VANCOUVER — Want to know the location of the quietest place in Vancouver this past Sunday morning?
Try the UBC Thunderbirds’ football film room.
“We watched 33 select clips,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill of the series of horrific moments he had edited together to reinforce the severity of the team’s 57-7 loss Friday night at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium to the host and arch-nemesis Dinos.
“There were no other coaches,” Nill continued. “It was just me and the players. And it was very, very quiet. Except for the head coach going off.”
Nill told Varsity Letters on Wednesday morning that a quartet of key veterans could be ready to step into the line-up Friday when the ‘Birds (1-1) hit the road again, this time for Regina and a 6 p.m. clash with the host Rams (1-1), who boast one of the most explosive offences in all of U Sports football.
Yet while there is no doubt that the return in numbers of running back Ben Cummings, slot dual threat Marcus Davis, receiver Trivel Pinto and nose tackle Connor Griffiths would be huge for the reeling ‘Birds, Nill and everyone else who watched the way in which UBC lost to Calgary knows it had nothing to do with the team’s actual on-field talent level. Still, you can’t ignore their combined pedigree.
“Every one of those guys is a national champion,” continued Nill of the foursome, all of whom were first- or second-year players on UBC’s 2015 Vanier Cup-winning team, “and when we get them back, we don’t just get back playmakers. We get back the work ethic they bring, the pride they bring and the leadership they bring. But not having those guys in the line-up versus Calgary last week didn’t matter in terms of the result of the game.”
Nill was as candid as he has ever been following Friday’s loss at Calgary, and by Wednesday, he wasn’t about to start taking any of it back or tempering any of that feeling.
“As I said earlier, and I’m not going to lie, myself, the rest of the coaches and the members of this program were humiliated,” he began. “Not only in the result, but in the effort and response that we had going into Calgary. Ultimately, it does fall on the head coach. But people who know my teams also know that (historically), we don’t cower like they did there. They totally intimidated us and I am trying to figure out why.”
The return of UBC’s walking wounded will be huge.
Griffiths, who did not travel last Friday, is an elite force as the leader of a ‘Birds front seven which must work in concert with its talented Stavros Katsantonis-led secondary in disrupting the tempo of a Rams’ vaunted passing attack led by pivot Noah Picton, the most prolific passer in the history of Canada West football.
The proof of Picton’s quality? Two weeks ago, he became the first thrower in the conference to surpass 10,000 yards in a career, and the guy he targeted most last week against Alberta, slotback Ryan Schienbein, was named CW Offensive Player of the Week on Monday after he caught a career-best 13 passes for 176 yards and three TD’s in the Regina’s comprehensive 51-13 thrashing of the Golden Bears in Edmonton.
“Noah Picton can you beat you on his own and we are totally aware of what we’re going into,” said Nill whose charges lost 36-20 at Mosaic Stadium in last season’s conference opener to the Rams. “The question is, can the UBC Thunderbirds respond to the adversity that we went through last week.”
Nill is hoping that his ‘Birds are that figurative bear stinging after pulling a huge thorn from its paw.
Of course, UBC’s offence can be just as explosive as any in the nation.
Yet in order for that to happen, quarterback Michael O’Connor must establish a confident tempo in the run-pass game, putting together with aplomb, all of the pieces which have lacked a team cohesion over the first two weeks of the season.
Cummings has not played since the early stages of the team’s first game, a 30-20 win Sept. 1 at home to Manitoba.
The silver lining has been the re-emergence of multi-faceted weapon Kory Nagata.
In concert with Nagata, if Cummings can pull on jersey No. 4, line up in the backfield Friday and bring power running between the tackles back to the offence, it will go a long ways towards re-vitalizing its play-action ability.
O’Connor would not only have Nagata, Davis and Cummings as targets in the slot and out of the backfield for the first time this season, but also true speed and verticality courtesy of Pinto, Davis and others.
And while O’Connor will become the program’s all-time TD pass leader in conference play with his next six-point strike, nothing about the ‘Birds health and their schematics will matter if their hearts don’t first begin to pulse a little faster.
Nill’s precise take on the status of those four key injured players?
“Right now it looks like Cummings, Pinto and Griffiths have all been cleared to go,” he said. “Right now, it looks good. And we’re hoping for Marcus Davis as well. He hasn’t done a lot (coming off last season’s torn ACL and subsequent drafting by the Hamilton Tiger Cats). I am just holding out hope that he comes in today and he’s feeling good after his workout yesterday. Then we can have another session today and test it further.”
If anything, Nill has looked last week square in the face, and has worked hard to ensure that Friday’s game at Regina is the start of what will be a tricky in-season re-birth and re-boot.
You don’t forget the feeling of losses like the one the ‘Birds experienced last week in Calgary, and Nill pretty quickly offered his personal comparable.
“I hadn’t felt that way since the national semifinals loss in 2012 to McMaster,” he said, referencing a 45-6 Mitchell Bowl loss in Hamilton to the Marauders in which he was the head coach of the Calgary Dinos.
When UBC returns home to Thunderbird Stadium following this Friday’s game at Regina, a huge Homecoming crowd will watch them host the Dinos in a Sept. 22 contest slated for a 5 p.m. kickoff.
If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any other website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.