UBC's Marcus Davis out-distances the pack as he makes a key kick return Saturday in Canada West action against the visiting Regina Rams at Thunderbird Stadium. (Richard Lam, UBC athletics)
When Blake Nill was hired this past winter as the new head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds football team, one of the first things he referenced in terms of a drawing card to leave his post at the University of Calgary and come west to Vancouver, was the fan atmosphere he encountered when his Dinos played at Thunderbird Stadium in the 2014 homecoming game.
Well, if Nill felt the 4,245 in attendance that day made for a special atmosphere, he must have thought he picked the perfect new football home on Saturday.
Playing in front of an announced crowd of 6,950, a number several UBC historians felt was much too conservative, the Thunderbirds very nearly frittered away a 24-1 halftime lead against the Regina Rams, getting a number of big plays in the fourth quarter to pull out a 27-20 victory in front of its largest home crowd in at least 25 years.
The win evening their Canada West record at 1-1, and pushing their overall record to 2-1. UBC opened its season back in Quebec City in late August by beating the CIS’ current No 1-ranked team, the Laval Rouge et Or 41-6, but were easily handled last week in Calgary, losing 49-16.
Tense moments aside, Nill was thrilled to see virtually every corner of the stadium complex filled with people
“That made it worthwhile,” said Nill. “This was an incredible atmosphere. I told the kids at the beginning of the game and at halftime, to not only protect our on-field product but our off-field one as well because there are so many people working hard to make us a premier variety football program in the country.”
Saturday’s attendance out-stripped the 6,117 who came to Thunderbird Stadium to watch a CFL exhibition game June 19 be tee the the B.C. Lions and Edmonton Eskimos.
Still, the Rams opened the second half like they were ready to spoil the party.
They quickly cut their 24-1 deficit to just 24-17 by rifling off 16 unanswered points, the majority coming on touchdown strikes of 20 and 25 yards from backup quarterback Tyler Vieira to receiver Mitch Thompson.
Over the first 10 minutes of the third, UBC managed no passing yards and just nine yards rushing while Regina ran 19 plays and wracked up 208 yards.
But the team’s firestarter, ace receiver/runner Marcus Davis, seemed to get momentum back on the home team’s side when he returned a kick-off deep in his end zone some 65 yards, giving UBC the ball at the Rams’ 53.
“I just like making big plays for my team and all the team feeds off that,” said Davis, who finished with 114 all-purpose yards. “When I make one, everyone is upbeat and happy, so I try to make as many of those as I can in a game.”
Now three games into his tenure as UBC coach, Nill acknowledges that his young players are going through an essential part of their development process by beating a national contender, getting blown out on the road, and having to fight to protect a big early lead.
“When we’ve had to face adversity, we have a terrible time when we make mistakes,” said Nill after the narrow win was sealed when safety Taylor Loffler snuffed out Regina’s game-winning drive when he intercepted Vieira in the end zone with 36 seconds left. “We lose momentum we have a hard time getting it back.”
UBC was in total command over the opening half.
The ‘Birds defence seemed determined to make rely amends for its many breakdowns last week in Calgary by stopping the Rams on three consecutive downs from its own two-yard line.
And when UBC got its own chances in the red zone it didn’t disappoint.
Receiver Alex Morrison scored on a two-yard jet-sweep run and later a one-yard catch from quarterback Michael O’Connor, and receiver Ben Cummings scored on a one-yard run.
The speculation around the actual attendance at the contest was left somewhat in doubt because several UBC historians felt there were more fans in the stadium Saturday than there were for the 1990 Shrum Bowl, when the announced crowd was 8,900. If Saturday’s crowd was in fact larger than the 1990 Shrum Bowl, it would have been the largest in stadium history. It’s still likely the largest crowd in 25 years