VANCOUVER — Excuse the UBC Thunderbirds for feeling a little on the light-headed side as they get out of bed Saturday morning and ponder their place in the Canada West football world.
After all, when we last left the most unpredictable team in Canadian university football, the pre-season Hardy Cup favourites were slinking out of Edmonton under the cover of darkness after dropping a fourth straight game, this one 26-21 to the formerly winless Alberta Golden Bears.
That loss, on Sept. 28, left vaunted UBC with a 1-4 record and sitting dead last in the conference standings.
On Friday, coming back off the Canada West’s conference-wide bye week, they returned home, beat the Saskatchewan Huskies 20-10, and then after a quick check of the post-game scoreboard, discovered that they were suddenly sitting in second place with a 3-3 record, and in the driver’s seat to host an opening-round playoff game.
The unfortunate plight of the Regina Rams, whose former 3-2 record suddenly became 0-5 one a week ago when they self-reported the fact that they had played an ineligible player gave the ‘Birds a horseshoe they could never have expected.
UBC, along with Alberta and Manitoba, were all credited with extra wins despite losing on the field of play to the Rams.
Thus heading into play on Friday, Manitoba was sitting tied with Saskatchewan for second place at 3-2, and both Alberta and UBC sported 2-3 records.
But in a case of every card falling in their favour, while UBC was beating Saskatchewan, first-place Calgary (6-0) was beating Manitoba 34-16, and Regina was beating Alberta 32-17.
The results left UBC, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all dead-locked in second place with 3-3 records. Yet because UBC has beaten both Saskatchewan and Manitoba this season, it owns the three-way tiebreaker.
Who would have thunk it?
Not that the aforementioned scenario was the first thing on UBC head coach Blake Nill’s mind following his team’s takeaway-minded victory over the Huskies before a sparse crowd of just over 1,000 at Thunderbird Stadium.
“We’re 3-3 and we’re just going to worry about handling our own business,” Nill said correctly.
For UBC, that means building on Friday’s victory over a quality foe with a win one week from Saturday at home to the Golden Bears.
Then and only then could they even begin to prepare for a trip to Winnipeg where a regular season-ending victory over the Bisons would allow them to host an opening round Hardy Cup semifinal.
In the immediate post-game however, it was more about how the veterans, the rookies, the schemes and the self-belief all seemed to come together through a re-invention made possible by the bye week.
“Credit to our guys because our locker room changed a bit this week,” admitted Nill after Friday’s win. “You should have seen the tempo of practices. This is a talented group of players with significant veteran players but also an up-and-coming group of young talent. Today, it wasn’t the prettiest game, but we did enough to win and that is how you start believing in yourself.”
How about the ever-elusive and always-dynamic speed merchant Trivel Pinto?
A couple of seasons back, Nill felt he could eventually be the No. 1 overall pick in the CFL draft.
On Friday, when his team needed him most, he looked like that kind of a talent.
Pinto returned the game’s opening kick-off 63 yards to set up his own 11-yard TD catch later on the same drive from quarterback Michael O’Connor.
On the next series, he returned a missed 43-yard Regina field goal attempt 77 yards to set up kicker Greg Hutchins first of two 40-yard-plus field goals, this one from 43 yards for a 10-0 lead.
On the game, Pinto returned four punts for 98 yards, two kick-offs for 80 yards, and nine catches for 89 yards and a score. If you’re keeping score back home, that’s 267 all-purpose yards.
That veteran core also included O’Connor, who was a tight and bright 29-of-35 for 277 yards and two TDs to go along with no picks, and running back Ben Cummings who is still not 100 per cent, but after sitting out the first half, carried eight times for 39 yards (4.9 ypc), with most of those coming at the precise moment of the fourth quarter when UBC truly needed a stretch of ball-control offence to run out the clock.
“It’s demoralizing to the other team when you can run the ball like that so it was very important for us,” summed Cummings. “Now we’re in a good position. We’re excited. We have to keep on winning from here.”
And as a segue to that youthful core, it was a pair of veterans on defence in the form of free safety Stavros Katsantonis and corner Malcom Lee whose steadying influence at the back end of the ‘Birds defence seemed to bring the entire rest of the group to new heights.
Lee was seemingly involved in every tackle over the first quarter, and Katsantonis highlighted what might well have been one of the top two or three games played by the UBC secondary during the Nill era.
It started when veteran Harland Hastings intercepted a pass by Huskies’ starting quarterback Kyle Siemens in the second quarter.
It continued to start the second half when back-up quarterback Mason Nyhus was inserted into the game.
Nyhus sparked the Saskatchewan offence on the first series of the second half when Colton Klassen turned a shovel pass into a 31-yard TD run that pulled the visitors to within 13-10.
Katsantonis, however, picked off Nyhus in the end zone near the end of the third quarter, and in the fourth, the youngsters followed suit a pair of drive-killing picks of their own.
First, freshman Jaxon Ciraolo-Brown picked off Nyhus at the UBC two-yard line, then second-year corner Jean Ventose iced the game when he picked off Nyhus at the ‘Birds 25-yard line with 1:17 remaining.
Second-year middle linebacker Ben Hladik led the team with 6.5 tackles while Ventose had six tackles. And Connor Griffiths continued to act as a brick wall along the ‘Birds defensive front.
Hutchins added a 46-yard field goal and sure-handed Lliam Wishart concluded the scoring when he caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from O’Connor with 2:08 remaining.
Yes, Nill admitted was surprised that the Huskies switched quarterbacks at halftime, but admitted there was no way to know if perhaps Siemens wasn’t at full health.
And yes, he was happy with the way defensive coordinator Pat Tracey schemed a game plan.
“It’s been a difficult year for coach Tracey,” Nill said of all the injuries the ‘Birds have suffered in the secondary and along the defensive line. “But he is like a mad scientist and this win was as much about his prep as anything else.”
And through it all, Blake Nill looked like a guy who had finally been allowed to exhale after a month-and-a-half of holding his breath. It had been that long, since a 30-20 season-opening win over Manitoba on Sept. 1, that the ‘Birds had last won on the field of play.
“I think as a head coach I have been 1-4 once,” he admitted. “To be honest, right now I don’t know how to react.”
When you go from last place to second place in the span of one game, who does?
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