VANCOUVER – The No. 9-ranked UBC Thunderbirds football team escaped with a 24-10 win over the No. 8-ranked Manitoba Bisons on Saturday afternoon in the regular season finale, earning the right to host next week's Canada West playoff semifinal against the very same Manitoba squad.
Saturday's contest was a defensive show of force for the 'Birds, as their stop unit was led by linebacker Terrell Davis' (Victoria, B.C.) 9.5 tackles (six solo, seven assisted) and a forced fumble. In the secondary, defensive back Stavros Katsantonis (Bakersfield, Calif.) had his second straight week with two interceptions, as he forced Manitoba quarterback Foster Martens into bad decisions all day.
On offence, it was an up-and-down day for UBC quarterback Michael O'Connor (Orleans, Ont.). The freshman completed just 17-of-30 passes for 219 yards and two interceptions, but also contributed 62 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Tailback Brandon Deschamps (Prince George, B.C.) had a solid outing, picking up 119 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Marcus Davis (Victoria, B.C.) was his usual two-way terror, catching five passes for 94 yards, and adding a 14-yard rushing score on his only carry of the afternoon.
Manitoba was also led by its defence, and it was linebacker Brett McFarlane who led the way. The fourth-year player forced two fumbles on the afternoon, to go along with 4.5 tackles. Defensive back Jayden McCoy also had a solid afternoon, with three tackles, an interception, and a fumble recovery.
Bisons quarterback Foster Martens, making the start in place of the injured Theo Deezar, completed 10-of-18 passes for 82 yards and three interceptions before being benched late. The Bisons used the committee approach on the ground, as Jamel Lyles picked up 55 yards, Alex Christie gained 47, and Andrew Barry picked 42.
Despite the end result, the game certainly didn't start out the way the Thunderbirds wanted. On O'Connor's third throw of the contest, the freshman quarterback put the ball right in the hands of McCoy, who ran it back 29 yards.
Opening their next drive at the UBC 45-yard line, Manitoba drove the ball well. Several different rushers kept the UBC defence off balance, and Martens was able to hit a couple of short throws to keep the sticks moving. The Bisons reached the UBC 17-yard line before the T-Birds' defence stepped up.
T-Birds linebacker Riley Jones (Delta, B.C.) made a great jump on a short throw from Martens, picking him off at the 10-yard line and making it all the way out to the UBC 37-yard line. A 15-yard penalty to the Bisons was tacked on, bringing the ball out just shy of midfield.
After UBC was dinged on a procedure call on first down, Deschamps busted a huge 17-yard run to open up the defence. Then, O'Connor hit Davis and Will Watson (Surrey, B.C.) for gains of 22 and 9 yards, respectively. After H-Back Liam Haime (Winnipeg) got UBC a first down on a one-yard plunge to the Manitoba 14-yard line, Davis went back to work
The offensive weapon took the handoff from O'Connor and seemed to get swallowed by the Bisons' defensive line. Out of nowhere, Davis popped back out of the pile and scampered to paydirt, going untouched the rest of the way. The touchdown put UBC up 7-0 with 6:35 left in the opening quarter.
On the ensuing Manitoba possession, UBC's defence stepped up again, forcing another turnover. After Lyles broke through the defensive line on a second-down carry, he was met by Davis at the Manitoba 43-yard line. The linebacker won the battle, popping the ball out. T-Birds defensive lineman Boyd Richardson (Regina, Sask.) was there to scoop up the loose ball.
The Bisons got the ball back in short order. With backup quarterback Trevor Casey (Port Coquitlam, B.C.) in for a third-and-short situation on the ensuing UBC drive, he attempted to carry the ball for first down. Casey got the first down and more, making it to the Manitoba 30-yard line before McFarlane deftly knocked the ball out.
McKoy recovered the ball for the Bisons, but they couldn't turn the turnover into points, as the UBC defence forced another two-and-punt.
Davis appeared to have put the 'Birds up 14-0 on the ensuing punt return, as he outran the coverage to the right sideline and found a seam, taking it 63 yards for the score. Unfortunately for the 'Birds, the play was called back on an illegal block near the midfield mark.
Manitoba got on the board two minutes into the second quarter, as kicker Ryan Jones knocked a 30-yard field goal through the uprights
The next UBC drive stalled quickly, and Quinn van Gylswyk (Victoria, B.C.) uncharacteristically shanked the punt, giving Manitoba possession at the UBC 51-yard line.
