which players he role-models himself after, the kid from Hamilton takes a sweeping look just south of home through the NFL’s NFC North for a pair of favoured examples.
“Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings and Calvin Johnson from the Detroit Lions,” Patten begins of two superstar receivers of contrasting physical stature.
On the 6-foot, fifth-round draft pick Diggs: “It’s his will to get the job done on every route he runs. They might say he is undersized or not fast enough, but it’s his desire to finish his route every time.”
On the retired 6-foot-5 Johnson: “With Calvin what I admire the most was his will to keep going through injury and putting his body on the line. And I am also a Detroit Lions’ fan.”
The commonality he draws from two consummate pros?
Perseverance, dedication and most of all, passion for the craft.
With any kind of football karma on Saturday, Patten will surpass in his third game of the season what it took him nine games (13 catches, 170 yards, no touchdowns) to accomplish as a freshman in 2018.
Yet the overall challenge to slay the Dinos is massive.
UBC has not been this kind of an underdog in any conference game since 2015, when Nill arrived on the Point Grey campus and led the ‘Birds to the national title. Perhaps the closest example was when that 2015 group, unknown and untested, flew into Laval and defeated the Rouge et Or.
It’s also Homecoming 2019 and the stands at the old ball yard will be packed to capacity.
“Honestly, I am looking forward to it,” Patten says. “Homecoming is our biggest game of the year and we have a lot of adversity coming in to it. It’s the perfect time to play the top team in our league.”
That’s how every UBC player needs to look at Saturday if they are to have any shot at picking up their 0-2 season by the boot-straps and flipping the narrative.
For his part, Jacob Patten is ready to help do his part.
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