Thunderbirds ready for unexpected shot at glory

Nobody, not even the UBC Thunderbirds themselves, anticipated this.

Although the school’s football program was expected to turn the corner with the arrival of head coach Blake Nill – he of seven Vanier Cup appearances as head of the St. Mary’s Huskies and Calgary Dinos – the T-Birds are now just two wins away from being crowned national champions.

After a 6-2 regular season, UBC pounded the Manitoba Bisons in the Canada West semifinals before going into Nill’s old stomping grounds on Saturday and winning the Hardy Cup 34-26 over the Dinos at McMahon Stadium, handing the No. 1 team in the country its only loss of the season.

“It’s not logical what has happened this year,” Nill said Tuesday before his team departed for Antigonish, N.S., where they’ll face the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in Saturday’s Uteck Bowl (1 p.m.), with the winner advancing to the Vanier Cup national championship game.

“This, by no means, is the most talented crew I’ve ever had. They’re certainly not the biggest or the fastest crew I’ve ever had. But what they’ve done is found a way to make plays at the right time and I think accepted their specific roles.”

Big plays were key for the T-Birds in upsetting the Dinos, as they forced and recovered two fumbles in the last two minutes of the game to eliminate any chance of a Calgary comeback.

Also vital to UBC’s impressive 2015 campaign has been the emergence of quarterback Michael O’Connor, who Nill recruited out of Penn State to lead the T-Birds offence. The 19-year-old threw for 374 yards and two touchdowns against the Dinos to continue his excellent season.

And while O’Connor said he believed his first year at UBC would go well, he admitted that he and his teammates are “still getting used to” the success they’ve realized.

“A lot of the veterans and even the younger guys who’ve never been on a winning program like this, it’s different for them,” said O’Connor. “But they’re handling it really well.”

Coming off such an emotional win, Nill fears a letdown against an X-Men squad that has won five straight – including their Atlantic University Sport conference win, 14-12 over Mount Allison on the weekend.

But having claimed UBC’s first conference championship since 1997 – the last time the school won the Vanier Cup – the Thunderbirds have no plans to get complacent now.

“What we did last week doesn’t really mean anything to us anymore,” said fifth-year running back Brandon Deschamps, who hails from Prince George.

“This is always the dream … I don’t think we ever expected to be here, but we’re here now and we’re looking to continue forward.”

(Photo: The UBC Thunderbirds celebrate with the Hardy Trophy after upsetting the Calgary Dinos for the Canada West title last weekend. They’ll face the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in a national semifinal on Saturday in Nova Scotia. POSTMEDIA NETWORK)

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The 13th Man Foundation is not affiliated with UBC and is a separate and independent legal entity that sets its own fundraising priorities.