O’Connor holding up under the hype


UBC freshman quarterback living up to big expectations placed on him at season’s outset

When Michael O’Connor stepped onto the field at Thunderbird Stadium in early April, he was met by a Vancouver media contingent on par with a B.C. Lions practice prior to a playoff game.

Four TV cameras, newspaper photographers, reporters from print, radio and television.

That’s what happens when a bluechip quarterback prospect transfers from an elite NCAA Div. 1 program, in O’Connor’s case Penn State, to a CIS school in Canada like UBC.

Before he had even been cleared to throw his first official practice pass with the team, the hype machine was building, asking the question: Could the redshirt freshman ever live up to the expectations?

Well, at the midway mark of his rookie collegiate campaign, one in which he opened back in late August by engineering a 41-16 win over the country’s former No. 1 team, the Laval Rouge et Or, it’s safe to say he’s been everything hoped for.

“I don’t know if exceeding is the right term,” UBC head coach Blake Nill said as No. 6 UBC (3-1, 2-1 Canada West) prepared to face the visiting Saskatchewan Huskies (1-2) on Friday at home (7 p.m.).

“But certainly I believe he’s had some very good performances which have led to quality performances by the rest of the team. Overall, there is no question that, given our success on the field, you’d have to say he is meeting the expectations placed on him.” And that is saying an awful lot. Yet ask O’Connor about the hype, and the freshman is all business.

“Honestly,” he said, “I didn’t even notice it. I try to stay low-key. That’s the way I live my life. I am focused on going to school and playing football, so like everything else, I didn’t pay any mind to it.”

Outside the cocoon, however, it’s unmistakable that his story, his big arm and his cool-under-pressure demeanour have resonated with a massive student body. When the ’Birds beat Regina 27-20 two weekends a goin their home coming game, the announced crowd of just under 7,000 at sold-out T-Bird Stadium was the team’s biggest home crowd in at least 25 years. As a freshman, his conference-only stats through three games (954 yards and six TDs) have him third in Canada West behind Manitoba’s sophomore pivot Theo Deezar (1,151, 8 TDs) and Calgary’s fourth-year Andrew Buckley (998 yards, 4 TDs).

But if you include his outing against Laval, in which he passed for 292 yards and two more scores, he’s at 1,246 yards and eight touchdowns.

With four games in the books and four more on tap, he’s on pace for 2,492 yards and 16 touchdown passes. All as a freshman.

Of course, past UBC Hec Crighton award-winning quarterbacks Jordan Gagner and Billy Greene have set the standard of excellence that O’Connor is attempting to follow, but there is one aspect that can’t be denied when assessing what O’Connor has helped his team accomplish.

“Because of our lack of a run game,” Nill said, “he has shouldered everything. When teams compete against us, they are not preparing for a UBC run game. They are zeroed in on him.”

Whether or not that lack of a run game winds up being UBC’s Achilles heel over its final four league games remains to be seen. The club has an excellent power runner in Brandon Deschamps, a former 1,000-yard back (1,191 yards in 2013).

UBC’s only loss this season, a 49-16 nightmare against current No. 1 Calgary, in which they were out-rushed 279 yards to 35 and outscored 4-0 in rushing TDs, stands out like a sore thumb. And on the season, UBC is last in the Canada West with 59 rushes for 128 yards over three games, a paltry 2.2 yards-per-carry average.

O’Connor refuses to let his feathers get ruffled by the numbers.

“When they zero in on the pass, I see that as a challenge, knowing that our run game has been struggling a bit this year,” he said.

“We can still make plays. The way I look at it, we’ve only been together for six or seven weeks. We’re still working on our rapport, our timing.”

They’re sitting at No. 6 in the national rankings, they’re coming off a character-defining 51-48 road win last Saturday against Manitoba, and the best part of it all is that the guy leading them on the field is still just 19 years old.

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Photo: RICH LAM/UBC ATHLETICS UBC Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O’Connor throws a pass against the University of Regina Rams during CIS Canada West football action earlier this month.

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