Even if they had been trying, the football gods could not have placed the UBC Thunderbirds within the margins of a more character-defining script than the one which the Blue-&-Gold found themselves writing Saturday on the road and on the final day of the Canada West regular season.
It was one of those regular-season ending, winner-take-all clashes, played against the backdrop of an icy, eve-of-winter exhalation that you’d just as well assume would play right into the hands of Edmonton’s host and No. 6-ranked University of Alberta Golden Bears.
Instead, however, it was a No. 10-ranked UBC that had looked more down than up over the past month, which rose to the heights of the moment, delivering a bone-jarring defensive performance on its way to a 23-10 win over Alberta.
“We needed this win, and honestly, this is a big win in my (UBC) tenure,” ‘Birds ninth-year head coach Blake Nill said after the victory which not only gives UBC its first conference regular season title since 1999, but gives it home-field advantage for every sudden-elimination step it manages to take right through to the U SPORTS national semi-finals.
“My coaches just did everything they could to first of all develop a game plan, and then get it implemented with the players,” added Nill. “I’m fired up, and it’s fully deserved by the players.”
NOT EVEN THE MOVIES CAN SCRIPT WHAT WE JUST WITNESSED IN CALGARY 🤯— Canada West (@CanadaWest) October 28, 2023
Needing to win by 13, the Dinos were mere seconds away from heading to the CW playoffs.
Then this happened….
The @umbisons are headed to the postseason in the most unbelievable way possible! pic.twitter.com/3PSLEQvHkQ
UBC (6-2) will play host to Manitoba (3-5) this Saturday (1 p.m.) at Thunderbird Stadium in one of two Hardy Cup semifinals after the Bisons stunned the football world in what was a 35-23 loss to the host Calgary Dinos (3-5). In the other Canada West semifinal, Alberta (6-2) will play host to Saskatchewan (5-3).
The Bisons needed to win, or else lose by 12 points or less against the host Calgary Dinos to claim the Canada West’s fourth-and-final playoff berth.
With 12 seconds remaining, Calgary had the ball second-and-five at its own 25-yard line and elected to run the ball, subsequently fumbling it to set up a 30-yard scoop-and-score by Bisons’ defensive back Nick Conway on what would be the final play of the game.
Manitoba then successfully made the two-point convert, miraculously shaving its 20-point deficit to the 12 it needed to cap what was the rarest of results: A successful walk-off loss.
UBC’s win may have lacked those kinds of fireworks, yet its own result was no less satisfying.
While a healthy Isaiah Knight continued to show his synch with the UBC offensive line, carrying 23 times for 128 yards and a touchdown under less than ideal conditions, the Thunderbirds’ defence was truly magnificent, not only holding the Golden Bears without a touchdown on the day, but limiting its passing attack to just 85 yards.
Alberta came in to play Saturday averaging 496 yards of offence per game but were limited to 261 yards by UBC.
Defensive coordinator Pat Tracey’s scheme, coupled with his chess-like positional player shifting came together in ways UBC fans can only hope continues to blossom into the second season of the playoffs.
The ‘Birds defence didn’t allow an Alberta first down in the first quarter, and did not allow a first down via the passing game over the entire first half.
They did surrender 102 yards rushing on 15 carries by Alberta RB-1 Matthew Peterson, but considering he rushed for 210 in UBC’s 54-37 home win over Alberta back on Sept. 22, that also had to be considered a win.
DEFENSIVE GAME BALLS
Hard to find enough pigskin to go around on a day like UBC had Saturday.
Yet if you’re looking for three, it’s easy to tip your hat to rush end Clark Leonard, linebacker Mitchell Townsend and defensive back Jason Soriano.
Let’s start with that last name, and yes you heard it right.
Over the past two games, the speedy receiver Soriano has begun to play both ways by doubling in the secondary, bringing up shades of the 2015-ish era when receiver Trivel Pinto and running back Marcus Davis each found themselves being pressed into similarly successful double duty.
On Saturday, Soriano didn’t register any stats on offence but came within a hair of snaring a touchdown pass at the back of the end zone from quarterback Garrett Rooker.
He helped set up the ‘Birds first touchdown with a forced fumble that was recovered by teammate Leonard, and later turned into a 12-yard TD strike from Rooker to Cesare Rednour-Bruckman (Nanaimo-John Barsby), the latter also a rising multi-phase threat.
