Hardy Cup heroes: Coach Nill left speechless after underdog UBC stuns undefeated, No.1 Calgary

In the aftermath of a massive upset win, as he prepared to depart McMahon Stadium late Saturday afternoon, UBC Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill was asked to describe his emotions following a 34-26 Canada West Hardy Cup championship win over the host Calgary Dinos.

“I am at a loss for the words to say,” Nill began of his upstart ‘Birds, who has just knocked off the the team he’d coached for the past nine seasons. “It doesn’t make sense, except to say that it says a lot about the will of a person and what happens when each one of them believes they can get the job done.”

The Dinos were not only the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, but one which came into play with a perfect 9-0 record, an astounding 16 conference all-star selections and were making their eighth straight appearance in the conference final.

No. 6-ranked UBC, 49-16 losers to those same Dinos back on Sept. 4, have now five straight games and seven of eight since that humbling setback.

“I can’t even describe the feeling,” said UBC’s Marcus Davis, who caught two touchdown passes in the win. “All I can tell you is that there was a lot of belief in our locker room.”

Their focus now shifts to Atlantic champion St. Francis Xavier, after the X-Men edged Mt. Allison 14-12 in the Loney Bowl on Saturday. UBC and St.-FX will clash this Saturday (1 p.m.) in the Uteck Bowl national semifinal at Antigonish, NS. The winner will face the winner of Saturday’s Mitchell Bowl (9:30 a.m.) which pits Ontario champ Guelph against Quebec winner Montreal, in the Nov. 28 Vanier Cup. On Saturday, Guelph beat Western 23-17 in the Yates Cup, while Montreal beat Laval 18-16 in the Dunsmore Cup.

UBC’s effort Saturday was marked by courageous offensive play in the first half, and heroic defensive plays in the second half.

For starters, the kid who put UBC in the headlines over the off-season when he transferred in from NCAA giant Penn State, was completely in command over the first two quarters.

Michael O’Connor delivered darts out of the pocket, hanging in against the Dinos’ pass rush, to throw touchdown passes on consecutive series to Davis, the first from 12 yards near the end of the first quarter and the second from 33 yards, fuelled by a 61-yard Trivel Pinto kick-off return early in second quarter. He finished the day passing for 374 yards.

“Those two passes were pretty good,” said Nill of building an 18-10 lead. “He got drilled on both of them and I don’t even know that he saw what happened. We knew that Calgary would come in and blitz and pressure us, so we had to make them pay. Credit to Michael for hanging in for his receivers.”

And credit to Davis, who on the first catch, made a superb adjustment, maintaining his balance while he adjusted his stride and extended his reach to pull the ball down in the end zone.

“I saw the ball in air and it was floating,” said Davis, “so I knew I had to turn on the jets, extend and do whatever I could.”

That’s kind of what UBC did all afternoon.

The Birds led 28-17 at the half, but when the offence couldn’t find the end zone in the second half, they leaned on their defence and special teams, including four-for-four place-kicking and savvy punting from Quinn van Gylswyk, to close out the upset.

Both units were breathtaking over the second half.

Twice over the second half, special team aces Warren Reese and Evan Horton stopped the Dinos in their tracks, each forcing a fumble that the other would recover.

“Special teams is the area where you can bring so much energy to the team with one big hit,” said Reese. “Evan’s always right beside me on the punt (coverage) team and we made good things happen.”

So too, did the defence.

On back-to-back plays, in one-on-one coverage early in the fourth quarter, UBC defensive backs A.J. Blackwell and Stavros Katsantonis each made touchdown-saving plays on the goal line, Katsantonis batting the ball out of the hands of Calgary receiver Denzell Radford.

“I was making a backside pursuit angle (on Radford) but then I saw the quarterback looking so I made a 180-degree spin,” said Katsantonis. “He caught it but I was able to hit it out of his hands.”

And finally, with Calgary down by eight and ready to mount its final drive of the game, Birds’ DB Kevin Wiens both stripped and recovered the ball following a completion to Brett Blaszko with 38 seconds remaining.

“I guess this just proves that on any given day, any team can win,” said Reese. “We put the time in and we came to win. But this isn’t the ultimate feeling. Not yet.”

Without saying it, everyone knows this UBC football team is chasing down the ultimate goal.

(Photo:UBC Thunderbirds’ head coach Blake Nill gets a traditional victory shower on the field from his players after the No. 6-ranked ‘Birds shocked the host, No. 1-ranked, undefeated Calgary Dinos 34-26 in the Canada West Hardy Cup championship at McMahon Stadium on Saturday. UBC is now one victory away from playing in the Vanier Cup national final. (Richard Lam, UBC athletics)

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