VANCOUVER — As far as filming a commercial of themselves, the UBC Thunderbirds football team couldn’t have presented their essence in a better, more dominant light than they did Saturday when they hosted the Manitoba Bisons in the Canada West conference’s semifinals at Thunderbird Stadium.
Last week, when first-year UBC head coach Blake Nill learned that his team would face the Bisons before a national TV audience with a 98.2 per cent reach of Canadian homes, the grizzled gridiron skipper smiled.
“We want this to be a three-hour commercial for UBC and I am hoping that the country sees what this university all about,” Nill said of the game.
On Saturday, with Nill directing and his players delivering the performance of their season, CIS No. 6-ranked UBC demolished the Bisons 52-10 in a show of force so impressive that No. 8 Manitoba didn’t score its lone touchdown until 19 seconds remained and UBC’s starters were ready to start cutting the tape from their ankles.
UBC, which now travels to Calgary for Saturday’s conference championship Hardy Cup final (11 a.m., Global TV) against the No. 1-ranked Dinos, was so impressive from a defensive standpoint that Manitoba needed a pass interference call against UBC with five minutes left in the first half, just to get the ball past midfield for the first time.
Calgary rallied in the fourth quarter to beat Saskatchewan 37-29 in the other semifinal played Saturday.
“The biggest factor was UBC’s defence,” said Manitoba head coach Brian Dobie of a ‘Birds unit which intercepted two of the first three passes that Bisons’ quarterback Theo Deezar threw. “I thought they just were so prepared for everything we were doing and it showed. That was the game right there. It’s not like they beat some last place team. This was a Western semifinal and they beat us handily.”
The victory looked like it would be the most decisive Thunderbirds’ football playoff win since they beat Manitoba 57-3 in the 1982 Hardy Cup final en route to capturing the first Vanier Cup national title in program history.
Deezar’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Dustin Pedersen with just a handful of seconds remaining insured the 54-point margin would remain a record, but the game is still the most one-sided post-season affair since UBC crushed Calgary 49-3 in the 1986 Hardy Cup. Yet any way you wanted to slice it, Saturday’s game was one of the most impressive playoff wins in the entire 91-year history of the program.
Quarterback Michael O’Connor passed for 231 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair to speed merchant Trivel Pinto. Senior running back Brandon Deschamps, playing in what would be his final home game in blue and gold, rushed 129 yards and one score.
And the ‘Birds defence came up with four interceptions, including two by linebacker Mitch Barnett, one after he pogo’ed upwards at the 55-yard line, brought the ball down with one hand and secured it at his helmet with the other, before rocketing all the way to the end zone for a 46-2 lead with 1:48 left in the third quarter.
“Something we’ve stressed the last few weeks is that we have given up too many points,” explained Barnett. “We wanted to focus on helping the offence, especially on a rainy day like this when an offence might struggle.”
Barnett’s major was, as Nill would later describe “a little bit of icing on the cake.”
But Nill, now set to face the Calgary team that he personally built before coming to UBC last spring, was most happy that the play represented the “kind of attitude and effort we need on this team.”
Nill saw that same attitude when Deschamps looked to have been stopped, but broke through a sea of tacklers to score a 38-yard major for a 14-0 lead.
And he especially saw it on a four-snap series that involved all three phases of play midway through the third quarter.
With the ball deep in Manitoba territory, the ‘Birds freshman defensive end Connor Griffiths, on consecutive plays, sacked Deezar and then tackled running back Alex Christie in the backfield.
With Manitoba forced to punt, UBC’s Marcus Davis made a return to the Bisons’ 15-yard line, and on the very next play, O’Connor threw a 15-yard scoring strike to receiver Alex Morrison for a 39-0 lead.
It was the snap-shot that best represented what the ’Birds had become on defence, special teams and offence, and what they hope to carry forward into Saturday’s game at Calgary.
Deschamps would love to keep extending his career week to week, but he knows a massive challenge lies ahead.
“We knew the whole time (Calgary) set the mark for this conference,” said Deschamps of a Dinos team which beat UBC 49-16 in its conference opener back in early September. “I know I have to play the best game I have ever played as a Thunderbird, and that we have to play as good a game as any Thunderbirds team I have ever been on, if we even want to hang with these guys.”
(Photo: Cover - UBC's Mitch Barnett makes his way down field as part of his 55-yard interception return for a touchdown Saturday against Manitoba. Other image - UBC’s Brandon Deschamps breaks through the Manitoba defence Saturday - Richard Lam, UBC Athletics)