Katsantonis made sure that the mistake didn't cost the 'Birds, as he came in over the top on a deep ball from Martens and made an easy interception, keeping the 'Birds up by four points just two minutes after Jones' field goal.
UBC added to their lead with four minutes to go in the first half, thanks in part to little trick play magic.
Faced with a third-and-five on his own 40-yard line, van Gylswyk lined up to punt. Instead, the former quarterback picked up the ball and delivered a 16-yard strike to Taylor Loffler (Kelowna, B.C.), moving the chains for UBC.
From there, O'Connor hit Deschamps on a 25-yard screen play, and after a three-yard Deschamps run, O'Connor found Davis on a short crossing route for a 12-yard gain down to the Bisons' four-yard line.
O'Connor then called his own number, scrambling to his left and forcing his way into the end zone. With just 58 seconds left in the first half, the touchdown put UBC up 14-3.
After Manitoba punted early in the third quarter, there was a scary moment for the UBC faithful. After Davis raced 12 yards on the punt return, McFarlane came in and delivered a booming hit, forcing his second fumble of the afternoon. Manitoba recovered the loose ball, but worse for the T-Birds was that Davis stayed down on the field after the hit.
Fortunately, Davis returned to the game with about five minutes left in the third quarter, just in time for UBC's next scoring drive. O'Connor caught the defence off-guard on the first play of the series, as, starting on the Manitoba 50-yard line, the quarterback faked a hand off to Deschamps and took it himself, racing through the secondary all the way to the Bisons' five-yard line.
van Gylswyk hit the ensuing chip shot, and his 12-yard field goal put the 'Birds up 14-3 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter.
Another Katsantonis interception ended Manitoba's next drive, as the defensive back snagged a Martens deep ball attempt at the UBC 26-yard line, taking it back five yards.
UBC couldn't capitalize, and the offence was forced to punt yet again as the third quarter expired.
To start the final frame, the UBC defence forced another two-and-out, and O'Connor took the field once more. Starting at their own 48-yard line, O'Connor got the 'Birds into a second-and-nine on the Manitoba 21-yard line. O'Connor went for it all, looking for a receiver in the corner of the end zone. Instead, it was Bisons defensive back Houston Rennie who came up with the ball for Manitoba's second pick of the game.
Manitoba earned their first major of the contest with just 3:05 to go in the fourth quarter. Billy Hart, who replaced Martens at quarterback following Katsantonis' second pick, drove the Bisons downfield, getting help from a couple of defensive penalties on the 'Birds. Cameron Fox punched the ball in from the one-yard line, bringing the Bisons to within one touchdown, down just 17-10.
Then, the T-Birds offence stuck in the dagger.
It took UBC just two plays and 47 seconds to answer the Bisons' touchdown. Opening the drive at his own 20-yard line, O'Connor let fly of a beautiful ball over the middle, hitting a wide-open Davis for a 40-yard catch-and-run. Then, Deschamps did the rest, taking a hand-off and, racing through a hole on the left side of the line, took it 50 yards to the house.
The scoreboard read that same 24-10 score as the final whistle sounded just minutes later, as Manitoba wasn't able to put any points up late in the contest.
After the contest, UBC head coach Blake Nill praised the defensive effort shown by his squad, who allowed just seven first downs in the first half. Nill also alluded to the injury troubles and roster issues that the 'Birds have faced in recent weeks, and was impressed with how his side still managed to get the job done.
"All year, our offence has carried us, and this game, I thought that our defence had their best performance of the season. It was pretty neat to see. With these kids, people need to realize, that we're operating with two thirds of a team and we went 6-2 in the toughest conference in the country. It's pretty special."
The 'Birds and Bisons will square off in the Canada West playoff semifinals next week, as the two teams finished at No. 2 and No. 3 in the conference. The win this afternoon means that the playoff showdown will be held at David Sidoo Field at Thunderbird Stadium, with the opening kickoff set for 12 noon PT.
The semifinal will also serve as a part of the UBC Thunderbirds Super Weekend, as six teams will host 10 total games across campus over the three days.
Starting at just $5, Super Weekend passes, which give fans access to all the weekend's games for one low rate, are available now. Purchase your pass here.
(Photo: Stavros Katsantonis makes the first of his two interceptions for UBC on Saturday)