VANCOUVER — Blake Nill said it in the aftermath of of his team’s defeat back on Sept. 29 to the visiting Calgary Dinos: Everything his UBC Thunderbirds wanted to accomplish this season wouldn’t happen without first going through Calgary and finding a way to beat the Dinos.
Well, UBC’s post-season journey, for the third straight season, will include a Hardy Cup conference championship final date on the road, this coming Saturday, against those very Dinos.
UBC punched its ticket to the U Sports’ version of the national quarterfinal with an uneven but ultimately effective 28-21 Canada West semifinal win over the visiting Regina Rams, the same team they had beaten the week previous at home 44-15.
“I told the players here at the end of the game that we deserve a lot of credit for beating (Regina) two times in a row,” said Nill. “That is a feat and we remain positive with that. Now we focus on our rematch of the Hardy Cup.”
As we do every week, Varsity Letters turns first-hand observation of this week’s UBC game into our 5 Big Takeaways:
1 O’CONNOR? OH MY!
Saturday’s wasn’t the 466-yard performance with three TDs that he turned in four weeks ago in a narrow win over Saskatchewan.
No, but quarterback Michael O’Connor’s 17-of-30 for 259-yards passing, which also included three first-half touchdowns, was ultimately more effective.
Yes, UBC’s offence came to a grinding halt in the second half, but if O’Connor has done anything over the last three weeks, it has been to not give the opposition a single free pass.
In what has been one of the most economical stretches of his UBC career, O’Connor has thrown 85 passes over the past three games, completing 54 for seven touchdowns and no interceptions. His QB rating over that span: 119.42
By comparison, that 466-yard effort, which was just shy of the school’s single-game passing record, part of a 29-25 win over the Huskies, was pock-marked by three interceptions.
“Our defence is outstanding and I know that as long as we don’t turn it over on offence, we have a good chance to win,” said O’Connor. “I know that as long as we can keep good field position and not turn it over, the defence will play well. It’s become a real focus of mine the past few weeks.”
2 CUMMINGS AND GOINGS
Over the past two games heading into Saturday’s playoff opener, UBC running back Ben Cummings had carried a combined 36 times for 268 yards and two scores.
They are the kinds of numbers that do more than suggest the benefits of ball-control offence and all of its ancillary spin-off options for O’Connor and Co.
On Saturday, however, after starting on the same pace by carrying eight times for 58 yards, Cummings was ejected from the proceedings just before the end of the first half.
“He got ejected,” confirmed Nill after the game. “I guess he threw a punch after his helmet was ripped off. The officials saw the retaliation and didn’t see the guy who yanked his helmet off.”
Regardless of why, Cummings departure from the fray made the game a night-and-day affair in terms of contrast.
With Cummings in, UBC built a 26-7 halftime lead.
In the second half, beyond the fact that the ‘Birds were outscored 14-2 was the fact that its offence sputtered so badly it barely had a chance to stay on the field over the final two quarters.
Over that stretch, Regina made 13 first downs to just five by UBC, and even more damning was the fact that over the same stretch, Regina ran 66 plays for 219 yards while UBC ran just 22 plays for 68 yards.
Cummings, through opportunity, has built a resume of tackle-breaking chunk runs, and those are the ones that when coupled with the passing game, allow an offence to dictate tempo and terms coming out of the huddle against an opposing defence.
Nill hopes he will rejoin them next week in Calgary.
“There could be,” Nill admitted after the game about the possibility of ramifications stemming from the incident. “I don’t think there will be, but there is definitely a process in place for that.”
3 ‘MO BETTER BLUES (AND GOLDS)
How about these past few weeks for UBC’s No. 85?
Alex Morrison has been the Simon to Trivel Pinto’s Garfunkel, and as a result the Birds have bridged some potentially troubled waters brought on by rapid-fire injuries to four of its top rotational pass catchers.
On Saturday, O’Connor threw touchdown passes of 66 and four yards to Morrison for a 16-2 lead, before later hitting Pinto with a 28-yard scoring strike.
Over the first five conference games of the season, Morrison had two touchdown catches.
Over his last four, including Saturday’s playoff win, he’s had six TD grabs and all have been meaningful.
Incidentally, UBC has won each of those games, and that means a ‘Birds team riding a 4-0 win streak into Calgary for Saturday’s Hardy Cup showdown against the Dinos now features a sure-handed fifth-year receiver who has made 19 catches for 320 yards and six scores over that span.
“It was a roller-coaster of emotions,” Morrison said of Saturday’s win, which went from comfortable to tense as the clock ticked down, the skies darkened and the temperatures dipped. “That last quarter, that last half? Crazy. But we had more points at the end of the day and that’s what you play for. I’m just happy we’re on the right end of it.”
4 A COACH AND THE CUP
We’re talking about UBC’s Nill and his extended history with the Hardy Cup.
Quite incredibly, UBC’s win sends Nill to the conference championship game for the 10th straight year.
The first seven with Calgary and now the last three with UBC.
On Saturday, the ’Birds already knew that Calgary had beaten Alberta 39-22 in the conference’s first semifinal game when they took to the field, and thus knew that if they beat Regina, the team would be flying to Calgary for the third straight year.
Of course if Alberta had won that game, and Golden Bears were within a score late into the fourth quarter, that the Edmonton crew would have had to come to play at UBC next week.
Nill said after the game, however, that it was his team’s preference to travel.
“I said ‘I don’t want the Hardy Cup final here,’” Nill said. “I told my players that I think we need to go in and compete with Calgary on their turf, that they are the champions, and if we are going to be the team that has to beat them, I would rather beat them on their turf.
“I just think that Calgary deserves that respect,” Nill continued. “They have earned it. They have our respect. Of course we’re going to prepare to win, and the last two Hardy Cups between Calgary and UBC have been quite something.”
Indeed, UBC won 34-26 on its way to a Vanier Cup championship in 2015, and last season, Calgary won 46-43 on its road to a berth in the national final.
5 THE LAST PLAY
Regina had a chance to send the game into overtime on the final play of the game, and quarterback Noah Picton’s Hail, Mary throw 52 yards down field to cousin Mitchell Picton came close to getting the job done.
Out of nowhere, however, came UBC receiver Trivel Pinto to knock the ball away.
Nill had his most dynamic athlete on the field for that last play to guard against just such a Doug Flutie-, Aaron Rogers-type of throw, and it worked.
The same kid who doubled in the defensive secondary when injuries hit hard last season, was once again getting things done on both sides of the ball.
It is plays like that by players like Pinto that lend hope to UBC’s loyal football fan base.
Canadian university football is down to its Final 8, and for the third straight year, these ‘Birds are still flapping. They’ve got the special players capable of making the special plays… the kinds of guys that November football is reserved for.
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