After rebuild, UBC Thunderbirds now see Vanier Cup within their grasp

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 in a row 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,” Nill said. “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.

While the No. 6 Thunderbirds are coming off a lightning-quick turnaround, the unranked X-Men have steadily improved over the past 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.

(Photo: UBC Thunderbird's QB Michael O’Connor throws a pass as Head Coach Blake Nill looks on during the practice September 2, 2015 - John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

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