Nobody should know a football team better than its head coach. But Blake Nill admits he was wrong about the University of B.C. Thunderbirds.
After taking player inventory before his first season on the Point Grey campus, Nill figured he had the makings of a 3-5 team. He missed the mark by a mile.
After going 2-2 to start the Canada West season, the T-Birds finished second in the conference at 6-2. They then knocked off the Manitoba Bisons and the No. 1 ranked Calgary Dinos in the playoffs and now have won seven straight. The latest breakthrough came Saturday, in Antigonish, N.S., where UBC defeated the Atlantic Conference champion St. Francis Xavier X-Men 36-9 in the Uteck Bowl to qualify for the Vanier Cup for the first time since 1997. UBC will play the defending national champion Montreal Carabins, who defeated the Guelph Gryphons 25-10 in the other Vanier Cup semi-final, the Mitchell Bowl, played in Guelph, Ont.
Freshman quarterback Michael O’Connor threw a pair of touchdowns to first-year wide receiver Trivel Pinto, running back Brandon Deschamps ran for another score and kicker Quinn van Gylswyk booted four field goals as UBC built a 36-2 lead. The X-Men’s only touchdown came with 0:59 left, on a throw from quarterback Tivon Cook to Donald Tabor after UBC sat numerous starters with the result in hand.
UBC’s celebration was muted, however, with the big prize still ahead and the prospect of facing the Carabins -- a physically more dominating and experienced opponent than the X-Men, who have 77 players in their first or second seasons.
“We have to play better next week -- and we will,” said O’Connor, who competed 21 of 31 passes for 272 yards and his two scores to Pinto. “Our offence revolves around Banger (Deschamps). When he’s going, we’re tough to stop.”
Deschamps, a fifth-year player from Kelly Road secondary in Prince George, ran for 128 yards and caught passes for 50 more in the first bowl game ever held on the campus of St. FX.
“He’s a heart and soul guy, a blood and guts guy,” Nill said of Deschamps. “He’s definitely not a finesse guy. Michael (O’Connor) is just a kid. I can’t be more pleased with the way he’s developed. And we’ve been improving steadily on defence. We work with the athletes we have and we’re starting to see results.”
Next Saturday’s Vanier Cup in Quebec City represents Nill’s eighth trip to the national final. He coached the Saint Mary’s Huskies and Calgary Dinos for a total of 17 seasons, reaching the national final on seven occasions. But he knows how difficult it is to win the Cup. His record in the national final is 2-5.
Still, the Thunderbirds have been surprising him all season. Perhaps they will again.
(Photo: UBC Thunderbirds celebrate after defeating the St. Francis Xavier X-Men 36-9 to win the Uteck Bowl in Antigonish, N.S., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. UBC will face the Montreal Carabins for the Vanier Cup.Photograph by: Andrew Vaughan , The Canadian Press)