UBC coach Nill ready for growing pains as his young ‘Birds grow up in a hurry vs. Huskies

Blake Nill knows he’s coaching a young and rapidly-improving football team, but the veteran CIS skipper, who authored incredible success at previous stops at both St. Mary’s and Calgary, also knows that each step along the way is fraught with the kind of potential peril that can come without even a moment’s notice.

“There’s like a minute-and-a-half left and we had to go six inches for a first down and we fumbled the ball,” Nill was recounting by phone late Friday night from Saskatoon where his No. 9-ranked UBC Thunderbirds (5-2) were applying figurative heart balm in the post-game locker room following a 41-36 win over the the Saskatchewan Huskies (2-5) on the second-to-final weekend of the Canada West regular season schedule.

“I’m telling you, when that happened, all I could think of was Joe Pisarcik.”

Nill, of course, was referencing one of the most famous plays in the history of his sport: 1978’s Miracle at the Meadowlands, when New York Giants quarterback Pisarcik fumbled what was supposed to be a routine, game-ending snap to preserve a 17-12 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Instead, Philly cornerback Herm Edwards scooped up the turnover and returned it for a touchdown in a 19-17 Eagles’ win.

While not fatal, back-up quarterback Trevor Casey’s turnover allowed the Huskies to drive for a touchdown that made it 41-34 with 57 seconds remaining, creating as tense a final minute as Nill and his charges have experienced on the football field.

Initially believed to be UBC’s first win in Saskatoon since 2000 (it was actually the second), the victory was nonetheless massive in the fortune of a Thunderbirds’ team attempting to build momentum for this coming Saturday’s regular season-ending home clash with the Manitoba Bisons. Both teams are sitting at 5-2 so the winner will earn the right to host the loser in a Hardy Cup opening-round playoff game.

And that is just the kind of environment Nill has created in his first season as UBC coach. He’s put his team in the position to accelerate it’s learning curve, to grow quicker than most would have expected, into the kind of team that can someday soon, perhaps even this season, be counted as a Vanier Cup national title contender.

“We make it tough on ourselves, but we’re finding a way to win and you can’t underestimate that for a team that has not had that kind of experience before,” said Nill, who watched the clinical excellence of his freshman quarterback Michael O’Connor result in a 20-of-31 passing performance for 449 yards,

with touchdown passes to three different receivers. “Mistakes are going to happen. I’d like to close out games more efficiently, but in the end, we made more big plays than they did.”

There was a two-play, 70-yard drive that culminated with O’Connor’s 47-yard TD pass to Alex Morrison. Then there was an 89-yard TD pass to Ben Cummings, who showed an incredible second-gear along the sidelines to cap a one-play drive.

Will Watson, Cummings and Trivel Pinto combined to catch 13 passes for 329 yards. Marcus Davis combined to net 176 all-purpose yards, and his older brother Terrell, who switched to defence this season, came up with his first collegiate interception.

There were so many moments for Nill to savour. But the big game with Manitoba is coming up fast. Chances are, he’s already forgotten half of what happened on Friday.

(Photo: UBC's Marcus Davis is tackled by Saskatchewan's Brooks Falloon in key Canada West clash Friday in Saskatoon. (GREG PENDER/ STARPHOENIX))

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