As a performance, it was hardly an oil painting.
Yet you would be mistaken to think that UBC quarterback Michael O’Connor’s three interceptions on Saturday night in any way sullied the final result of the ‘Birds near-total collapse in the heart of the Canada West playoff chase.
“Mike? He’s my guy, man,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill, who like everyone else in the ‘Birds post-game locker room, still seemed shell-shocked after the Blue and Gold somehow escaped with a 29-25 win over the host Saskatchewan Huskies after it seemed almost a certainty that they were on the verge of choking on a 20-point fourth-quarter lead.
“He will be his toughest critic, but the kid gives us a chance to win every game,” added Nill of O’Connor, who rushed for the winning score in the third quarter, and en route to throwing three touchdown passes, flirted with the most hallowed single-game record in program history.
Back on Sept 28, 1994, UBC quarterback Adrian Rainbow set the program record for passing yards in a game with 489.
On Saturday, O’Connor had 398 after three quarters and the new standard looked like it would be his.
Yet after he called his own number from six yards out on an option read early in the fourth quarter to put his team ahead 29-9, Saskatchewan would own the game the rest of the way, eventually stalling his final total 23 yards shy at 466.
The hosts not only scored two converted touchdowns and took two more points off a conceded UBC safety to bring the score to 29-25, they were handed the ball inside the red zone with more than enough of time to win the game. And that’s because the ‘Birds were whistled for pass interference with 33 seconds remaining, giving the Huskies the ball at the UBC 17-yard line.
Saskatchewan took a host of penalties, however, including one for an illegal downfield block which wiped out a 33-yard game-winning touchdown pass from quarterback Kyle Siemens to Chad Brown with 4.8 seconds remaining.
“I will go to bat for (O’Connor) every time,” Nill continued after his Birds (4-2) kept pace with Regina (4-2) for second place in the conference behind undefeated Calgary (6-0). “He wins more than he loses and he is a national champion.”
O’Connor finished 37-of-51, the 37 completions breaking the single game record of 36 set in 2010 by Hec Crighton award-winning pivot Billy Greene.
MIKE AND MO
UBC played it’s way out of a sluggish first-quarter start on Saturday with a second quarter that ranks among their best of the campaign.
On a second-and-11, UBC receiver Alex Morrison beat Saskatchewan defensive back Brett Boechler in the end zone to haul in a 35-yard touchdown pass from O’Connor for a 7-2 lead.
Then with seven seconds left in the half, O’Connor made the kind of play that defined his commitment to winning and the level of intestinal fortitude he was willing to expend to make it happen.
O’Connor capped a 110-yard drive by dropping home a 25-yard touchdown pass in the end zone to Morrison for a 14-2 halftime lead.
Only thing was, he had to be willing to take a hellacious hit from Huskies’ linebacker Eric Thakurleen to make it happen.
“The defence went on an all-out blitz,” began O’Connor. “I didn’t see the safety so I knew I was going to get hit because they had more rushers than we had blockers. My O-line still did a great job because I knew that just one guy was going to be coming.
“But I knew if I just gave Mo (Morrison) a shot, he is a 6-5 guy on a smaller DB, and he gets jump balls in the end zone.”
O’Connor was leveled on the play, but he hung in to the very last second to make the best throw he could to Morrison who finished his day with four catches for 99 yards and two scores, and also intercepted the game’s final Hail Mary heave by the Huskies.
How much did the hit hurt?
“It depends on if it’s a catch or an incompletion,” he laughed. “It was a completion so it didn’t hurt as much.”
Right about now, if you’re a UBC fan, you’re probably saying “He’s my guy, man.”
O’Connor made it 21-2 on UBC’s first series of the second half. His 40 yard strike to Trivel Pinto — who finished with 13 catches for 156 yards — set up his scoring toss to JJ Deslauriers, who made an expert grab off a well-run slant from seven yards.
But it wasn’t too long before the bottom fell out, and Nill was still doing his best in the post-game locker room to analyze the size of the figurative bus which had blindsided his team in the fourth quarter.
Not only did the Huskies finish the game scoring 16 unanswered points, their defence found a way to completely disrupt UBC’s offence .
In the final analysis, the veteran coach was just happy to survive.
“Today every game in the conference could have gone the other way,” he said, referencing the fact that 6-0 Calgary beat 1-5 Manitoba 36-27, and 4-2 Regina beat 1-5 Alberta 58-55 in OT.
“It just shows you that this conference is so competitive that you can’t take your foot off the gas pedal,” the head coach continued. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like going through all of this, but it’s a necessary evil in this conference. The funny thing is, it doesn’t feel like won, but we won.”
Added O’Connor: “I feel like at times we looked great. But at other times… consistency has to be the key word for us. When we’ve shown it, I think we’ve shown we can be a dynamic team.”
Next Saturday, UBC is at Manitoba. A week after that, on Oct, 28, they finish off the regular season at home to Regina.
If they abide by the process and respect every snap against the Bisons, UBC has a chance to enter its home finale with second place and a playoff home opener within its collective grasp.
Of course, none of it will be remotely easy.
The conference showed that to be the case on Saturday.
But Nill is ready to do battle with his gutsy quarterback.
It’s like he says of O’Connor: “Mike? He’s my guy, man. And he’s a national champion.”
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