CALGARY -- Everyone wants to be No. 1, but few want to deal with the pressures and pitfalls, the hype and headaches that come with it.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. It looked that way for the Calgary Dinos.
Canadian university football’s top-ranked and undefeated team got tripped up by its kingly trappings and the University of B.C. Thunderbirds Saturday afternoon in a 34-26 Hardy Trophy upset at McMahon Stadium.
Playing in the Canada West title game, and a chance to move closer to their first Vanier Cup berth since 1997, the T-Birds rode the arm of first-quarterback Michael O’Connor in the first half and an opportunistic and tenacious defence in the second as the scrappy, under-manned T-Birds pulled off a stunner.
O’Connor threw for two touchdowns and 280 yards in the first half and threw up 40 pass attempts altogether. He completed 27 of them for 374 yards. Running back Brandon Deschamps, one of only two fifth-year players on the team, ran for 78 yards on 12 carries and Quinn van Gylswyk kicked four field goals, his longest from 46 yards. van Gylswyk also averaged 49.1 yards on six punts.
A Victoria native, van Gylswyk attended the B.C. Lions 2012 training camp as a junior. O’Connor and Deschamps were both invitees to this year’s Lions camp.
“The heart on this team is incredible,” van Gylswyk said. “This was a complete team win, in all facets of the game. We’re a bunch of guys you wouldn’t think would shine. We’ve got two-thirds of a team (most college football teams have up to 90 players. UBC has 53). We’re an underdog every week. But we’re a tough out.”
That toughness permeates from demanding head coach Blake Nill, who admits he’s a “hardass” and drove players from the team who weren’t willing to go all-in.
In a Nov. 5 story in the Calgary Herald, it was reported that “99 per cent” of the Dinos were happy to see Nill move on to the west coast this season. In the same story, Nill was referred to as a “screamer” and an “intimidator.”
On Saturday, he was subdued in victory, understanding and empathetic of the crushed feelings on the other side, a team he mostly recruited during his nine seasons as the Dinos head coach.
“It hurts when you’re supposed to win,” Nill said. “I have a lot of fondness for most of the people in that (Dinos) dressing room. I feel their pain. That’s the best team in the country, no doubt. Last year’s team was the best in the country.”
In 2014, Nill’s favoured Dinos lost the Hardy Trophy to the Manitoba Bisons, 27-15, also at McMahon Stadium, another instance when the No. 1 team in the conference was expected to win.
This year, with Wayne Harris Jr., Nill’s former defensive coordinator, coaching the Dinos, they were the No. 1 university team in Canada -- until today.
“They have the top player in the country (2014 Hec Crighton Trophy winner, quarterback Andrew Buckley), probably the next-best player in the country (running back Mercer Timmis), and a veteran defence,” Nill said. “It’s a coup (for UBC).”
(Photo: Canadian university football’s top-ranked Calgary Dinos were tripped up the University of B.C. Thunderbirds in a 34-26 Hardy Trophy upset victory Saturday afternoon at McMahon Stadium. By: Richard Lam)