It wasn’t the Hardy Cup homecoming many would’ve expected for Blake Nill.
After spending the previous nine seasons at the helm of the University of Calgary Dinos football program, Nill headed into Saturday’s 79th Hardy Cup against his former team knowing his revamped UBC Thunderbirds would be in tough against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
But just like they have all season long, the T-Birds surprised the majority of pundits – and perhaps their first-year head coach – landing a 34-26 win at McMahon Stadium in Calgary to give UBC its first Canada West football title since 1997.
“My heart goes out to them, because they’re the top team in the country and on this one day, things just didn’t work out for them. It’s tough in football that way,” Nill said of the Dinos, who following last year’s 28-15 loss to Manitoba have now lost back-to-back Hardy Cups for the first time since 1987.
“It’s been a long year for me personally. It was a very difficult decision to leave Calgary. It’s been a real grind trying to get the program established at UBC and the emotion of this game and the first game of the year (against Calgary) has been quite overwhelming.”
“You look at these kids and what it means to them, it’s worth it.”
Among the keys to UBC’s victory was the performance of Nill’s biggest offseason recruit – former Penn State quarterback Michael O’Connor, who passed for 374 yards on the day.
The first-year pivot picked apart the Dinos defence at key moments, including a pair of first half touchdown passes to Marcus Davis, which helped the T-Birds race out to a 28-17 halftime lead.
“We knew we’d have to play the best game possible and we played a really hard-fought game,” said O’Connor just moments after hoisting the Hardy Trophy.
“I strive under pressure and I take it as a challenge, but also that’s when I play my best football. As an offence, a defence, and as a whole team we rose up to the challenge today.”
On the other side of the coin, the setback was a crushing blow to Calgary.
After an 8-0 regular season, along with a come-from-behind 37-29 victory over the Saskatchewan Huskies in last week’s Hardy Cup Semifinal, the Dinos were favourites against a UBC team they defeated 49-16 in the season opener back on September 4.
The loss was especially tough to swallow for fifth-year quarterback and Hec Crighton nominee Andrew Buckley, who posted 474 passing yards, but came out on the wrong side of a second consecutive Hardy Cup.
“Heartbroken…It’s hard to end a career like that,” Buckley said, fighting back the emotion after his final game as a Dino.
“We just didn’t capitalize when we were in the red zone and took too many penalties.”
After leading the conference in nearly every category during the regular season, it was Calgary’s one statistical blemish that led in part to the Dinos playoff downfall – penalties.
Racking up 145 penalty yards compared to UBC’s 70, Calgary provided the T-Birds with more than enough breaks, which the visitors were all too happy to capitalize on.
With the Hardy Trophy in their possession, UBC now shifts their attention to their CIS national semifinal matchup with the St. FX X-Men in the Uteck Bowl.
And if one playoff homecoming wasn’t enough for Nill, the head coach will get his second dose in as many weeks, as he’ll return to Antigonish, Nova Scotia to face St. FX, who downed Mount Allison 14-12 earlier Saturday in the Loney Bowl.
The win, much like UBC, was a long time coming for the X-Men, who hadn't won a conference title since 1996.
“The last time St. FX won (the Loney Bowl) was when I was defensive coordinator there and we beat Mount Allison,” said Nill, who was St. FX’s d-coordinator between 1992 and 1997. “It’s going to be an honour to go back to Nova Scotia again.”
As for what he expects from his squad in the Uteck Bowl, the sky’s the limit for a team that continues to surprise their veteran coach.
“I’m shocked at some of the success we’ve had with this group. It says so much about the human spirit, because these kids are just listening and starting to believe in themselves.”
The Uteck Bowl goes Saturday, November 21 at 1 PM PT in Antigonish, Nova Scotia and can be seen live on Sportsnet 360.
NOTES: In the other conference championship games Saturday, Guelph downed Western 23-17 to claim the Yates Cup as Ontario University Athletics champions...In the Dunsmore Cup, Montreal secured a 18-16 win over Laval to emerge as the RSEQ champions, keeping Montreal's Vanier Cup title defence alive...Montreal and Guelph will now collide in the Mitchell Bowl – the other CIS semifinal game…With the win Saturday, Nill has now won a conference title as a head coach with three different programs. Nill won six Loney Bowl’s while with SMU (1998-2005), and six Hardy Cups with Calgary…UBC’s win is just the second time the road team has won in the two program’s nine head-to-head Hardy Cup meetings. The only other time came in 1992 when Calgary won 26-24 in overtime in Vancouver.