On a night when lofty preseason prognostication had put them in a place to answer the most elemental question of all, the UBC Thunderbirds provided a resounding response.
So, was the latest edition of Point Grey’s gridiron Blue-and-Gold worthy of their co-No. 1 ranking to begin the Canada West football wars this season, right alongside the perennially-vaunted Saskatchewan Huskies?
In the aftermath of a 25-10 conference-opening win on the road Friday against Regina, a game in which UBC took 14 penalties, including six major infractions, for 138 yards, the ‘Birds still managed to hold the Rams without a touchdown until the game was six minutes from its conclusion.
“It was our first game of the year and it was on the road… it was hot and smoky and I thought the kids really gutted it out,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill whose team had its only exhibition game (against Alberta in Vernon) cancelled late last month due to poor air quality in the Okanagan city.
“We just have to tighten up a bit,” he added. “The main thing is we got through the game and we finished on the right side of the score column.”
Friday’s debut for the No. 9 nationally-ranked ‘Birds most definitely could have been more clean, but what was left to glean was the fact that despite all of the miscues, it was impossible to miss just how dynamic UBC is going to be this season in all phases of the game.
Thunderbirds’ quarterback Garrett Rooker’s return from 2022’s Week 7 season-ending posterior hip dislocation and fracture, one which some thought at the time might cost him his playing career, was nothing short of incredible.
The third-year sensation from League City, TX looked every bit as impressive as he did last season pre-injury, going 19-of-25 for 305 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
Running back Isaiah Knight, the third-year star from Ottawa, carried 20 times for 100 yards and caught three more passes for 40 yards, all from behind an offensive line which has grown into the best group in the country.
And Kieran Flannery-Fleck nailed all six of his field goal attempts (38, 14, 22, 30, 30, 31 yards), one shy of equalling both team and conference records.
Impressive all-round, yet to these eyes, the most substantial step forward came from the UBC defence, most precisely in regard to the schemes longtime defensive coordinator Pat Tracey and the rest of his staff unfurled on the Rams.
“So, it was just awesome to see our defensive speed,” remarked Nill, who indicated that the team’s linebacking core, in conjunction with its secondary, displayed an impressive level of disruption in just its first game together as a back nine.
“You see that, and it just gives you confidence as a coach that you know you have time to allow your offence to jell,” added Nill.
The UBC defence held Regina to 277 yards, including just 65 yards on the ground, numbers which would have shone even more in light of the plethora of penalties the team was whistled for.
As well, defensive end Kyle Samson and new cornerback Jerrell Cummings (SFU), each recorded a pair of pass break-ups. UBC had seven on the night, and they forced five Regina turnovers on downs.
Along with veteran Mitchell Townsend, Nill pointed out that the three other players he started as part of the team’s linebacking core — Stephane Tshishimbi, Phillip Obafaiye and Maka Bangura — were doing so for the first time in their Canada West careers.
That youthful trio helped give the UBC defence its identity on the night, its athleticism and footspeed a constant pain in the side of Regina starting quarterback Noah Pelletier (12-of-28, 138 yards, no touchdowns).
Tshishimbi had a game-high eight tackles, fellow linebacker Will Hunter another 6.5, and Banguara a further 5.5 stops.
Defensive halfback Ben Sangmuah also impressed with four tackles.
And Simon Fraser transfer Cummings made a most impressive cornerback debut as a three-down player, recording a forced fumble and subsequent recovery in first quarter, and key pass break-up in the second half.
As great as its skill level and depth is, as Nill said, “…it needs time to jell.”
And while the head coach got a pretty strong indication that Flannery-Fleck is ready to bring his best to the place-kicking, punting and kick-off chores (the workhorse launched a total of 15 snaps/kicks between all three phases Friday), Nill also got to see what stands in the way of the Birds finishing their scoring drives in the end zone as they prepare to open the home portion of the season Sept. 9 (1 p.m., Canada West TV) against the visiting Calgary Dinos (0-1) at Thunderbird Stadium.
“That is going to be our challenge, when the coaches go back and look at the film on offence,” the head coach said. “They are going to say ‘Why were we stalling? What did our opponents do to give us difficulty?’”
It’s a process which Nill hopes ultimately refines and better defines all of his offensive position groups, including quarterback where starter Rooker and back-up Derek Engel, the latter very adept in short-yardage situations, continue to give the blue and gold as unique a one-two punch from the pivot as there is in the country.
“We wanted to make sure we got Engel in and he played most of the fourth quarter,” said Nill of the Grapevine, TX native who filled in last season following Rooker’s injury, including the team’s 28-14 Hardy Cup semifinal road win against Regina, and its 18-17 Shrum Bowl win at SFU.
“We didn’t have to keep Rooker in the whole game … it was his first game back, and you don’t want to throw him into the fire too fast.”
Returning receivers Edgerrin Williams-Hernandez, Jason Soriano and Shemar McBean all had their moments, equally splitting 12 catches, for a combined 159 yards, but a newcomer made a huge debut splash.
Simon Fraser transfer Sam Davenport caught three passes for 80 yards, including one off a slant for a 61-yard touchdown from Rooker 10 minutes from halftime for an eventual 13-0 lead. It would be UBC’s only TD of the contest.
“Sam Davenport has instantaneously made us better,” said Nill.
And so on a night when UBC’s young and deep linebacking core sprung itself with authority into the new season, it’s only fitting to pay homage to the part of the team which last season became identity of the offence: Its offensive line and running game.
With tackles Theo Benedet and Gio Manu already scaling the heights of the upcoming CFL draft boards, and with the interior of that line — centre Gavin Coakes, guards Riley Scheffer and Arvin Hosseini — coming nicely together, perennial conference rushing king Knight took his first impressive steps of his third season with UBC.
“Isaiah is our guy,” said Nill of Knight. “Ultimately this team is built on the run game, the five O-lineman on the field, and Isaiah or whoever is running ball and the RPO stuff that comes off of it. That is who we are…”
You can’t get where you want to go without an identity, and so on a night when a season of high expectations kicked off with a win, the UBC Thunderbirds put the newest piece of their football DNA on display.
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