It’s too bad the football gods won’t implement a quota for the number of walk-off losses a Canada West football team must be forced to endure over a pre-determined span of time, because with any kind of reasonable number, the UBC Thunderbirds wouldn’t have to worry about getting their hearts ripped out for quite a while.
On Friday, for the second time in their past four games dating back to 2017’s season-ending 59-yard Hardy Cup dagger at the hands of the Calgary Dinos on the final play of the game, UBC once against had certain victory snatched from its grasp as the game clock hit zeroes.
UBC, battling to find rhythm on offence, had trailed for the first 58 minutes of play against the host Regina Rams, yet caught fire in the final three minutes to not only lead 17-16, but take hope in the fact that it was so quickly putting last week’s 57-7 loss at the hands of the Calgary Dinos behind them.
But then in a scenario so unpredictable that it likely winded every member of the team and its fan base, the ‘Birds found a way to give the Rams a tee shot for a walk-off comeback win.
And if Regina’s Aldo Galvan doesn’t exactly have a kicking leg in the same league as Calgary’s Niko DiFonte, it turns out he didn’t need one.
Galvan, in fact, had missed a 40-yard field goal with two seconds remaining which would have won it, and so for a split second, it appeared that the ‘Birds would head into this Saturday’s Homecoming rematch against the Dinos with a 2-1 record.
However the Thunderbirds were whistled for back-to-back unnecessary roughness penalties on the same play, for contact against the Rams’ snapper.
That moved the ball 30 yards down field and allowed Galvan to kick the 10-yard winner that lowers UBC’s record to 1-2 just a game shy of the conference’s midway mark.
“We played with more passion this week,” said ‘Birds head coach Blake Nill after the loss. “That’s obvious. But the bottom line is that we won the game and then we gave it back to them.”
Quite stunningly, Regina wound up winning a game in which it lost five of its six fumbles to the ‘Birds.
And UBC almost won a game in which it rushed for just 37 yards.
Throughout the Nill era, now midway through its fourth season, it’s hard to remember as extended a stretch of offensive struggle as the ‘Birds have endured the past two games.
Yes, it’s a stretch in which they have but one rushing and one passing touchdown.
Yet it is more understandable when you realize that quarterback Michael O’Connor has been nursing an injured wrist on his throwing hand since early in last week’s loss to Calgary.
And while UBC’s young offensive line has shown stretches of extended excellence, the O’Connor injury in concert with running back Ben Cummings’ return from a leg injury of his own, seemed to stifle the best efforts of the offence to show its true identity.
That is, until UBC finally got receiver Trivel Pinto more involved, building a rhythm with perhaps the nation’s best and most elusive wide-out, then watching what can happen when you give him the ball in even the tightest of quarters.
UBC fans were hoping that the scoring pass O’Connor would throw to become the program’s all-time leader in that department would be a memorable one.
And until the 30-yard penalty fiasco that ended the game, it was.
O’Connor found his favourite target, and from there, Pinto put together a series of hip shakes, flashes and feigns to break four tackles and score his touchdown on a 25-yard play which tied the game 16-16 ahead of Greg Hutchins’ successful convert with 2:09 left on the game clock.
The camera shot of the red zone, in Pinto’s wake, pictured two Regina players flat on their faces and picking themselves up off the stadium turf.
The description is not meant as any disrespect against the team which ultimately did enough to win, but Pinto was simply stunning in his execution.
“We need to get Pinto the ball more, and I mentioned it at the half,” said Nill. “In every attempt to win, we have to win with our best players, and our best chance to win comes when Pinto touches the ball 10 to 15 times a game.”
On Friday, he had 10 catches for 131 yards, while under-rated Lliam Wishart continued to establish his reliability with eight catches for 78 yards.
Nill was concerned with some chunk plays the unit surrendered, but there was no question that six fumbles didn’t all happen in a vacuum.
UBC’s front seven was resourceful, and at times, powerful and opportunistic, and linebacker Ben Hladik put in a game-closing stretch as clutch as any defensive player in program history.
The second-year man from Vernon recovered a fumble by Regina running back Tyree range with 3:01 left that led to the Pinto major.
Then, after Regina quarterback Noah Picton converted on a third-and-eight to keep the Rams’ enusing drive alive, Hladik not only sacked Picton, he jarred the ball loose and recovered it with 1:15 left.
UBC just need a pair of first downs to run out the clock, but after O’Connor was sacked, the Rams got the ball back at their own 47-yard line with 38 seconds left.
“We went with a group of young guys and they gave us a chance to win,” said Nill, whose defence was missing, among many, three key members of its secondary in Will Maxwell, Payton LaGrange and Jordan Kennedy, as well as lineman Connor Griffiths.
As well, UBC’s Hutchins was excellent. He opened with a 46-yard field goal, and on a night in which offence was hard to come by, he closed with a pair of 44-yard salvos.
And all of this happened as Calgary improved to 3-0 with a 37-28 win over Saskatchewan. Those same Dinos will be in Vancouver a week from Saturday and in the days leading up to kick-off next week will be installed as huge favourites.
“We’re so close, we just need to gain some momentum,” Nill added. “I was a lot more upset last week. But right now I’m dealing with a different kind of emotion.”
It’s the difference between losing by 50 points one week, and then two points with no time left on the clock seven nights later.
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