VANCOUVER — How do you flush the feeling of last week’s season-opening 36-20 loss at Regina?
If you’re the UBC Thunderbirds (1-1), you usher in the home portion of the 2017 Canada West season Saturday with a decisive 32-18 win over the Manitoba Bisons (0-2) at Thunderbird Stadium.
Here’s my four biggest takeaways from Saturday’s win:
It’s certainly not breaking news that receiver Trivel Pinto is a game-breaking talent.
After quarterback Michael O’Connor, Pinto might be the most indispensable member of the UBC offence.
Yet if Saturday showed anything about the fortification of the roster since head coach Blake Nill’s arrival in 2015, it’s that the ‘Birds have truly moved up to ‘next man standing’ status.
Just before halftime, Pinto was ejected from the game for retaliating after taking a hit while making a kick return.
“That’s an indication of our depth, and how much it’s improved over the last three years,” said Nill after the game.
“When that play happened, I said to the referee ‘I hope you made the right call because you just kicked one of our best guys off the field.’ If that was last year I would have been heated. But I know we have so many different go-to guys.”
UBC, in fact, just kept getting better as the game progressed.
Pinto had caught six passes for 44 yards before he was ejected, one of which opened the scoring when he snared a five-yard TD pass from O’Connor less than four minutes into the proceedings.
In his absence, however, the team’s veteran statesman stepped up.
Alex Morrison made two catches for 45 yards, and one was massive as it sparked the ‘Birds second-half surge from a 13-10 halftime lead.
It came less than four minutes into the third quarter and that 34-yard catch that gave UBC first-and-goal at the Bisosn’ four. O’Connor took it from there, hitting Marcus Davis for a touchdown and eventual 20-10 lead on the very next play.
AN OFFENCE RE-INVENTED
That is what UBC becomes with any semblance of a run game.
And on Saturday, when RB-1 Ben Cummings carried 24 times for 145 yards, it was hard to imagine they could find a way to lose.
Rare was the snap when UBC’s offensive line was unable to create a crease for the 5-foot-9 Cummings, who has always loved to have a heavy workload.
“When you can run the ball, it’s demoralizing for the other team,” said Cummings. “It’s a momentum builder for sure.”
It also plays right into the hands of O’Connor, who went an efficient 21-of-30 for 257 yards and two touchdowns, but perhaps more importantly, didn’t throw an interception.
Those totals were spread amongst seven different receivers, and at no stage of the game, did the UBC offence ever become predictable or one-dimensional.
That’s what a great run game will do for you.
To re-phrase the opening line from Buffalo Springfield’s classic song For What It’s Worth: ‘There’s something’s happening here. What it is, IS exactly clear.’
Yes, there is a rookie renaissance happening within the ranks, and that was exactly clear on Saturday.
We’ll start it off midway through the third quarter when the ‘Birds pass rush forced Manitoba quarterback Theo Deezar to put up a jump ball that 6-foot-3, 218-pound pure freshman Elliot Graham picked off at his own three-yard line and proceeded to return 107 yards for a touchdown.
“It was thrilling,” said the Hamilton (Ont.) native of the fact that his first U Sports interception set a new UBC school record, topping the 106-yard pick-six managed by Sandy Beveridge in 2000.
“It was a long run. It was hard, but I owe it to the defence and I am just grateful to be in a position to make that play.”
But it wasn’t just Graham.
It was absolutely impossible to miss the snap-to-snap influence that middle linebacker Ben Hladik, a freshman from Vernon Secondary who often lined up as a defensive pass rusher, is already having on the field.
If you could pick the two best back-to-back defensive snaps of the game, they may well have been the two momentum-deflating deflections managed by the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Hladik.
Manitoba was desperate to get its passing game going because it’s run game had struggled mightily, and there was Hladik showing anticipation and athleticism to snuff out any kind of passing lanes that pivot Deezar was hoping to establish.
“Playing on the line of scrimmage like Hladik was doing is very hard for any freshman,” said UBC’s third-year defensive tackle Conor Griffiths. “And for Elliot, the mental part of the game had been his biggest struggle but I felt he overcame it today. As you saw that interception was unreal. All the props to him.”
Actually, there were a lot of other props to be handed out.
Nill said that “22, 52 and 90” were really beginning to show their stuff as rookies. Fifty-two is Hladik, 90 is Graham.
And 22 is linebacker Isaiah Joseph, a 6-foot-3, 245-pounder out of Hamilton. His best quality early is that he’s always around the ball.
Nill also liked the way that defensive back Peyton LaGrange, a 5-foot-8 defensive back, has acquitted himself.
“He’s a kid from central Alberta (Notre Dame High in Red Deer) who is just playing lights out,” said Nill.
Added Cummings: “We have two guys on defence who I have definitely noticed and they are Ben Hladik and Isaiah (Joseph),” Cummings began. “They are 17 years old, and that is exciting for the future of UBC football.”
ADJUSTING ON THE FLY
There are some factors at play which led to Manitoba’s most impressive scoring drive of the game, a 14-play, 90-yard drive which ate just shy of six minutes of clock in the fourth quarter.
For starters, Manitoba rushed 18 times for just 24 yards on the game (making UBC’s run defence the true stars of the game).
As well, Deezar passed for 326 yards, but could never find the deep-passing rhythm he wanted.
So on that 90-yard drive, the Bisons went near-exclusively with a short passing game. Dinks-and-dunks on vritually every snap.
It worked, and with 6:47 remaining, they were within two converted touchdowns at 32-18.
The UBC defence, however, completely shut that down on Manitoba’s next offensive foray, and thus extinguished any hopes of rallying in the final stages.
On one telling play, with redshirt freshman Parker Simson inserted as an extra defensive back, Deezar went right at him.
But Simson typified UBC’s response to Manitoba’s short-passing game, playing it perfectly by calming exploding out of his coverage for a perfectly-timed pass break-up.
It was simple plays like that one, or the crushing block receiver Trey Kellogg managed on one play which sprang Davis for a key first down that seemed to epitomize UBC’s effort Saturday.
And afterwards. Nill encapsulated everything perfectly.
“If the kids don’t have fire you won’t win,” he said. “Football is a game invented on physicality, invented on mental toughness, on playing when you’re exhausted. That’s what I mean when I talk about the integrity of the game. You can’t play it any other way and be successful.”
That’s what UBC did Saturday and the results spoke for themselves.
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