VANCOUVER — A reporter’s reflections on a great day at the old ball yard on Saturday, watching the UBC Thunderbirds finish their six-game Canada West season by getting into the Hardy Cup playoffs with a dramatic, do-or-die 30-27 victory over the Alberta Golden Bears at Thunderbird Stadium.
And all of this, of course, not possible unless Saskatchewan beat Calgary, which they did by a score of 31-23 in Saskatoon on Saturday.
Yet while UBC needed help to gain the fourth-and-final conference seed, which tickets them for Saskatoon this Saturday and a date with the Huskies, they still had to win their own game first.
And they had to do it against the same team which they opened the season against back on Sept. 25 in Edmonton, that one a 44-19 loss to the Golden Bears in which UBC dominated many key statistical categories yet were atrocious in the discipline department, taking 22 penalties for 180 yards.
If you watched that game, you may have felt ill.
Yet over a span of just 43 days, they put together an effort which would have you convinced it was an entirely different group of athletes. From the perspective of good, old-fashioned tangible improvement, that is what made Saturday so special.
So let’s get started.
A DIFFERENT TEAM
On Saturday, the ‘Birds never shot themselves in the foot with penalties.
Instead of 22 for 180 yards, the number was cut back to a workable eight for 75 yards, two less penalties and 15 fewer yards than the more seasoned Golden Bears took.
This time around, in a game which featured monsoon-like conditions in the first half, and brilliant sunshine in the second, UBC was steadfastly consistent.
They led 17-10 at the half on 22-yard touchdown catch from Trey Kellogg and a dynamic 44-yard TD scamper by running back Isaiah Knight.
They built that lead to 24-13 early in the third on a four-yard Knight scoring run.
Yet even though Alberta made their expected push and tied the game 27-27 with 6:58 remaining in the fourth on a 35-yard touchdown catch by Jonathan Rosery, there was no quit to be found.
“We came into that first game, and we were so young, most of us had never played in a university game,” UBC freshman quarterback Garrett Rooker explained in the Saturday post-game, looking back on the season-opening debacle.
“But we knew were better than that team,” he continued of the late-September version of the ‘Birds. “We knew that we put ourselves in position to lose that game. So we wanted some revenge today.”
Added the team’s freshman receiver Robert Lutman (more on him later) when asked about how much the team has grown: “We learned this season just how much football is a game of momentum. Having Alberta come back on us today with those two scores might have killed us earlier in the season, but now we know how to stay level and make the plays we needed to win this game.”
SPECIAL TEAMS REALLY SPECIAL
With 1:52 left in the game and the scored tied at 27-27, UBC was forced to punt away the football to a Golden Bears team which had wrested away all momentum with their back-to-back fourth quarter touchdowns.
Yet when new ‘Birds punter Jack Rabb’s 41-yard offering was fumbled by Alberta’s Sony Bermudez-Chavez, Lutman (remember) made what has to be considered UBC’s special teams play of the season.
The former Handsworth Royal saw the ball squirt loose, and with lightning-quick reaction, he raced towards it and pounced on it, recovering it at the Alberta 23-yard line with just 1:24 left.
Once again, UBC’s offence was unable to get into the end zone, but new place-kicker Owen Brown calmly rocketed a 34-yard effort through the uprights with plenty of room to spare, his third field goal of the game, for a 30-27 lead.
Alberta’s last-ditched attempt to rally was snuffed when UBC defensive halfback Eric Dika-Balotoken came up with a huge interception that sealed the victory with 45 seconds left.
“Special teams have been a struggle most of the year, and there were three or four occasions today where they looked really good and made the kind of plays we need to be successful,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill, eluding to what he felt was a better overall situation with his team’s kicking-punting group, and to the ability of the unit to answer the bell like Lutman was able to do with a big play when they needed it most.
“(Special teams) coach (Peter) Buckley worked so hard with that group and it’s tough to get buy-in sometimes with young kids, but I was glad to see special teams make a big difference today,” Nill added.
Lutman plays within UBC’s first group of receivers and has proven himself to be a big, reliable, sure-handed target with the athletic ability to make things happen after the catch.
But on Saturday, he was, as Nill stated, 100 per cent bought-in to how important a role specials teams play in the fortunes of a football team.
“Our special teams coach, Coach P, has always stressed to us that we need to sprint for 35 yards,” an elated Lutman said in the post-game, expressing Buckley’s mantra of wasting nothing to get downfield quickly in punt coverage situations. “So as I came out, all I knew had to do was just sprint down the field. Then, as soon as I saw him (Bermudez-Chavez) fumble it I knew it was on, and that that play could change our season for us. So I needed to make it. It was a must-make play.”
Coaches and players will always talk about “all three phases” being important, yet when the game’s biggest plays come on special teams, there is always a deeper appreciation for what they mean in the grand scheme of a football game, and for that matter, a season.
Nothing, for UBC football fans, can be bigger than the collective team effort which, over the aforementioned 74 day regular season, has carried these Thunderbirds from way down there to way up here.
Each week, when they have played well, it seems a host of players can be trumpeted.
At the expense of missing anyone, here’s what I saw Saturday when it comes to giving out game balls:
#24 Dustin Magee, third-year defensive halfback — He wasn’t a stat-sheet stuffer, but as myself and analyst Len Catling broadcast the game today for Canada West TV, he was constantly in our dialogue for his active participation in the so-called fray. Whether in committee or on an island, he won his matchups and made big plays.
#44 Lake Korte-Moore, third-year defensive tackle — In UBC’s three-man front, he is more a rush end, and Saturday, no one was a more frequent and spirited visitor to the Alberta backfield. His stat line may not have reflected it, but even more so than his effort in UBC’s win over Manitoba Oct. 23, Korte-Moore blew up plays with his technique and motor and was relentless in the face of Golden Bears’ poised pivot Brad Launhardt.
#5 Isaiah Knight, first-year running back — Consider, that on the first offensive snap of the game, Knight rushed for 20 yards but fumbled the ball, and helped allow Alberta to kick a game-opening field goal. Instead of dwelling on it, he flushed it, and came back to carry 23 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns. His 44-yard major in the torrential downpour that was the second quarter, might be the ‘Birds most dynamic scoring play of the year, showcasing the patient, shifty and violent nature of his stride. With backfield partner Dane Kapler unavailable, Knight seemed to fully announce himself as one of the nation’s most consistent and unstoppable backs.
#21 Trey Kellogg, third-year receiver — Unavailable for the team’s opening game loss to Alberta, all Kellogg has done since his return is make himself an indispensable part of the ‘Birds loaded core of pass catchers. His 22-yard TD catch in the second quarter was a thing of beauty, yet as analyst Catling raved about, his most impressive play of the day was indeed the block he threw at the 20-yard line to spring Knight on his 44-yard touchdown run, throwing himself straight in the path of Alberta’s talented free safety Jayden Dalke. And for this writer, like the Robert Lutman fumble recovery, it was the kind of play which turns a regular day at the yard into an event. Those are the kinds of plays that win football games.
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