VANCOUVER – Talk about a wild night in Canada West.
The No. 9-ranked UBC Thunderbirds found themselves in a shootout with the Saskatchewan Huskies on Friday night. The T-Birds outgunned the Huskies on their own turf, coming away with a 41-36 win to bring their record on the season to 5-2.
UBC quarterback Michael O'Connor (Orleans, Ont.) had the best performance of his young career on Friday evening. The freshman completed 20-of-31 passes for 449 yards and three touchdowns, while adding six carries for 30 yards, including a 15-yard score, on the ground. The receiving corps was dynamite all night for UBC, with Ben Cummings (Abbotsford, B.C.) leading the way with three catches for 124 yards and a touchdown. Will Watson (Surrey, B.C.) did his part, picking up six catches for 108 yards, while Trivel Pinto (Brampton, Ont.) brought in four balls for 98 yards and a score. Alex Morrison (Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.) hauled in three catches of his own for 73 yards and a touchdown while Brandon Deschamps (Prince George, B.C.) had a fine day moving the chains on the ground, as the fifth-year tailback picked up 85 yards on just 14 carries.
Saskatchewan's offence was equally prolific. Kyle Siemens made his first start under center for the Huskies, and put up video game numbers his own, hitting 44-of-67 (yes, 67) passes for 520 yards, three scores, and one interception. Mitch Hillis was Siemens' favourite receiver in his debut, as the big wideout caught 12 balls for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Julan Lynch hauled in 10 balls of his own for 111 yards, while John Trumpy made five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Saskatchewan drew first blood less than five minutes after the opening kick-off. Siemens started out on fire, hitting 8-of-9 passes on his opening drive, capping off the possession by finding Hillis in the end zone on a quick five-yard strike.
Down 7-0, O'Connor wasted no time responding. After hitting Watson on a 23-yard gain, the Penn State transfer went deep, connecting with Morrison on a 47-yard bomb down the sideline. Just 27 seconds after Saskatchewan opened the scoring, the T-Birds had knotted it up.
With two and a half minutes left in the first quarter, the T-Birds added to their lead. Off the first snap after a Saskatchewan punt pinned them inside their own 20-yard line, O'Connor hooked up with Cummings on one of the T-Birds' longest plays of the season, an 89-yard touchdown.
Saskatchewan running back Tyler Chow leveled the score four minutes into the second frame, punching it in from two yards out after Siemens knifed his way through the UBC defence for 93 yards on four passes, with two each going to Lynch and Hillis.
Again, the 'Birds didn't let the Huskies gain any momentum, as O'Connor and the T-Birds offence drove quickly down the field. A 14-yard run for Deschamps led to a first-and-goal situation on the Saskatchewan three-yard line, and backup quarterback Trevor Casey (Port Coquitlam, B.C.) made it count, busting through for a touchdown run on the next play.
After Saskatchewan kicker Sean Stenger hit a 30-yarder to bring the score to 21-17 for the T-Birds, the teams traded late first-half touchdowns.
After Saskatchewan defensive lineman Donovan Dale took a penalty on UBC's third down, O'Connor did the damage for the 'Birds, with his 15-yard touchdown scamper extending UBC's lead to 28-17.
The duo of Siemens and Hillis responded for the Huskies, connecting for a 14-yard touchdown with just 30 seconds left in the opening half. At the break, just a field goal separated the two sides, with UBC on top 28-24.
Both teams' offences cooled off for a bit in the third quarter, as a 47-yard boot from UBC kicker Quinn van Gylswyk (Victoria, B.C.) marked the only scoring from either side in the frame.
The teams traded field goals early in the fourth quarter, bringing the score to 34-27 for the Thunderbirds.
Then, with eight minutes left in the contest, Pinto struck a knockout punch. After Marcus Davis (Victoria, B.C.) rushed for six yards, Pinto took a short ball from O'Connor on second down and raced down the right sideline, picking up 40 yards on the catch-and-run. After O'Connor hit Davis for a 21-yard gain on the next play, he followed that up by finding Pinto in the corner of the end zone on an 18-yard toss. Pinto did well to keep his feet in-bounds, and put the 'Birds up 41-27.
Siemens continued his crazy evening late into the contest, hooking up with Trumpy for a seven-yard score with just a minute remaining, but the Huskies couldn't climb all the way back, with a conceded safety from UBC, at the final whistle, capping off the night's scoring.
The loss drops the Huskies' record to 2-5 on the season, and brings their playoff hopes into serious doubt.
On the T-Birds sideline, it was the team's second win in Saskatchewan against the Huskies in 15 years, and for UBC head coach Blake Nill, that's part of what made this performance so impressive.
"These players need to be fully complimented on their performance tonight," said Nill. "It was tremendous effort, and I'm very proud of them for being able to pull out the win. Saskatchewan is a damn tough place to win."
The Manitoba Bisons are next on the Thunderbirds' schedule, as they make their way to Vancouver for a showdown at David Sidoo Field at Thunderbird Stadium. The two teams will square off on Saturday, October 31, with the opening kickoff scheduled for 1 p.m. (PT).
Make sure to grab your tickets for next week's game here, as the 'Birds look to secure the right to host the Canada West Playoff semi-finals with a win against the Bisons.
(Photo: Michael O'Connor threw for 449 yards against Saskatchewan on Friday night)