UBC humbled, potential break-out game filled with breakdowns in loss to Huskies

VANCOUVER — This was surely to be the statement game of the UBC Thunderbirds’ 2015 Canada West football season, the game where all of the highs and the lows of the first month of play were supposed to converge into a singular force, focused and consistent for four full quarters.

Instead, the CIS No. 6 ‘Birds (3-2 overall, 2-2 Canada West) played a stinker on Friday night before 2,650 fans at Thunderbird Stadium, losing 45-29 to the visiting Saskatchewan Huskies (2-2) and gaining a reputation as a youthful team with a multiple personality disorder.

“This would have been a chance for us to take a major step, now we’re right back in the pack.” said UBC head coach Blake Nill who like everyone else in the stadium Friday realized just how big an opportunity to build momentum in a parity-filled Canada West had been frittered away. “I told kids that I was not prepared to abandon the season, but that I need better play from my veteran players. I need guys who I feel want to come out and earn a win and not have one given to them.”

But why so flat? Why so listless? Why so unable to execute from the outset against a Huskies team which bolted out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and had an offensive counter-punch to match anything the ‘Birds could throw at them?

“I wish I could tell you,” sighed Nill. “Maybe its the inexperience with the situation, maybe believing that you are the No. 6 team in the country. I hope it wasn’t taking the Saskatchewan program for granted because as an experienced coach I know they will come out and play hard and physical. That is culture of their program and the culture we need here.”

That’s the paradox at work here.

You beat the greatest dynasty in Canadian university football in the last generation, the Laval Rouge et Or, on the road, in your very first game.

You go out on the road again and when the pace of the contest says ’shoot-out’ time, you match the host Manitoba Bisons blow for blow and come away with a 51-48 win.

Contrast those two games against a blow-out loss to current No. 1 Calgary, the game which UBC quarterback Michael O’Connor admitted earlier this week “humbled the team” and add in the ‘Birds recent homecoming game in which they very nearly blew a 24-1 lead before holding on to stop Regina, and you have four games in which a young team got a chance to experience just about everything.

Game 5 was supposed to be the breakthrough.

Instead, as Nill explained, it was a reminder of the old axiom that you can’t grow up overnight.

“The big thing is that this team is growing and it shows,” continued Nill, whose charges are in Edmonton on Saturday to face the Alberta Golden Bears. “The fact is, we’re making big plays at times, but it’s a youth situation as well and that is why I say my veteran players need to provide leadership. I don’t have any problem playing young players and maybe I need to play a few more.”

That was a message to the veterans that go time is now.

With Alberta twice and a rematch with the Huskies in Saskatoon serving as the final three games of the regular season, the window of time to gain momentum is shrinking. Can they be ready?

“We have to be,” said Nill. “We’re seeing signs. We’re starting to get a glimpse of a running attack going (17 carries, 77 yards) and for the second week in a row, our special teams were excellent. Our biggest concern is the defence. We knew our secondary could be an issue. We have to find a way to try and find a way to make teams earns their score and not give up big plays.”

Perhaps the play that best summed up how ready to win a street fight the Huskies were came with 1:36 left in the first quarter. UBC pivot Michael O’Connor’s pass to receiver Marshall Cook was snared in traffic nicely by the receiver. But before Cook could fully squeeze it, it appeared to be ripped out of his arms by Saskatchewan’s Justin Filteau, who took it 48 yards for the major and a 21-0 lead.

The ‘Birds would surrender huge yards and touchdowns, but somehow find a way to keep fighting to within a score. When they pulled to within 35-29 on a 47-yard field goal by Quinn Van Gylswyk late in the third quarter, you still didn’t have the feeling that a rally could be taken to completion.

Van Gylswyk, who went 4-for-4 on the night, was exceptional. UBC’s only touchdowns came on a one-yard sweep by receiver Will Watson and a five-yard pass from O’Connor to Malcolm Lee.

Huskies’ running back Jarvis James carried 26 times for 159 yards and two scores, while quarterback Drew Burko went 16-of-21 for 324 yards and two TDs. Receiver Mitch Hillis, who hauled in five passes for 110 yards, made a living along the sidelines, including one grab that went for 57 yards.

“They did a good job putting (free safety Taylor) Loffler in man coverage,” admitted Nill. “We need Loffler to be the guy who plays over the top and patrols the secondary. Their formations locked him into man coverage and he’s not a man coverage guy You can’t cover two-thirds of the field with one guy.”

Click here for the full story: Howard Tsumura, The Province


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