Vanier Cup within Thunderbirds' reach

They’ve authored a tremendous turnaround, knocked off the No. 1 team in the country and their coach insists that none of it makes any logical sense.

And now, a UBC Thunderbirds team that has defied expectations all year has just one more tough task to take care of – to beat the defending-champion Montreal Carabins in Saturday’s Vanier Cup (10 a.m., Sportsnet) in Quebec City.

In Blake Nill’s first season as head coach, he’s taken a T-Birds program that was dead last in Canada West in 2014 to its first Canadian championship game since 1997, when UBC last hoisted the Vanier Cup.

Surreal as the bounce-back season has been, Thunderbirds defensive back Taylor Loffler told 24 hours on Thursday that he and his teammates fully grasp the reality of what they’re on the verge of accomplishing.

“I think it’s really sunk in,” said Loffler, who hails from Kelowna. “It is kind of an amazing feat, what we’ve done so far, but it’s one more game that we need to prepare for to end this amazing season that we’ve had on a good note.”

The T-Birds have put together an impressive postseason in all three phases of the game – a productive offence led by 19-year-old quarterback Michael O’Connor and senior running back Brandon Deschamps, dependable kicking from Quinn van Gylswyk, and an opportunistic defence that has limited opponents to an average of 15 points through the playoffs and come up with timely turnovers.

The T-Birds beat the previously undefeated Calgary Dinos to win the Canada West title, then easily handled the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in last weekend’s Uteck Bowl to get here, going into both teams’ home stadiums to score the victories. They’re facing similar circumstances Saturday by playing the Carabins in Quebec, and will try to draw on past experience as a visiting team.

“(It’s) been a great season for road games for us,” said Loffler. “Going out on the road, we’ve all come together and played our butts off.

“Especially against Calgary, we showed we can play at a high level and I think we kind of proved that to the country … Having that on our side and showing we can play with those teams, giving us confidence going into this game, is huge.”

This will be Nill’s eighth appearance as a head coach in the Vanier Cup since 1999, UBC being the third program he’s led there, but his 2-5 record includes defeats in his last four tries. Davis said the players know Nill’s history and want to win for the architect of their team as much as themselves.

“He’s one of the greatest competitors that I know and he brings out great efforts in all of our players,” said linebacker Terrell Davis. “We just want to work hard and get the win for him.”

To do that, they’ll have to beat a Montreal squad led by Grey Cup-winning coach Danny Maciocia with many players returning from last year’s 20-19 Vanier Cup triumph over McMaster.

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” said Davis. “Montreal’s got a lot of great weapons on offence and so we’re going to have to shut them down before we can start thinking about a win.”

(Photo: Thunderbirds defensive back Taylor Loffler (right) celebrates a playoff win over Calgary with head coach Blake Nill. UBC plays in the Vanier Cup on Saturday. RICH LAM/UBC THUNDERBIRDS)

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