Garrett Rooker and Jason Soriano are going to put up some big numbers over their five seasons together with the UBC Thunderbirds.
It’s a fact which was borne out on the turf at the University of Alberta’s Foote Field Turf on Saturday, where the 1-2 freshman punch of the Texas-raised quarterback Rooker and the former Vancouver College star receiver Soriano looked like they’d played together for years.
Yet despite witnessing the work of what looks to be UBC’s new dynamic duo on Day 1 of potentially five years of their careers in blue and gold, there is the reality of youth and the patience needed to fully deliver on its promise.
And thus, as UBC returns home smarting from a 44-19 loss to the host Golden Bears in the Canada West opener for both teams, head coach Blake Nill was man torn in the post-game, incredibly enthused for the future, but still not able to get over the myriad problems which plagued the squad in so many other areas.
“This hurts because, although I remain confident that we have the talent, we have to play the game like it matters,” explained Nill, whose team was lethargic early en route to falling behind 20-1 midway through the second quarter, but also absolutely explosive at times as Rooker, Soriano and others gained what seemed to be snap-to-snap confidence.
“I don’t go into a season and say that it’s a rebuilding season, and today we played like that,” added Nill. “It doesn’t sit well with me.”
Bottom line: This was the kind of game, coming out of the cancelled 2020 season, that was no stretch to think UBC could win.
But after UBC pulled to within 20-11 midway through the third quarter on a 25-yard field goal by freshman Ben Kolb, Alberta exerted itself through its superior cohesion and chemistry, outscoring UBC 24-8 the rest of the way.
Yet as the Birds prepare to open the home portion of the season Friday at home to Saskatchewan, any UBC fan worth their salt would be hard-pressed not to latch on to the contagious connection Rooker enjoyed with not only Soriano, but fellow wideouts in second-year man Edgerrin Williams and hulking freshman possession man Robert Lutman.
Rooker went 32-of-45 for 372 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
He was a sizzling 20-of-26 for 258 yards and two TDs against no picks in the second half, literally growing before our eyes with poise and touch, even as the Golden Bears lined up knowing it would be a parade of pass, pass, pass.
Nill doesn’t ever get excited about anything after a loss, yet what he was willing to talk about was how Rooker’s infectious energy needs to be a torch ready to be carried by everyone else on the team.
“That kid has been thrown in the fire, but Rooker played awesome and we just really need to rally around him, to find guys that want to take on the same kind of role (in their positions) as playmakers.
“Again, you’re talking about a guy who hadn’t played in two years, was playing his first (university) game ever and he is surrounded by youth everywhere.”
Soriano saw more targets Saturday than he did in any game during his senior varsity career as a safety/receiver, a tip of the hat to the incredible team he played on at Vancouver College.
Yet his undeniable talent as a redshirt freshman was so substantial that he stepped onto the U SPORTS stage on Saturday, and caught seven passes for 144 yards (20.6 pard-per-catch), including second-half touchdowns of 32 and 47 yards from Rooker.
It was his first collegiate game, and he was already making a case that he was the strongest receiver on either team.
“Soriano needs to take a major role in this program right now,” Nill said with purpose. “We need him to be able to do that.”
Yet UBC’s core of pass catchers is deep.
Second-year Edgerrin Williams gives UBC even more sped and guile, and he finished with nine catches for 91 yards.
Freshman Robert Lutman, a 6-foot-2, 210 pounder from North Vancouver’s Handsworth Royals was also impressive, his seven catches for 58 yards highlighted by his ability to employ physicality after the catch.
Isaiah Knight and Dane Kapler, both also freshmen, showed enough to suggest that the run game may well become more of a staple in the offence, especially since a young O-line had its moments throughout Saturday’s contest.
Defensively, a lot of points were surrendered, yet halfback Dustin Magee, middle linebacker Daniel Kwamou and tackle Lake Korte-Moore played solid games.
After a sleepy first half, the Thunderbirds came out a different team to start the second half.
Rooker led UBC on an eight-play 92-yard drive, capped by a 32-yard touchdown strike under the posts to Soriano in which he hung in against a fast-approaching blitz.
On the ensuing kick-off, rookie Kapler’s outstanding special teams tackle set the table for a quick two-and-out, and on the ensuing punt return, Williams weaved his way down to the Alberta 23-yard line.
Rookie kicker Kolb booted a 25-yard field goal to make it 20-11.
Alberta went back on top 27-11 when back-up quarterback Luke Hornung connected on goal-to-go with running back Matthew Peterson who hauled in a nine-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter.
Kolb was forced to concede a safety in the end zone after a low snap, pushing the Golden Bears lead to 29-11.
Starting quarterback Brad Launhardt returned under centre and threw a 70-yard touchdown strike to fifth-year running back Dryden Kalesnikoff with under a minute remaining in the third.
Just over three minutes into the fourth quarter, as part of a nine-play, 102-yard drive, Rooker lived up to his ability to get outside the pocket and make things happen, finding Soriano in stride and hitting him with a 47-yard scoring strike.
Rooker then hit Williams with the two-point convert pass to make it 36-17.
Alberta’s Launhardt later connected with Jonathan Rosery on a 31-yard scoring connection with 7:18 left for a 43-19 lead.
The first half, for the most part, reflected a team not yet in command of its chemistry, coming out of fall camp not physically overwhelmed in the least, but genuinely unsure of its identity and completely out of synch, especially as it pertained to substitutions.
UBC surrendered such vast amounts of starting field position that by the time they had fallen behind 20-1 lead late in the second quarter, Alberta had started four of its six drives on UBC’s side of midfield.
The one that hurt most?
After Alberta had gone 53 yards on a penalty-aided seven play drive to take a 13-1 lead off a two-yard rushing major by running back Peterson, Rooker was picked off deep in T-Birds’ territory by Tyshon Blackburn.
Golden Bears’ quarterback Brad Launhardt then threw a 10-yard TD strike to Peterson to give the hosts a 19-point lead.
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