VANCOUVER — With the ink still just five days dry on a what has been for them a revelatory regular season, the UBC Thunderbirds are being talked about in Canada West football circles as a team of tomorrow.
Yet for a 3-3 team which was a fourth-quarter away from opening its six-game conference slate at 0-3, the here-and-now, which arrives Saturday (11 a.m. PT, Canada West TV) in Saskatoon in the form of a most unexpected Hardy Cup semifinal berth against the No. 4 nationally-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies (5-1), is a time and place with the potential to drastically re-write the final few pages of the Blue-and-Gold’s 2021 gridiron resume.
Coming off last Saturday’s 30-27 post-season clinching home finale against the Alberta Golden Bears, UBC is clearly facing its most daunting challenge of the season against a Huskies’ team which vanquished them with ease, 43-15 back on Oct. 1 at Thunderbird Stadium.
Yet for those who have seen them grow over the course of this re-start season, these ‘Birds have proven themselves to be a most difficult out if they can manage to keep focus for the full four quarters, while still managing to play to their strengths as the huge road underdog… that No. 4 seed with its not-yet-fully proven weapons whose biggest plus might be its level of youthful exuberance, one which usurps any notion it may have to over-think the moment.
“I fully agree with most that they are the top in this conference and perhaps in the entire country,” UBC head coach Blake Nill this week told GoThunderbirds.ca of the Huskies. “They bring a level of maturity and a level of legacy to this year, and the Sask tradition, combined with the veteran team they have makes them especially formidable.
“But at the same time,” Nill continued, “you have to play the game.”
UBC will have to do that and more if they hope to beat a Saskatchewan team which closed its regular season last week with a 31-23 win over Calgary, a victory made all the more impressive when you consider the Huskies had already clinched first place in the conference and that the Dinos were the ones playing for their post-season lives.
In carrying a five-game winning streak into play Saturday, Saskatchewan found a way to beat Calgary despite the fact that it allowed the Dinos to put up 471 yards of passing offence, as well as out-gain them in total yards 514 to 360.
So while UBC’s key offensive cogs — quarterback Garrett Rooker, running back Isaiah Knight, the offensive line, and receivers Trey Kellogg, Jason Soriano, Edgerrin Williams, Lliam Wishart and Co. — will have to be at the top of their game, so too will a UBC defence, which Saskatchewan quarterback Mason Nyhus so brutally dissected a full 30 days ahead of Halloween.
“Defensivley we’re still a work in progress,” Nill added to GoThunderbirds.ca. “We’re trying to find where these athletes best fit, how to best utilize their skills sets. It’s taken a bit longer than (defensive coordinator Pat) Tracey and I had hoped, but I think they will have their best effort this upcoming weekend.”
If that is to be the case, and whether you’re talking about against either the run or the pass, each part of the ‘Birds defence needs to flow into the other because what made Saskatchewan so dangerous the last time out was a ground game so voracious (12.1 avg. ypc) that it allowed Nyhus the time and space to pick and choose from his talented bevy of pass catchers.
On that day, Saskatchewan had 10 plays of 20-plus yards, the final seven of which were all 28-plus yards.
Daniel Perry (23, 38, 34 yards), Sam Baker (28, 28 yards), Berk Noble (20 yards), and running backs Adam Machart (83 yards) and Josh Ewanchyna (27 yards) accounted for the game’s biggest chunk plays through the air.
Machart, who rushed for 93 yards on the day, also broke off a 43-yard touchdown run, while punter David Solie took a fake 49 yards on a third-and-13.
Well aware how effective Saskatchewan’s ground-and-pound schematic has performed, especially in opening up the pass game, Nill doesn’t hesitate when asked what the biggest key to Saturday’s contest will be for his team.
“If there was one thing, it would be to stop the Saskatchewan run game,” he said. “I don’t know if that is possible. Let’s say limit the Sask run game. They are the same team for the last 30 years. They line up and try to drive the ball down your throat, and then they play just with extraordinary effort on special teams and defence.”
Huskies’ head coach Scott Flory said as much Wednesday as his team prepared to host UBC, when he spoke with reporter Kevin Mitchell of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
“If you can win that battle along the line of scrimmage, and you’ve got elite quarterback play, you have a great chance of success,” said Flory to the StarPhoenix, before adding “We’re trying to build our team around that line of scrimmage, and we saw it last game. We’re going to continue to see that as we move further and deeper into not-so-pleasant weather.”
And although it hails from the warmer West Coast climes, don’t discount the fact that UBC is being built in similar winter-ready ways by Nill, especially along its offensive line where Canada West all-star left guard Diego Alatorre, who made the switch inside from left tackle to start the season, has teammed with the likes of Giovanni Manu, Matthew Kingsley, Brandon Sanford and Theo Benedet to give the ‘Birds the base it has needed to unveil its best run game in years.
Knight, also a Canada West all-star as a rookie running back, is already among the nation’s best, and like Machart and the rest of the older and more experienced guys wearing the home green-and-white Saturday for the Huskies, UBC’s Rooker-led offence has shown that with patience in the run game, all things are possible.
Rooker can play vertical chess with the best in the conference when afforded clean pockets, and, as rival defensive coordinators have quickly discovered, can be just as lethal outside the pocket, as long as his athletic lineman and his receivers and backs show the purpose they need to help him extend plays.
And so now, for UBC, it’s all down to their own ability to breathe and to believe.
It’s the kind of game, where if things go well, young road underdogs can grow to the next phase of their development as football players, taking the program right along with them.
And it’s one UBC’s players created for themselves from the depths of an early October sink hole, when their entire season seemed to teeter on the brink.
Yes, Saturday’s game in Saskatoon represents that substantial of an opportunity.
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