UBC quarterback Gabe Olivares and the rest of the Thunderbirds endured a tough fourth quarter Saturday in a loss to the visiting Alberta Golden Bears. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC athletics 2019. All rights reserved)
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UBC football: After late collapse to Alberta, what’s most key for 0-5 ‘Birds over final three games? Forging a team identity for 2020

VANCOUVER — Over the window of their academic careers on the Point Grey campus, forestry students at UBC can put in the long hours required towards earning a Masters degree in the sustainable management of one of our province’s great natural resources.

Over at Thunderbird Stadium, however, a whole other group of UBC students are attempting to do something which this season, seems just as daunting: Earn a passing grade in a sports-related course on the value of football sustainability.

The trick, however, is to do it within the rigours of an eight-game Canada West season.

Alas, the signs of all that figurative football cramming and studying seemed ready to pay dividends Saturday as the ‘Birds played host to the visiting Alberta Golden Bears in what was about as must-win a game as you’ll find before all of those mathematical scenarios all kick in.

For a span of 9:36, split between first and second halves of play, UBC parlayed seven first downs with a nice run-pass mix, all the while avoiding penalties and protecting the football.

Rightfully, they were rewarded.

Over that stretch they outscored their visitors from Edmonton 14-0, as newly-installed starting quarterback Gabe Olivares threw touchdown passes of 15 and then 12 yards to receiver Trey Kellogg.

Just like that, a winless 0-4 team looking for any sign of gridiron mojo, went from trailing 14-6 to leading 20-14.

But then just like that, an offence that looked like something solid… like something you might be able to lean against like a decidedly B.C.-grown Douglas Fir, just as quickly became unsustainable.

From that point forward, essentially from their second possession of the second half to the end of the game, the same UBC team gave up 26 unanswered points, 20 of which came directly off their own turnovers, en route to a thud-inducing 40-20 loss and an 0-5 record with just three more conference games remaining.

None of this is a revelation to the dedicated coaches and the players who wear the blue and gold. Yet it is revealing, in the coldest and hardest ways possible, of just where the program sits in its development after a four-year run of some the best play it has ever exhibited.

On Saturday, as the end of the first half approached, Alberta had dominated UBC, yet had just a 14-6 lead to show for it.

And when Olivares started connecting with Kellogg, and Sharique Khan started to gain traction in the run game, it looked midway through the third quarter like the ‘Birds were going to steal one.

Yet sustainability is not something based on capturing lightning in a bottle.

Consider that after its surge, the Thunderbirds’ offence managed just four first downs the rest of the game.

A turnover on downs led to a touchdown, a fumble led to a field goal, an interception led to a touchdown, and another interception led to a field goal.

Again, that’s 20 points of the Golden Bears’ 26-0 game-ending run. 

“Execution on offence, defence, and special teams, we just need to be better overall,” said Kellogg, one of the team’s veterans. “We are young and we just need to learn to finish games and keep that momentum and intensity that we had throughout the game.”

That is keeping it real.

Mathematical formulas may indeed be required to nail down just how small the percentages are at this stage when it comes to gauging if the ‘Birds even have a shot at the playoffs.

With their next game this Friday in Regina, UBC is still not out of the post-season race.

Yet Saturday’s crushing collapse just made it all the more essential that the final three games of the season not be wasted in terms of what they now truly represent: The chance to forge a collective identity moving forward to 2020.

If UBC football didn’t have the talent, it wouldn’t be a topic. Yet as the flashes we’ve seen over the first five games have shown, it’s most definitely there.

Maybe not to the same level — seasoned or otherwise — as head coach Blake Nill’s first four editions, but with almost half a season left, along with a full offseason still left to develop, plus the prospects within a new class of incoming recruits, the program would be doing itself a disservice to think the foundation isn’t there.

The key, and it’s what keeps Nill and his coaching staff on the daily grind, is turning those brief flashes of hope into the kinds of sustainable stretches which ultimately define the unique DNA of a football team.

 “We have three games left and I think the energy of the team, nobody is happy with the position we’re in, but we’ve been staying up,” said Kellogg. “Today, there were lots of good things that we saw, some goal-line stands, touchdowns that we haven’t had the last couple weeks… so if we can keep that going forward and clean some things up I think we can finish off the season stronger and hopefully get a couple wins.”

Regardless of what transpires from a tangible aspect of wins and losses over the rest of the 2019 season, you really couldn’t say it any better.

For UBC football to get back to the place it wants to be, it can’t be afraid of how tough and character-revealing the next three weeks might be.

In fact the only way to get through them will be to welcome them with open arms.

If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any 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 howardtsumura@gmail.com. 

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