VANCOUVER — A UBC football team able to define its identity through the ground game.
As easy as it is to over-complicate the modus operandi, it’s always been that simple when it comes to predicting success or a lack thereof for the 2022 edition of the gridiron Thunderbirds.
Today, as we open up the notebook from the ‘Birds clutch 27-21 win over the visiting Manitoba Bisons (2-4) last weekend and use it as a springboard to look towards its regular-season home finale Saturday (1 p.m.) against the front-running Saskatchewan Huskies, we discover the infallibility of what is one of game’s oldest and enduring axioms.
For head coach Blake Nill, it came just in the nick of time.
“We’ve got to run the football, it’s what every team I’ve had is based upon and it’s just what you got to do, man,” Nill said after his team parlayed 41 carries for 241 rushing yards into a win which moved the ‘Birds (3-3) into sole possession of third place in the Canada West standings with two regular-season weekends remaining.
If only that had been the case each and every week this season.
With that, and a modicum of blessing from the football gods above, UBC is perhaps instead a 5-1 team battling for a home Hardy Cup semifinal game.
Its situational inability to run the ball in a 29-10 loss at Saskatchewan (19 for 102 yards) followed by its disappointing 21-13 home loss to second-place Regina (22 carries for 71 yards) illustrated that a lack of success along the ground is what prevents UBC from finding the rhythm its needs on offence. All of this, of course, does not explain the perplexing disappointment of a 21-16 loss at Manitoba in which it outgained the hosts 469 yards to 195, including a season-high 274 yards rushing.
This past Saturday, however, the ‘Birds passed the eye test and the numbers backed it all up.
Fully two-thirds of its offensive snaps were dedicated to the run, the majority of which straight up the gut, and to the tune of a 5.9 ypc average.
“This program needs to run the football, and we build off that,” enthused Nill, who got 122 yards on 19 carries from second-year tailback Isaiah Knight, 49 yards and score from quarterback Garrett Rooker, and 44 more from running back Dane Kapler.
All of that allowed Rooker — this week’s Canada West Offensive Player of the Week — to be at his elusive best as he also threw for 182 yards, 117 of which were snared off seven catches by second-year receiver Jason Soriano, the latter opening the scoring with a 24-yard TD catch from his quarterback.
In fact, if not for the defensive lulls of the fourth quarter, Saturday’s game could easily have been a three-score victory.
With all of that in mind, we open the notebook on the game’s key moments ahead of Saturday’s regular-season home finale against the 6-0 Saskatchewan Huskies.
AN OFFENSIVE LINE RE-BORN
What’s been the domino effect of change along UBC’s offensive line just before the bye week?
Try this on for size: UBC had rushed for 655 yards through its first four games — a 163.8 yards-per-game average — and were riding a three game losing streak at 1-3.
In the two games since, they rushed for 268 yards in a win at Calgary, and then, 241 more in its most recent win over the Bisons.
That’s 509 yards total, but perhaps most telling, a 254.5 ypg average that is basically an improvement of 91 yards per game over the average from its first four games.
So what did UBC do prior to the Calgary game?
It assessed its offensive line personnel, and decided what was best for the team was to move starting left guard Gavin Coakes to centre.
Yet like the old saying ‘Robbing Peter to Pay Paul’ goes, it meant taking a very big chance.
And we mean very big: Moving the team’s star left tackle in 6-foot-8, 340-pound Giovanni Manu, one spot over from the edge to Coakes’ vacated spot at guard.
On top of that, was there a player with the agility, athleticism and power to move into Manu’s former spot?
Turns out that 6-foot-4, 280 pound Riley Scheffer, a freshman out of Victoria’s Belmont Secondary program, has been able to get the job done.
Guard Brandon Sanford and tackle Theo Benedet have remained in tact on the right side of the line.
To Nill, it’s been one of the reasons the ‘Birds have been able to get back to building traction in the trenches.
“I’ll be honest with you… what I said to the O line was ‘Look, I’d never been .500 until I came to UBC and I am tired of being .500,’” admitted Nill after the Manitoba game. “I am tired of playing well one week and not being able to stack wins.
“So I thought there might be an opportunity to impact the O line. The reason Gio moved to guard was more because Coakes moved to centre.”
The group, of course, is never stronger than the overall depth and versatility of its rotation, and that is something that never changes.
Yet none of this works without the redshirt freshman Scheffer being able to step in at what is one of the most pivotal positions on either side of the ball.
“He’s a 19-year-old freshman and he is a hell of an athlete,” said Nill. “He just has to learn that we are doing everything we can to protect him.”
And for Manu, it shows the next-level coaches that he has become versatile enough to plug-and-play at more than just one position.
KNIGHT AND SORIANO
On a day in which UBC’s dynamic duo of running back Isaiah Knight and receiver Jason Soriano combined for 244 of the team’s 433 yards on just 26 combined touches, there was no better way to illustrate their shared karma on the field than ‘Birds final touchdown of the game.
Midway through the third quarter, off a drive which began at the Manitoba 29 yard-line following a fumble recovery by ‘Birds linebacker Daniel Kwamou, Knight took the ball from just inside the 10-yard line on first and goal, followed the blocking of Manu, and got to the one-yard line before fumbling the ball into the end zone.
