Free safety Taylor Loffler's (Kelowna, B.C.) last-minute interception assured a happy homecoming for the UBC football team, as the Thunderbirds fended off a furious second-half comeback from the Regina Rams, and came away with a hard-fought 27-20 victory.
A total of 6,950 fans attended the annual Homecoming Game at David Sidoo Field at Thunderbird Stadium, the largest number for a UBC game since the 1989 Shrum Bowl, which had 8,700 people in attendance. The total was also larger than the B.C. Lions-Edmonton Eskimos CFL exhibition game at the same venue in June.
The first 30 minutes demonstrated the potential of the UBC offence behind their gunslinging quarterback Michael O'Connor (Orleans, Ont.), as the T-Birds jumped out to a 24-1 lead at the half. O'Connor finished the day 19-37 for 303 yards and a touchdown.
After Regina quarterback Noah Picton was knocked out of the contest late in the second quarter, backup Taylor Vieira came in and jump-started the Rams' offence, putting up nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns through the air in the second half.
"It was a tough game, obviously. I haven't had to go through many of those in a while," said UBC head coach Blake Nill said of the back-and forth battle. "However, the main thing is that we came out on the right side of the scoreboard."
UBC offensive weapon and return man Marcus Davis (Victoria, B.C.) almost blew the roof off Thunderbird Stadium early, as he took Regina's first punt of the night 85 yards to the house, but the play was called back on a holding penalty.
Following a rouge by Regina kicker Andrew Fabian to open the scoring, O'Connor went to work.
With eight minutes left in the opening quarter, O'Connor hit Davis, receiver David Mann (Delta, B.C.), and Alex Morrison (Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.) on three beautiful throws of 17, 23, and 33 yards to put the T-Birds on the Regina two-yard line.
From there, Morrison did the rest, taking the hand off from O'Connor on the next play and outracing Rams' defenders to the left pylon, putting UBC up 7-1.
After the T-Birds defence forced another three-and-out, O'Connor hit Will Watson on a 30-yard strike. A Davis rush and defensive pass interference call put UBC deep in the red zone again, and Morrison struck again, this time catching a one-yard pass from O'Connor in the end zone.
Early on in the second quarter, linebacker Terrell Davis (Victoria, B.C.) made a pair of highlight-reel stops on Rams running back Atlee Simon after the Rams marched all the way to the UBC two-yard line.
The first was a terrific strip-tackle on the bruising running back, as Davis ripped the ball from his hands before he could cross the plain. After the Rams recovered the loose ball, Simon got the ball on second down, only to be thumped by Davis once again.
With six minutes left in the second quarter, O'Connor hit Mann over the middle, and the receiver took off. Mann raced down the right side of the field, making it all the way down to the Regina one-yard line before getting hauled down.
Receiver Ben Cummings (Abbotsford, B.C.) punched the ball in on the one-yard plunge soon after, extending the UBC lead to 20.
On the next Regina drive, there was a scary moment for Rams' fans, as Noah Picton was slow to get up after getting drilled by Davis. Picton didn't return to the contest, and Vieira stepped in.
O'Connor led another long drive near the end of the second frame, leading to a 35-yard field goal by Quinn van Glyswyk (Victoria, B.C.), putting the home side up 24-1 after a dominant first half.
The Rams started out the second half with new energy, and recovered their own short kickoff on the first play of the third quarter.
Vieira came out slinging on the team's first drive of the half, and wide receiver Mitchell Thompson was with him step-for-step.
The two first connected on a 38-yard bomb down the left side just 12 seconds into the half, and wasted no time going for a second big play. Vieira lofted up a 25-yard shot, and Thompson had no trouble bringing it down in the end zone, cutting the UBC lead to 24-8.
Thompson almost had another long touchdown on the Rams' next drive, but cornerback A. J. Blackwell (North Vancouver) made a terrific play on the ball, knocking it away from the Regina receiver at the last second, forcing a three and out.
After UBC conceded a safety to bring the score to 24-10, Vieira and Thompson hooked up again, this time on a 20-yard strike.
Vieira delivered a beautiful ball to the back left corner of the UBC end zone and Thompson stretched out, making a brilliant contested catch with Blackwell draped over him. The touchdown made it 24-17 UBC with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Following an 35-yard Regina field goal attempt that went wide left, Davis did his best to stem the Rams' momentum, taking the ball out of the UBC end zone and weaving, spinning, and cutting his way to a 65-yard return.
van Gwylsyk nailed a 41-yard field goal attempt on the same drive, sailing it through the uprights with room to spare, and putting the T-Birds up 27-17.
With 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Regina closed the gap to seven, with kicker Andrew Fabian drilling a 32-yard field goal.
Neither team could get much traction late in the contest, with both defences putting up stout performances until the final minute of the contest.
Vieira led the Rams in a late drive, getting down to the UBC 18 with just 37 seconds left.
Going for the tie, Vieira launched a ball into the end zone, and Loffler made a great read, getting under the ball and sealing the result for UBC.
For Nill, the fact that his squad was able to pull out the win, even facing such a furious push from Regina, bodes well for the long-term strength of the program.
"When they have adversity, they'll become stronger, and eventually, they'll always believe they can win no matter what. That's what we're striving for."
Mann finished with 99 receiving yards on three catches while Will Watson (White Rock, B.C.) led the Thunderbirds with five catches, for 78 yards.
Reigning Canada West Defensive Player of the Week Mitch Barnett (North Vancouver) led UBC with 13 tackles, followed by Terrell Davis with 12 and Loffler with 11.
For Regina, Vieira completed 17 of his 31 pass attempts for 286 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw an interception. On the ground, Simon had a huge night with 207 yards on 28 carries. However, it was not enough to prevent his Rams team from falling to 0-2 on the season. Regina will play at Saskatchewan, also 0-2, next Friday in a battle for provincial supremacy.
UBC (1-1) will head to Winnipeg for a Sept. 19 game against the Manitoba Bisons (1-1).