UBC, St. FX set to tangle in Uteck Bowl

The rapid rise of the UBC Thunderbirds has even Blake Nill struggling for an explanation.

When the no-nonsense head coach took over the University of British Columbia's football program last December — a team coming off a 2-6 campaign and without a winning record since 2004 — he was prepared for a painful rebuild.

Fast-forward just 11 months and, much to Nill's surprise, the Thunderbirds are within a game of the Vanier Cup.

"It's been a season that defies logic, to be honest with you," he said this week. "The kids have done a good job dealing with the transition and have an understanding of what's expected. We're starting to play some pretty good football."

Good football is right.

The Thunderbirds (8-2) have won six straight heading into Saturday's Uteck Bowl against the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in Antigonish, N.S., including last weekend's 34-26 upset victory on the road over the No. 1 ranked and previously undefeated Calgary Dinos in the Hardy Cup.

Nill, who joined UBC after eight seasons with the Dinos, set expectations low at his introductory press conference, but what has happened with the Thunderbirds follows a pattern. The Hanna, Alta., native won conference titles with the Saint Mary's Huskies and at Calgary in his second season, and is known as a master recruiter.

His prize target to get things off the ground at UBC was quarterback Michael O'Connor, a 19-year-old from Ottawa who transferred from Penn State.

"He's the real deal," said Nill. "When it's on the line he knows what he has to do. He makes some incredible plays."

A two-time Vanier Cup winner with the Huskies, Nill said it will be an emotional national semifinal against St. FX — the team that gave him his start in coaching as the school's defensive co-ordinator in 1992.

"St. FX was a big part of my life," said Nill, who helped the X-Men to their last Vanier Cup appearance back in 1996. "For me to have experienced what St. FX is about has been a fundamental pillar in me."

While the No. 6 Thunderbirds are coming off a lightning-quick turnaround, the unranked X-Men have steadily improved over the last five seasons under head coach Gary Waterman.

St. FX (7-3) found itself down late in the Loney Bowl on the road against the Mount Allison Mounties, but got a late field goal into the wind that bounced off the crossbar and over for a stunning 14-12 victory.

"One more rotation was what we needed," said Waterman, in his seventh year leading the X-Men. "I don't know how many times I've seen a ball hit a goal post and be no good. It was an incredible feeling."

Waterman, who played at St. FX just before Nill joined the coaching staff, said Saturday's game in front of a national television audience is about more than just football for his team.

"We're a smaller school in rural Nova Scotia," said Waterman. "We feel like we've had a good thing going for a lot of years, but not a lot of people know about it."

The X-Men are on a five-game winning streak, allowing just a single touchdown over that span, and are keyed on offence by running back Ashton Dickson. The fifth-year senior from Ottawa has rushed for an average 117.3 yards this season, including a combined 307 yards in two playoff victories.

"He's strong-willed, strong-bodied and determined," said Waterman. "He's been a huge piece to our puzzle."

Waterman and Nill have never coached on the same field, but the pair know one another through their St. FX ties and met over the summer in Antigonish.

"Blake's an intense guy. He's going to have his kids ready to play," said Waterman. "We know they feel pretty good about themselves right now, but we're a confident football team as well."

Notes: Nill has been to a combined seven Vanier Cups with Saint Mary's and Calgary, winning in 2001 and 2002 with the Huskies. ... UBC's last Vanier Cup appearance came in 1997 when the Thunderbirds won the school's third title. ... St. FX's only Vanier Cup win came back in 1966.

(Photo: University of Calgary Dinos head coach Blake Nill speaks to reporters following a practice session in preparation for the Vanier Cup Thursday, November 21, 2013 in Quebec City. Nill struggles for an explanation. When the no-nonsense head coach took over the University of British Columbia's football program last December - a team coming off a 2-6 campaign and without a winning record since 2004 - he was prepared for a painful rebuild that was going to take years. But fast-forward 11 months and the Thunderbirds, much to Nill's surprise, are within a game of the Vanier Cup.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot)

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