VANCOUVER — It was maybe the best quarter of regular season football the UBC Thunderbirds have played since Blake Nill hit these western shores in 2015.
After being held pointless in the opening quarter of its pivotal Canada West regular-season finale against the Regina Rams on Saturday, the UBC Thunderbirds earned an A-plus in all three phases during a 35-0 second-quarter which came, without warning like gridiron tsunami, rolling across the turf at Thunderbird Stadium.
No. 6 UBC (6-2) won 44-15 in a game that wasn’t even that close, securing second place in the final standings and the right to host the No. 8 Rams (4-4) this coming Saturday in the Hardy Cup conference semifinals.
Varsity Letters was hand to take in all the action Saturday. Here’s our five biggest takeaways from the game, and remember to keep re-visiting us through the week as we preview the big rematch:
1. POWER PLAY
We simply can’t downplay the stunning efficiency on offence, defence and special teams by the ‘Birds in the second quarter, especially considering it came on the heels of a first quarter in which UBC managed just three first downs, was blanked on the scoreboard and surrendered a safety to trail 5-0.
On 26 snaps, UBC produced 14 plays of 10-plus yards, scored five touchdowns and limited the Rams to just 36 yards of offence.
Within the barrage that had them leading 35-5 at halftime was a fumble recovery by Evan Horton that led to a 30-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Michael O’Connor to receiver Trivel Pinto, and a 25-yard interception return by freshman defensive back Parker Simson that led to a one-yard keeper by back-up pivot Cole Meyer.
“We made a commitment leaving the dressing room at the start of the game that we wouldn’t have a slow start,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill. “It’s experience. It’s maturity. We can play with the best of the best but we have to grow up quick and I think that first quarter was just us learning.”
UBC running back Ben Cummings gashed the Rams’ defence on the ‘Birds first drive of the second quarter, carrying five times for 53 yards, including a three-yard touchdown.
O’Connor also threw scoring strikes of 10 and 62 yards to receiver Alex Morrison as part of the onslaught, which carried over into the third quarter and was so decisive that by the time the smoke had cleared, with 5:48 left in the third quarter, the ‘Birds led 44-5 and both teams began to sub players in anticipation of the rematch.
“What we could feel was definitely energy,” said UBC defensive halfback Malcom Lee. “The offence came out firing and really, just doing their job perfectly. Ultimately, we each fed off the other’s energy.”
2. MALCOM IN THE MIDDLE
Talking about Lee, what a game he had and what influence he’s played in helping a pretty young secondary find its feet on the fly.
On two occasions, both in the end zone in man-to-man coverage on Saturday, Lee elevated and with deft timing, knocked the ball away from Regina receivers.
It is not a stretch to say that the St. Thomas More grad took two opposition touchdowns off the board.
“That’s just my job,” said Lee, who along with Stavros Katsantonis brought their veteran ways to a very young but effective group. “I take pride in my job. So it was nothing special. It was just me doing my job.”
Mentorship within the group has been so important, and over the course of a 6-2 season, players like freshmen Payton LaGrange, Parker Simson, and Jean Ventose, and converted DB Will Maxwell have made huge strides.
“We’ve had a few adds this season with guys like Maxwell, Parker and Payton really stepping up alongside the older guys like me and Stavros,” added Lee. “It’s been a lot about maturity, about a bunch of guys just wanting to learn the game.”
3. DOWNRIGHT OFFENSIVE
Watching running back Ben Cummings on back-to-back-to-back-to-back carries on the ‘Birds first series of the second quarter gain 24, 4, 14 and then 6 yards may have been the actual turning point of the game, the flurry of plays planting the greatest seeds of doubt in the Rams’ ability to react defensively.
You couldn’t blame Regina for being a little flat-footed by the time snap No. 5 came, a 13-yard pass from O’Connor to Pinto, and then No. 6, a 10-yard keeper by O’Connor. It set up Cummings’ three-yard TD run.
It’s a drive which also may have represented the best run blocking of the season by UBC’s offensive line, which doesn’t block out the sun like other Canada West unit, but has its own special qualities.
My offensive line is big and strong,” boasted a naturally proud Nill after the game of the unit, which was led left-to-right among its starting ranks by Mexican import Diego Alatorre at left tackle, Blake Pickard at left guard Levi Hua at centre, Vikaram Varpaul at right guard and Dakoda Shepley at right tackle.
“They just need to start playing to their potential and we hadn’t had that yet,” continued Nill. “We need an attitude over there where they have to realize they are as powerful as most any O-line in the country. They may not be as heavy but they are big and strong and I think you saw today an example of what they can do.”
Cummings had rushed 14 times for 113 yards at the half and finished with 17 for 125 yards for a healthy 7.4 YPC average.
4. MIKE AND AL
The short-staffed UBC receiving core, which had four regulars — Marcus Davis, Will Watson and JJ Deslauriers, Lliam Wishart — sitting out with injuries, revealed how clutch its two most veteran pass-catchers can be when push comes to shove.
There is much more to talk about in this area leading up to Saturday’s rematch, but Nill’s decision to return Alex Morrison to his old spot, lining up wide and going vertical, paid huge dividends.
First of all, O’Connor’s chemistry with the Montreal Alouettes’ draft pick is undeniable.
“I have put in a lot of work with Mike and the other quarterbacks through the years to familiarize myself with playing against different coverages,” said Morrison, whose showcase catch came against zone coverage and saw him catch an O’Connor pas in perfect stride down the sideline for a 62-yard major.
“It’s a nice comfort zone for me, but at the end of the day I am just thankful to be put in a position to produce.”
As part of O’Connor’s 14-of-19, 200-yard, three touchdown day, Morrison caught four passes for 90 yards and two scores.
Yes the injury situation is bordering on dire, but those are the kinds of numbers which make you forget there is even an issue.
5. DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN?
File this last item under ‘Just sayin’
Go back to the Vanier Cup season of 2015, and the UBC Thunderbirds earned the right to host the first round of Hardy Cup playoffs at home because they beat the visiting Manitoba Bisons 24-10 at the stadium on the last day of the Canada West regular season.
The reward UBC got for pulling the trick was the right to host Manitoba the following week in the conference semifinals.
The result there?
A 52-10 UBC win which many feel fueled their roll through the rest of the playoffs, one in which they beat Calgary to win the conference, topped St. FX in the Mithcell Bowl national semifinal and then Montreal in the Vanier Cup final.
Replace Manitoba with Regina and thus far, 2017 has matched 2015 right down to those identical 6-2 records.
Hey, just sayin’.
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