It’s been a very long time since UBC Thunderbirds football fans have dared to dream about things as big as winning conference championships and being in the hunt for the Vanier Cup.
Who knows? That time may have arrived on Saturday.
Against anyone’s most optimistic predictions, the Thunderbirds not only beat the dynastic Laval Rouge et Or 41-16 in their first game of the season on Saturday, they did it on the road in their first game under new head coach Blake Nill.
“I know it’s just an exhibition game, but for UBC, I think this is the biggest win they’ve had since the last Vanier Cup,” a jubilant Nill said, referencing the ‘Birds 1997 national title season. “This is a huge step forward for the program. I’ve walked in here with monster teams, all-Canadians across both lines, and I have almost always come away heartbroken. So to come in here and win with this group is pretty neat.”
Anticipation towards 2015 began to build following Nill’s hiring in December from Calgary where he had most recently led the Dinos to a spot in the 2013 Vanier Cup final. It seemed to grow exponentially in February when he brought former Penn State quarterback Michael O’Connor into the fold in February.
The pressure was steadily building, yet on Saturday, instead of giving in to it, they seemed empowered by it.
Marcus Davis scored on an 85-yard punt return. O’Connor passed for 292 yards and a pair of scores. UBC didn’t have a two-and-out until the third quarter. Its defence held Laval to 95 total rushing yards on the day and its secondary, which picked off four Rouge et Or passes, capped the rout when Kevin Wiens returned an interception, his second of the game, 30 yards for the score.
“Let’s throw a bouquet to the secondary because they are probably the most over-achieving group on the team,” continued Nill. “There’s not a lot of blue-chip, high-end athletes there, just a lot of guys who work hard, prepare mentally and have hearts the size of basketballs. They weren’t going to be denied.”
UBC led 27-0 at the half, then watched Laval pull to within 31-16 in the fourth quarter before scoring the final 10 points of the contest.
Yet the win came despite the fact that UBC was intercepted four times itself, and that its running game, shy of one 50-yard run by Brandon Deschamps late in the contest, was limited to 52 yards on 19 carries.
“We’ve got to get better,” said Nill of the ground game. “We have a young offensive line and we were outmatched by Laval’s defensive front. It was a difficult task but coming into the game, I really didn’t expect to run the ball a lot overall. Over the last decade what I have learned is that to beat Laval, you have to throw the ball.”
To that end, O’Connor and back-up Trevor Casey (6-of-12, 60 yards) combined to help UBC pass for 352 yards to seven different receivers, most notably David Mann, the South Delta product who snared six passes for 156 yards, a 26.6 average per grab.
“Those two have developed a very strong relationship,” Nill said of Mann and O’Connor. “Yes, today it was Mann. But Michael has developed strong relationships with all of our receivers.”
O’Connor fired scoring strikes of five yards to Trivel Pinto and 20 yards to Marshall Cook, while kicker Quinn Van Gylswyk kicked a trio of field goals. The UBC defence was also credited with a safety.
Terrell Davis, playing his first collegiate game on defence, tied with teammate Troy Hansen for the team tackling lead with six stops. Taylor Loffler and Dominque Termansen had one interception each.
Nill admits Saturday’s Canada West-opening conference tilt in Calgary (4:30 p.m.) will be both emotional for him and a stern test for his team. Yet he stresses that it’s all part of the process of building a title contender.
“I can handle it,” Nill said. “I want people to gun for us, to have to prepare for us. I realize we are going to take our share of lumps, but I would rather have that than everyone considering us a sure win.”
On Saturday, they proved to everyone that they are anything but.