Sometimes clichés are unavoidable, and in the case of the UBC Thunderbirds football team, there is no better way to paint their predicament than to say they are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Friday’s 40-7 drubbing in Saskatoon at the hands of the defending Hardy Cup champion Saskatchewan Huskies not only leaves the ‘Birds 0-2 and staring at a combined minus-63 points differential (86-23) after two games, UBC must now prepare to meet the Canada West’s only undefeated team two weeks into the regular season — the arch-nemesis Calgary Dinos (2-0) — in next Saturday’s Homecoming Game at Thunderbird Stadium.
Coming on the heels of its disappointing 46-16 home-opening loss a week ago to the Regina Rams, the ‘Birds gave a pretty gutsy account of themselves over the first half of play Friday, giving up two big plays but still only trailing 17-7 at the break.
But then, after stalling in the third quarter, UBC imploded during the fourth, and over the course of just a handful of minutes, gave up a touchdown, were forced to punt, and then gave up a 74-yard TD return on that punt to trail 31-7 with nine minutes remaining.
Not that UBC is facing any more adversity than any other team in the conference, yet it’s fact that they are incredibly young at so many key positions on the field, and are carrying their fair share of injuries.
Nill wasn’t about to address any of that, yet there was a sense of urgency in his post-game voice which suggested ‘if not now, then when?’
“It’s 17-7 at half, and I thought we outplayed them at the half except for two or three plays, and they were big plays,” Nill said of what amounted to missed tackles, alignment issues and his first 0-2 start to a season since he took charge of the program in 2015.
“It’s these things that you have to go through to pay your dues,” continued Nill, well aware that the regular season is already a quarter over. “We have to learn from it. The problem comes if you don’t learn from it.”
Trailing by what would be the 40-7 final score, UBC had its only major of the second half taken off a the board after a holding penalty wiped out a 28-yard touchdown pass from back-up quarterback Gabe Olivares to Sharique Khan in the dying stages.
UBC went down 24-7 with just over 11 minutes remaining after the Huskies continued to feast in the ‘Birds red zone as Adam Machart scored his second major of the game off a two-yard rush.
The ‘Birds offence stalled and the resulting punt by UBC’s Garrin McDonnell was fielded by the Huskies’ Daniel Perry at his own 36-yard line and returned 74 yards for a touchdown, giving Saskatchewan a 31-7 lead with under nine minutes remaining.
Despite managing just 29 yards rushing and 100 yards passing in the first half, UBC somehow found a way to hang around, trailing 17-7 at the half.
With 4:53 left in the first quarter, Machart broke an early tackle and a late one as part of a 63-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead.
UBC rallied later in the quarter when linebacker Lake Korte-Moore came up with a huge interception, picking off Huskies’ pivot Mason Nyus at the ‘Birds 23-yard line.
That UBC series extended into the second quarter, and a drive helped by a roughing-the-passer penalty to Saskatchewan’s Ben Whiting was capped when UBC pivot Tommy Yanchuk found Jacob Patten on a crossing pattern with a short pass that Patten turned into a 12-yard TD strike to level the game at 7-7.
The Huskies scored the final 10 points of the first half, off a 42-yard David Solie field goal, and a two-yard TD pass from Nyus to Jesse Kuntz set up by a 52-yard Josh Ewanachy run.
Yanchuk was driving the ‘Birds down field just before the break, but his long pass to Patten at the goal line with seven seconds left was incorrectly awarded back to the Huskies as an interception, taking the Huskies to the halftime locker with a 10-point lead.
Afterwards, Nill addressed various areas of the offence and defence (stats were not available after the game).
When asked about the quarterbacking situation heading into the Calgary game, Nill responded: “We’ve got to have better quarterback play and right now we have two options (Yanchuk and Olivares) and we’ve got to, as a coaching staff, determine which guy is going to be the guy, and how we make him the most effective player.”
On a young offensive that struggled to create gaps and creases for running backs Daniel Appiah and Sharique Khan: “If our offensive line is not able to protect or not able to play physically and open holes, then we’re not going to be able to run the ball.”
Jacob Patten and Trey Kellogg appear to have developed a nice chemistry with starter Yanchuk in the pass game, yet with the absence of a run game, UBC had precious little to lean on offensively.
Defensively, the ‘Birds got the job done well into the second half, giving the team a chance to win.
“They were outstanding for three quarters and 14 points weren’t even on the defence,” said Nill. “We need to get some injured players back, and we need to be able to keep the offence on the field a little longer.”
And on Saturday’s Homecoming game?
There will be a solid 13th man with a huge crowd expected.
Nill agreed that his charges need to look at the game as an opportunity to turn their season around.
“That is how we approached it with them today, that it was an opportunity,” said Nill. “We need improved play from everyone and improved coaching from everyone, myself included.”
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