VANCOUVER — Fans of UBC Thunderbirds football have delighted in the potentially season-changing fourth-quarter of last Saturday’s rally from 23-0 down to beat the Regina Rams on the road 31-30 in overtime and move to 1-2 on the season.
Yet this week’s Saturday afternoon (1 p.m.) visitor to Thunderbird Stadium, the No. 4-ranked Manitoba Bisons, showed just as much comeback spirit by outscoring the powerhouse Calgary Dinos 23-0 in the fourth quarter to stay undefeated (3-0) after a 28-20 win.
As we count down to kick-off, here’s some highlights from the notebook after some interview time today with UBC head coach Blake Nill, as well as a visit to the vast vault of football remembrances contained within the aging nut of your veteran reporter.
IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO THIS SEASON
Not quite today, but darn close.
Blake Nill and Manitoba head coach Brian Dobie first met on the field of play Dec. 1, 2001 in the Vanier Cup national final at SkyDome.
Nill’s St. Mary’s Huskies beat the Bisons 42-16 that day, and Nill says that ever since, their head-to-head battles have revealed Dobie’s remarkable talent for bringing out the best in his Manitoba teams.
“The one thing you always run into with Brian Dobie’s program are kids who, first of all, believe they can achieve on the field and kids who are going to give the effort required to achieve and not give up
“So when I saw what happened on Saturday in Winnipeg, I wasn’t surprised at all,” said Nill of Bisons’ rally to remain Canada West’s only undefeated team at the midway mark of the season. “They showed me that they will do anything for their coach, so we’re in tough for sure.”
Nill makes sure to point out that Dobie beat his Calgary Dinos in the Canada West semifinals back in 2007, the same season Dobie led the Bisons past St. Mary’s 28-14 to win the Vanier Cup.
And since Nill moved over from AUS to Canada West in 2006 at Calgary, their battles have extended beyond the field.
“We’re now into our second decade of recruiting battles won and lost,” Nill continued. “He was a terrific high school coach, and now he’s (head) coached at the university level for almost 30 years. The guy knows how to win, and he knows how to get his teams ready to win and I have already been addressing that with my kids.”
WHERE’D THIS OFFENCE COME FROM?
As we said off the top, UBC was a fourth-quarter rally away last Saturday of falling to 0-3 with little hope for the rest of the season.
And all of that might have seemed especially strange given the fact that these baby ‘Birds head into Saturday’s game fourth in the nation in total yardage at 488.3 yards-per-game.
“We’ve got a quarterback (Garrett Rooker), a tailback (Isaiah Knight), two receivers (Jason Soriano, Robert Lutman) and an offensive lineman (centre Matthew Kingsley) who will all be playing in Game 4 of their university careers on Saturday,” prefaced Nill of his youngest starters. “And if you look at it, we have a bunch of offensive lineman who have played in less than 10 games.
“It is just phenomenal how my staff has been able to get to these young kids and relate to all the challenges facing today’s youth.”
And that staff all has ties beyond the Point Grey campus.
Nill’s son, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Taylor Nill, along with offensive line coach Kirby Fabien and receivers coach Shawn White all played for Nill at Calgary, while running backs coach Ray Salverda was part of the Dinos’ coaching staff under Nill.
THE NATION’S TOP PASSER WEARS NO. 11
Speaking of that offence, UBC football may elect to make head men’s basketball coach Kevin Hanson an honorary member of its own coaching staff given the way Hanson’s tip on a young quarterback from just Clear Springs High in League City, Texas has exploded on the scene.
Garrett Rooker, the redshirt freshman in question, just happens to be leading the entire nation in passing at 330.3 yards per game, and he is showing quantum improvement with each and every game.
And as he’s settled in with a core group of receivers in Edgerrin Williams, Jason Soriano and Trey Kellogg, all of whom sit in the national Top 25 in receiving yardage, along with Lliam Wishart and Robert Lutman, his week-to-week progress is impossible to miss.
GAVIN COBB: THE RETURN
No university program outside of this province has won with B.C. talent more than Manitoba head coach Dobie.
Whether from the community or the high school ranks, Dobie has plucked B.C. kids with incredible foresight, and four of the eight he’s got this season will play leading roles for the team come Saturday.
A pair of former Langley Rams have emerged as integral parts of the front seven on defence.
Nick Thomas, the 5-foot-11, 210 pound WILL linebacker, a grad of Surrey’s Clayton Heights Secondary, is second on the team with 20 tackles in three games, including a team-high 13 solo stops.
Brock Gowanlock, a native of Duncan who played for the Cowichan Piggies, is a 6-foot-3 235 pound fifth year draft choice of the Montreal Alouettes.
Directly from the B.C. high school ranks come a starting cornerback, and a starting receiver with a penchant for magic in the return game.
Arjay Shelley, the fourth-year 6-foot-4, 195 pound cornerback is one of the lynchpins of a Bisons’ secondary which has severely limited the passing potential of its opposition.
Shelley played his high school football for the Mission Roadrunners.
And then there is game-breaking Gavin Cobb, former star receiver with Victoria’s Mt. Douglas Rams.
As part of a dangerous receiving quartet that also includes Macho Bockru, Kai Madsen and Abdul-Karim Gassama, Cobb is a threat to juke defenders and score every time he touches the ball.
Yet the magic he showed during his high school career and subsequent time at the NCAA level at Simon Fraser as a return man has not deserted him in Winnipeg as he has come back from an ACL injury.
In 2016 at SFU, Cobb was fourth in all of NCAA D2 football in combined kick-off and punt return yardage at 909 yards.
This season, he’s returned three punts for 150 yards, including one which he took to the house in the Bisons’ 31-17 win at Alberta.
He isn’t leading the team in receiving yardage, but Robert Lutmam, the 6-foot-3 rookie receiver out of North Vancouver-Handsworth has legit hands, and he seems to make at least one big catch every game.
As part of last week’s frenetic rally, he grabbed a 17-yard pas in overtime from Rooker on a first-and-10 from the Regina 25-yard line.
After the Rams had scored a touchdown to open the OT, UBC had to answer to stay alive, and Lutman’s catch put the ball first-and-goal at the Regina eight-yard line.
Two plays later, Isaiah Knight rushed for a one-yard score before Rooker found Trey Kellogg for the do-or-die two-point convert completion.
Under the pressure of OT, with drives beginning at the opposition 35-yard line, the enormity of Lutman’s catch can’t be overstated.
When asked if he thought Lutman was still a little unknown and underrated around the conference, Nill said postgame: “He is not underrated for us. I am telling you Robert Lutman will play for money some day if he wants to, and that was just Game 3 of his university career today. I just can’t say enough about his youth, his talent and his athleticism.”
Our thanks to Manitoba SID John Gaudes for his comprehensive Bisons’ game notes package this week, from which we learn that …
*Manitoba has started 3-0 for the first time since its Vanier Cup season of 2007.
*prior to its 37-19 win over UBC in the last meeting between the two schools in 2019, the Thunderbirds had won eight straight.
*Manitoba has not won at T-Bird since Sept. 14 of 2013.
*over the past 24 seasons, UBC is 19-18 vs. Manitoba in conference play, and 3-2 in playoffs.
THE BROADCAST SKINNY
Game time for Saturday’s contest is 1 p.m.
If you can’t make it to the stadium for what is the second of only three conference games this season at home, then you can watch it with a Canada West TV package. That’s where I will have the call along with analyst Len Catling.
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