ANTIGONISH, N.S. (Courtesy of StFX Athletics) – The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds advanced to the CIS football final for the first time since 1997 thanks to a convincing 36-9 win over the hometown St. Francis Xavier University X-Men in the Uteck Bowl Saturday evening at Oland Stadium.
In the ArcelorMittal Vanier Cup presented by Promutuel Assurance, next Saturday at 1 p.m. in Quebec City (Sportsnet and TVA Sports), the Canada West titlists (9-2) will face the defending national champion Montreal Carabins (9-2), who earlier today dominated Guelph 25-10 in the ArcelorMittal Dofasco Mitchell Bowl.
UBC head coach Blake Nill, a graduate of StFX who started his stellar career on the sidelines with the X-Men in 1992, will make his ninth appearance in the Vanier Cup as a coach, including one as defensive coordinator with StFX in 1996 and eight as a head coach.
"This one is an unusual one," said Nill, in his first season at the helm of the Thunderbirds after long stints at Saint Mary's and Calgary.
"I would never have expected this in a hundred years with this group, a group that was 2-6 last year and to get them to a Vanier Cup; and it is not like we have had an easy road either - we had to win in Calgary,
we had to win in Manitoba, win in Saskatchewan. We beat some good teams to get here.
"I don't think we played our best today, but we did play well enough to win," he added.
On the first play of the game, the X-Men opened the scoring on a Jonathan Heidebrecht kick-off for a rouge.
After being penned in their own zone, StFX punter Jeremy Ford conceded a safety to make it 2-1 for the visiting Thunderbirds.
On the second UBC offensive drive, AUS all-star linebacker Daniel Tshiamala intercepted Thunderbird freshman quarterback Michael O'Connor.
On the subsequent X-Men drive, veteran defensive back Taylor Loffler picked off a deflected Tivon Cook pass and returned it deep into StFX territory.
Spearheaded by the rushing of Brandon Deschamps, UBC scored the first touchdown on a one-yard run. With the point-after from Quinn van Gylswyk, the Thunderbirds took a 9-1 advantage.
That was the score after the opening quarter, with Deschamps leading the way for UBC with 63 yards on nine carries.
"It was a crazy game," said Deschamps, the Uteck Bowl MVP who racked up 128 yards on 20 rushes and another 50 on three receptions. "They have a lot of great athletes and they came out hard. They came out and they competed really well."
He credited his team's defense for their great play in the road victory.
"They were so good tonight; they didn't let them score points until the end of the game, which was huge for us. It gave us confidence on offense. It was a good team effort," Deschamps said.
AUS season MVP Ashton Dickson collected 25 yards on eight carries for the X-Men in the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, X-Men defensive back Dylan Bell forced a UBC fumble, with the recovery by Tshiamala, but the StFX offense came up empty after the turnover.
Late in the second quarter, O'Connor and freshman receiver Trivel Pinto combined on back-to-back pass catches to give the Thunderbirds their second major score.
On a key second-and-17, O'Connor connected with a leaping Pinto, who made the 39-yard catch to take the ball to the X-Men eight-yard line. On the next play, Pinto tight-roped the sideline in the end zone to make the touchdown catch from a scrambling O'Connor. With the van Gylswyk extra point, UBC stretched to a 16-1 edge with under three minutes remaining before halftime.
With the X-Men trying to carve into the UBC 15-point advantage, Cook went deep for wide receiver Keon Hughes, but Thunderbird defensive back Stavros Katsantonis grabbed the interception.
A late UBC drive stalled after a huge sack by StFX defensive lineman Kyle Forde. On the next play, van Gylswyk missed a 50-yard field goal attempt.
At halftime, the Thunderbirds led the X-Men 16-1.
In the second half, UBC tacked on a rouge from the opening kick-off to take a 17-1 lead.
During the first X-Men offensive possession of the third quarter, the UBC blitz forced a Cook fumble and they recovered in the StFX zone.
UBC took advantage of the cough up, with O'Connor finding Pinto at the pylon along the goal line for 16 yards and the touchdown. With a van Gylswyk conversion, the Thunderbirds extended to a 24-1 lead.
Keyed by two first-down catches by Keon Hughes, including one on third down, the X-Men drove to the Thunderbird nine-yard line. After the drive stalled, UBC blocked a Heidebrecht field goal. With the conceded rouge, StFX trailed 24-2.
With a van Gylswyk 26-yard field goal, the Thunderbirds stretched their edge to 27-2 with less than four minutes left in the third quarter.
The X-Men patched together a couple of first downs and made it into the UBC zone, but Cook had a pass deflected, which Terrell Davis intercepted for the Thunderbirds.
In the fourth quarter, van Gylswyk kicked three consecutive fields goals to give the Thunderbirds a 36-2 lead.
