VANCOUVER — The more you play the Saskatchewan Huskies, the more things stay the same.
That tweak on a classic cliche was so apropos this week, because when Varsity Letters chatted mid-week with UBC Thunderbirds’ veteran head coach Blake Nill, you could almost feel the need to check your figurative chin strap.
Looking ahead to the ‘Birds (0-1) 2021 home-opening clash Friday night (7 p.m., Canada West TV, SaskTel maxTV were available) against Saskatchewan (0-1) at the stadium, the conversation immediately turned to the Huskies’ tradition of toughness.
For Nill, it was like having a football flashback to virtually every stop he’s had as either a coordinator or head coach over his previous 29 seasons at the U SPORTS level.
And it served as a stern reminder from the head coach to his young blue-and-gold charges that the crew from Saskatoon, no doubt stinging from a season-opening loss at Calgary, was coming in as ready as ever to compete.
“It’s a huge test for us,” he began.
“The thing that I told our program is that I first played Saskatchewan in 1996 in the national final (as the defensive coordinator at St. FX) and the program’s culture has not changed one bit. This is a tough, old school program that plays the game like it’s the 50s, 60s and 70’s. I have always admired that about (former head) coach (Brian) Towriss (1984-2016) and the way he brought it, and of course now with (head) coach (Scott) Flory and his staff.”
Nill didn’t reference the biting of kneecaps, but his assessment of the Huskies’ overall tenacity followed a script similar to that of Detroit’s Dan Campbell on the day that he was hired as the head coach of the NFL’s Lions.
“The biggest thing we’re going to have to understand is that these guys are going to punch you in the mouth, and then punch you in the mouth the next chance they get, and we have to be able to respond accordingly,” said Nill, getting across the figurative spirit of what the Huskies deliver on every snap.
“That is the way you play Saskatchewan, and it’s never changed. Whether I am the defensive coordinator at St. FX (1992-97), the head coach at St. Mary’s (1998-2005), the head coach at Calgary (2006-14) or the head coach at UBC (2015-present), you play Saskatchewan the same way. You’ve got to stand up to them, you’ve gotta look ‘em in the face and be prepared to do it what it takes to win and that is a challenge that we need to be able to meet.”
Coming off of a 44-19 season-opening loss last Saturday in Edmonton to the Alberta Golden Bears, with a roster in which 30 first-year players saw their first-ever university snaps, Nill outlined the two main areas in which he and the team have worked this week to show forward progress.
“One, our lack of discipline in taking penalties was obvious,” he began. “Some are unavoidable, some are foolish, and we have to eliminate the foolish ones, the self-inflicted ones that impacted the game.”
None of that is coach-speak.
Alberta took 10 penalties for 95 yards. UBC took a whopping 22 for 180 yards. To put that in perspective, Alberta rushed for six first downs on the day, but they were handed nine first downs from UBC penalties.
“The tempo at which we’ve got to play,” said Nill. “I was talking to one of the players who came in to see me, and he said ‘Hey coach, I didn’t realize the tempo of what (Canada West football) was. So as coaches, we’ve got to keep that in mind… that we have to make sure that our practices stay at a high tempo. But that is just one example. There is an experience component with this group that we have to try and overcome as quickly as possible.”
Come Friday night, there will be no shortage of opportunities for the team’s young players to gain a measure of just where they stand.
Opportunities will also abound for defensive veterans like fifth-year free safety James Ens, third-year halfback Daniel Kwamou and fourth-year end Lake Korte-Moore to not only build on their Week 1 efforts, but to show that young core the way.
Nill knows nothing will come easy, because at the heart of the Huskies’ offence is a well-oiled triumvirate under the watch of head coach Flory.
Fourth-year quarterback Mason Nyus, fifth-year receiver Colton Klassen and fourth-year running back Adam Machart are as dangerous a QB-RB-REC trio as you’ll find in the country and they play behind a large, chemistry-filled offensive line.
“Their offence is just an extension of their culture,” said Nill. “We first have to deal with the size of that offensive line, that is the first challenge every time we break the huddle.
“Then we have to handle guys like Klassen,” he continued. “Those guys have worked together as a unit for so long now… they’ve probably practiced together since before they were even Huskies. They will be very cohesive and they are going to come in here with a game plan where they feel they know where they think they can attack. We are just going to have match the tempo, the intensity and the plays of a very good football team.”
When asked about the impact the trio will have for his team this season, Flory said on the phone from Saskatoon on Wednesday, in a general sense, that they simply need to be at their best come Saturday.
“I think when you look across the board, your best players have to be your best players and I challenge those guys,” he said. “I know they are steady performers and all that but collectively and individually, we all have to be better, and that includes myself from the coaching position. I have to call better plays to put us in a better position and I am asking all the players to do the same.”
The Huskies fell 34-20 at Calgary last Saturday, and thus want to bounce back from an effort in which Dinos’ quarterback Josiah Joseph and twin brother receivers Jalen and Tyson Philpot, were collectively about as perfect as you could get against a quality Huskies’ defence featuring ends Nathan Cherry and Riley Pickett, linebackers Ramsey Derbas, Connor Delahey, Nick Wiebe and W.J. Mouat’s Clovis Lumeka, and back-end standouts like Tanner Reiber and Aidan Sommocal.
Joseph’s efficiency (29-of-34, 451 yards, 3 TDs, 0 ints) was beyond the pale. Seaquam’s Bros. Philpot duo of Jalen (13 catches, 246 yards, 2 TDs) and Tyson (eight catches, 155 yards, 1 TD), of course did plenty to make the aerial show as enviously-dangerous as it looked.
The message seems clear: UBC needs its experience to step up and help facilitate a rapid rise from its talented but young core and it’s next test comes Friday night under the lights at Thunderbird Stadium.
“If I was able to go down a wish list, I would like to see a higher commitment by our veteran players to the provide the example,” said Nill, “to really exemplify what it takes to win.”
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