The best of Soriano’s five solo tackles on Saturday was likely the driving stop he put on Alberta slotback Morgen Runge which forced the Golden Bears to settle for one of Jonathan Giustini’s three field goals on the day.
“We just need to have him on the field,” Nill said of Soriano. “Look at the plays he made on defence, and he almost had a touchdown.. he is just one of the those guys that has to be on the field. And not only him but also Rednour-Bruckman.”
If any of that strikes a familiar chord, you may have witnessed what Soriano did during the 2019 B.C. High School AAA Subway Bowl provincial championships when his true two-way, multi-positional excellence came to the fore during his MVP run with the Vancouver College Fighting Irish. Click here to read my report from 2019!’
Townsend (7.5 tackles) and Leonard (5 tackles, one for loss of yards) were also impossible to miss.
And truly, the pair’s play on back-to-back snaps late in the contest officially put out the fire on any comeback attempt by Alberta.
Alberta’s Kolby Hurford was able to help give the Golden Bears’ passing game a late burst when he snared a deep pass from quarterback Eli Hettlinger, making a tough grab at the ‘Birds 24-yard line with his team trailing 23-10 and four minutes left in the game.
Facing a second-and-three at its own 17 with 3:10 left, however, UBC rush end Leonard limited a short dump pass from Hettlinger to running back Peterson by making a sure tackle to force a third-and-one.
Then, on the game’s defining defensive play, linebacker Townsend came flying in off the edge, and with finishing help from teammate Kyle Samson, stuffed a Peterson run for a loss in the backfield, forcing a turnover on downs with 2:40 left.
Afterwards, when asked, Nill left no doubt how important both players have been the past few weeks as the defence has withstood some midseason adversity to rise again, seemingly stronger than ever.
“In the last two games, Clark has made big plays for us and he is a young man who came here all the way across the country from Ottawa,” said Nill of the 6-foot-4, 230 pound second-year player who has brought an added element of burst to the defensive front from his former launching point as a linebacker.
“We always knew he had great technique, but he still has room to get a lot more physically bigger and stronger.”
And the fourth-year Townsend, the former North Vancouver standout who prepped on the same Windsor Secondary Dukes team as free safety Ryan Baker, has become as bone-jarring a tackler as the UBC defence has.
“I spoke with one of the CFL scouts today and I labelled Townsend the most under-rated defensive player in the country,” said Nill. “He is just an incredible athlete and football player.”
Isaiah Knight’s immense value to the offence can’t be overstated, and Saturday’s win marked the fifth time in seven games this season that he has rushed for over 100 yards.
Knight carried 23 times for 128 yards, matching his total from last week’s win over Regina.
He also caught four passes for 31 yards, giving him 159 all-purpose.
“We’re only as good as our run game, and our run game is dependent on No 5,” said Nill of Knight, another Ottawa native. “And now he is becoming a bigger and bigger threat (catching passes) out of the backfield.”
UBC’s win, which included three field goals from stand-out kicker Kieran Flannery-Fleck, was also a character builder in terms of battling a tough travel schedule to Edmonton.
🏈 FB | A big day so far for @ubcfbl kicker Kieran Flannery-Fleck who is 3-for-3 helping lead the 'Birds to a 16-4 halftime lead over Alberta in the critical final showdown of the @CanadaWest regular season!— UBC Thunderbirds (@ubctbirds) October 28, 2023
📺 https://t.co/Ig1oYx7ZCI pic.twitter.com/hFHABGSSzK
The team’s initial flight got cancelled, and the party didn’t check into their hotel rooms in Edmonton until about 11:45 p.m. local time Friday night.
“It was tough to win on the road here, given the hurdles of travel and getting the kids ready to go,” said Nill, who despite leading UBC to the 2015 Vanier Cup, had not coached a team to a Canada West regular season title since 2014, his last season with the Calgary Dinos.
“Our young men have practiced well the last three weeks even if we have not always played our best,” added Nill, who was without injured receivers Sam Davenport and Edgerrin Williams-Hernandez. “We practice hard and we’ve started to get healthy at right time.”
UBC beat Manitoba 56-10 in the only meeting this season between the two teams, Sept. 16 in Vancouver.
The Birds and Bisons kick-off in the Hardy Cup semifinals at 1 pm this Saturday, back at Thunderbird Stadium.
In the other Canada West semifinal, Alberta will play host to Saskatchewan.
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