Incredibly, Soriano was right there to pounce on it for the major score, his second touchdown of the game.
“I just have to give it to my O-line… today they just opened holes for me to walk through,” the gracious Ottawa native Knight said afterwards, coming off a game in which the fumble represented his first giveaway in 83 carries this season. “The O-line just got together and said ‘We have to bully the other team.’ We’d had enough of being pushed around and in this game they said ‘We want it’ and we got it done because we wanted it more than (Manitoba).”
Knight (562 yards) not only leads the conference in rushing, he’s eighth nationally at 93.7 yards-per-game.
“He is so good at making the first guy miss, that you are going to see a lot of those 15-yard type gains from him,” said Nill. “His game is really an inside game.”
Soriano, the MVP of the 2019 Subway Bowl AAA provincial high school championships his senior year at Vancouver College, played a myriad of positions in high school.
Now into his second full season of U SPORTS’ football, his gifts of speed and anticipation have come to the fore.
🏈 FB | Touchdown T-Birds!! Garrett Rooker connects with Jason Soriano for the 24 yard score and the 'Birds take a 7-0 lead in the opening quarter! #GoBirdsGo pic.twitter.com/4IpsNKo0gc— UBC Thunderbirds (@ubctbirds) October 15, 2022
“It’s happened a bit late for us,” Soriano admitted of finding a week-to-week consistency against the rest of Canada West, “but we’ve finally started to mould together.
“I knew what I was capable of doing and that I could make plays,” added Soriano, who set a personal UBC career-high with his 117 receiving yards. “But to do it in my hometown, with my family and friends watching… that makes it feel really great.”
Nill admitted to having a feeling that Soriano, based on match-ups, was going to get the opportunity to put together a signature performance against the Bisons.
“He has an ability to find a hole in the zone and to sit,” said Nill. “What you are starting to see is his football IQ, how he’s starting to get it.”
This is the fun part.
Let’s hand out some plaudits to the blue-and-gold as we look ahead to the Huskies’ arrival:
1 When the dust clears, the play UBC tackling leader Ryan Baker made on an attempted two-point conversion by the Bisons in the fourth quarter could have massive post-season implications.
A 21-16 loser to Manitoba in the Sept. 16 Flood Bowl at Winnipeg, UBC needed to beat Manitoba by more than five points to earn the head-to-head tiebreaker should the two teams finish with identical regular season records.
On the first of Manitoba’s two game-ending unanswered major scores in the fourth quarter, the Bisons, who had pulled to within 27-14, went for two points, but linebacker Baker jumped quarterback Des Catellier’s pass to receiver Brendt Adams in the end zone and came down with an interception.
Manitoba added its final touchdown with 1:43 remaining, then elected to tack on the extra point instead of going for two, making the final 27-21.
That gave UBC a split in the season series, but a 43-42 edge in points scored in their two meetings.
2 With fellow kicker Owen Brown not dressed Saturday, UBC’s Kieran Flannery-Fleck wore some busy boots against the Bisons, in the process displaying his flair for trickeration.
Flannery-Fleck not only executed a successful onside kick recovered by teammate Aiden Bertuzzi, he also ran for a first down off a fake punt.
JOY IN THE JUMBO
UBC colour analyst Len Catling stressed just how creative UBC play-calling was during Saturday’s Canada West TV broadcast, and not just in the kicking department.
So much so in fact, new offensive coordinator Stevenson Bone fooled the telecast’s crusty, old play-by-play broadcaster (watch the highlight clip below) by bringing in back-up quarterback Derek Engel on second-and-short from the Manitoba 11-yard line late in the first half.
Engel lined up under centre, his full-house backfield uniquely comprised of tight ends Brad Hladik and Zach Patfield, and power runner Lucas Mastrodomenico.
Both tight ends went in motion to the right with Mastrodomencio preparing to take the hand-off.
Manitoba flooded the box on defence, so Engel looked to the end zone where Bisons’ linebacking standout Dolan Hills had been left trying to cover both Patfield and Hladik.
Engel chose Patfield who made the TD catch which took the ‘Birds into the half with a 21-7 lead.
🏈 FB | T-Birds Touchdown!! 2 major scores in just three minutes as Derek Engel tosses his first @CanadaWest touchdown to Zach Patfield and just like that it's a 21-7 UBC lead! #GoBirdsGo pic.twitter.com/DybfuKLcHL— UBC Thunderbirds (@ubctbirds) October 15, 2022
“That’s there so we don’t get stuffed on the one-yard line ever again,” said Nill of the scheme. “If teams want to overplay the run, we throw it. It’s pick your poison. We’ll run it if you’re light in the box, we’ll throw it if you’re heavy.”
*And finally, it’s time to ask the question: Is the heart-and-soul of UBC’s improving defence centred around its linebacking room?
Seems like all that talk of Baker, the former North Vancouver-Windsor quarterback, isn’t without substance.
He’s third in the nation at 7.3 tackles-per-game, while fellow linebacker Daniel Kwamou, who made the fumble recovery which set up UBC’s final TD drive, is 40th at 4.8 tackles-per-game.
“Both he and Baker are legit,” said Nill. “They are both the same kind of athlete…both veterans, both highly intelligent, and besides their football IQ, there’s just a high motivation to make a play.”
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