The only way the football gods could have spelled things out any simpler for the UBC Thunderbirds on the final weekend of the Canada West regular season would have been for them to grab a crayon and write the three key words in big, bold lettering.
‘Just Win, Baby’
Just win and their rise from last place in the Canada West to host status in the opening round of the Hardy Cup playoffs would be complete.
Just win and maybe, baby, just maybe, the dream of contending for a Vanier Cup national championship could be made exponentially easier.
None of that, however, is part of the 2018 ‘Birds football DNA.
Doing things the hard way, as in giving up big play after big play over the opening half Saturday in Winnipeg, and staring deficits of 28-7 and 31-10 square in the face as the Manitoba Bisons threatened to run away and hide.
In the end, however, UBC (5-3) did win, claiming a gut-churning 38-34 overtime victory over the Bisons when running back Ben Cummings, on second-and-goal for the two-yard line, juggled a pass from quarterback Michael O’Connor on the goal line, finally squeezing it and securing a Thunderbirds’ home date this Saturday (2 p.m.) at the stadium against the Saskatchewan Huskies.
“I don’t know what the reason was for the first half,” UBC head coach Blake Nill said from Winnipeg after the game. “At the half, my talk to the guys was ‘Men, how important is this to us?’ and ‘Are we really of the character that is required to play the game this way?’”
Nill got his answer quickly.
And when the box score was complete, the ‘Birds best players all played their best over the final two quarters.
O’Connor, who last week set a school record by completing his first 16 passes, was once again on point, this time going 36-of-49 for 467 yards and four touchdowns.
His main target Pinto caught 12 passes for 184 yards, and with his kick and punt return numbers combined, he produced 295 all-purpose yards.
“When the game is on the line, you want the ball in the hands of those two guys,” said Nill. “They are two of the best in the country and they have a chemistry and a belief.”
As well, Trey Kellogg caught eight passes for 130 yards and a score in his best game in UBC colours, and Liam Wishart caught five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown.
Cummings, who made the game’s most clutch plays right at the goal line, carried 17 times for 97 yards.
From 31-10, the comeback began.
A Greg Hutchins’ 45-yard field goal, a 26-yard touchdown pass from O’Connor to Pinto, a 32-yard Hutchins’ field goal, then another scoring strike from O’Connor to Pinto, this one covering 46 yards and pulled UBC to within 31-29.
The ‘Birds missed on their two-point convert attempt, but a Manitoba penalty gave them the ball at the one-yard line, and from there, Cummings took it over the goal line to tie the score.
UBC started the game like they were the Oakland Raiders in London.
En route to building a 28-7 lead with 6:50 remaining in the first half, the Bisons managed one big play on each of their first four touchdowns.
Manitoba opened with an 11-yard touchdown hook-up between quarterback Jamie Ybarra and receiver Dylan Schrot.
The same pair hooked up on the game’s first offensive snap, with Ybarra going 31 yards to Schrot.
On its second major, a one-yard run by ex-Mission high school star Jesse Walker, Ybarra and Schrot hooked up on a 66-yard completion.
On the third touchdown, a 17-yard run by Victor St. Pierre-Laviolette, Ybarra moved the sticks with a 33-yard completion to Shai Ross.
And on the fourth, a 14-yard Ross catch from Ybarra, the Bisons’ special teams served up a short field when Marcel Arruda-Welch danced in a phone booth, eluding three tacklers and going 25 yards to give the home team the ball at the UBC 45-yard line.
The Thunderbirds’ comeback, however, proved patient and effective.
Greg Hutchins’ 40-yard field goal before the half made it 28-10 at the break.
Hutchins’ 45-yard field goal, followed by O’Connor’s 26-yard touchdown strike to Trivel Pinto had UBC to within 31-20.
And all the momentum continued after another Hutchins’ field goal and back-to-back interceptions had UBC down just 31-23.
That second interception, by Lake Korte-Moore, set up O’Connor’s long completion to Wishart to the Manitoba seven-yard line.
On the next snap, however, O’Connor’s pass was intercepted just inches from the turf by Shae Weekes, and the Bisons had a chance to re-trench and get their momentum back.
Kicker Brad Mikuloff, however, missed a 44-yard field goal with 10:49 remaining to keep the Bisons’ lead at 31-23.
Afterwards, Nill lauded kicker Greg Hutchins for his near automatic leg and the fact that he kept the team in the game when nothing else was working on offence.
“Hutchins was huge the whole game and he is an old-fashioned type player, someone who you can just count on,” the coach said.
And of course, Nill was thrilled to be getting home field for Saturday’s Hardy Cup semifinal against Saskatchewan.
“I was looking at a morning tomorrow where I am running around to arrange flights, hotels and meals and all of that stress gets put back on the kids,” Nill said. “And all of that stress gets put back on the kids. Now we can take a moment to catch our breath and know that we’re playing at home in front our great fans.”
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