The X-Men wrapped up the scoring in the game on a touchdown catch by fifth-year senior Donald Tabor.
"It was a tough game. UBC came out strong and came out well," Cook said, noting the X-Men also had to contend with a "couple bad bounces" that didn't go their way. "Now, we know where we need to get for next year. We now know what level we need to get to go to the Vanier next year."
Cook, the AUS all-star quarterback, was asked about the 'heart' his team showed during their playoff run, which included the X-Men's first conference title since 1996.
"We had a never-say-die attitude. It doesn't matter what the score is, how much time is left on the clock - we try to finish [hard] for our fans and the guys on the team; put a good product out for this community."
Head coach Gary Waterman said the X-Men - as they have done all season - played with "tremendous effort."
"Just too many mistakes our there, in terms of turnovers. It is hard to win a football game turning the ball over that many times," the AUS coach of the year added, noting it was "disappointing we did that."
"But, the effort was there and we competed hard," Waterman reiterated.
He talked about the X-Men team motto this season - 'keep digging.'
"I thought that was really appropriate for how they approached the whole season. They just kept finding a way to keep coming back in many adverse situations. They played hard and never gave up in games; they had a never-say-die attitude."
For the X-Men, Cook completed 24-of-37 for 250 yards, with three interceptions, matching his total in the regular season. Dickson ran for 52 yards on 18 carries, while Randy Roseway was the leading receiver for StFX with five catches for 61 yards.
O'Connor had 21 completions for 290 yards for UBC. Davis, with five catches, and Pinto (four), collected 60 and 73 yards, respectively, through the air.
Defensively, Mike Miller led the X-Men with nine tackles. For UBC, Loffler and Davis has six tackles apiece.
"Our biggest concern is going to be getting to know Montreal - getting to know their defence, getting to know their offence; what their good at and stuff like that, and understanding how their players play," Deschamps said, when asked about the Vanier Cup match-up.
NOTES: UBC travelled to Quebec City back on Aug. 29 and stunned Laval 41-16 in preseason action... Blake Nill becomes the first head coach to lead three programs to Vanier Cup appearances (Saint Mary's, Calgary, UBC)... Nill holds a 2-5 Vanier Cup record as a head coach. With his eighth appearance as a bench boss, he will tie Laval's Glen Constantin (7-1) for second place all time, trailing only Saskatchewan's Brian Towriss (3-6)... UBC's five previous trips to the Vanier Cup resulted in three wins (1982, 1986, 1997) and two losses (1978, 1987)... The Thunderbirds are now 6-1 all-time in CIS Bowl games, adding to a 34-29 win over Mount Allison in the 1997 Atlantic Bowl (at Halifax), a 33-31 win over Laurier in the 1987 Western Bowl (at Vancouver), a 32-30 win over Bishop's in the 1986 Central Bowl (at Lennoxville, Que.), a 54-1 win over StFX in the 1982 Atlantic Bowl (at Halifax), a 25-16 win over Laurier in the 1978 Western Bowl (at Vancouver) and a 30-8 loss to Western in the 1976 Forest City Bowl (at London, Ont.)... StFX falls to 1-4 in national semifinals... Today's Uteck Bowl marked the first-ever national semifinal played on the St. Francis Xavier University campus... The 1982 Atlantic Bowl – won 54-1 by UBC – was the only previous meeting between the Thunderbirds and X-Men.
UBC 9-7-11-9: 36 StFX 1-0-1-7: 9
First Quarter StFX – Jonathan Heidebrecht single, 0:05 (1-0 StFX) UBC – Team safety, 5:17 (2-1 UBC) UBC – Brandon Deschamps 1 run (Quinn van Gyslwyk convert), 11:41 (9-1 UBC)
Second Quarter UBC – Trivel Pinto 8 pass from Michael O'Connor (Quinn van Gyslwyk convert), 12:21 (16-1 UBC)
Third Quarter UBC – Quinn van Gylswyk single, 0:00 (17-1 UBC) UBC - Trivel Pinto 16 pass from Michael O'Connor (Quinn van Gyslwyk convert), 2:58 (24-1 UBC) StFX – Jonathan Heidebrecht single, 8:32 (24-2 UBC) UBC – Quinn van Gylswyk 26 field goal, 11:13 (27-2 UBC)
Fourth Quarter UBC – Quinn van Gylswyk 20 field goal, 2:39 (30-2 UBC) UBC – Quinn van Gylswyk 14 field goal, 5:05 (33-2 UBC) UBC – Quinn van Gylswyk 25 field goal, 12:35 (36-2 UBC) StFX – Donald Tabor 22 pass from Tivon Cook (Jonathan Heidebrecht convert), 13:57 (36-9 UBC)