Coach Blake Nill has claimed the underdog role for his University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the Vanier Cup game, but Montreal Carabins counterpart Danny Maciocia isn’t buying it.
“I know how they’re trying to play it – a little gamesmanship, which I understand,” Maciocia said on Friday. “The reality is that they have as good a quarterback [Michael O’Connor] as we’re going to face.
UBC coach says team overcame challenges to get to Vanier Cup ( CP Video )
“They’ve got some weapons in their receiving corps. They’ve got a pretty good back [Brandon Deschamps]. Their secondary is very active and their punter [Quinn van Gylswyk] is probably the best in the country. So, we’re going to have to play well.”
The Carabins will defend the Canadian Interuniversity Sport football title they won at home over McMaster last year against the upstart Thunderbirds on Saturday afternoon at Telus Stadium on the Laval University campus.
UBC did a 180-turn for the better from the 2014 campaign when Nill took over as head coach after nine years with a powerhouse squad in Calgary.
They went from a 2-6 conference record to 6-2, then knocked off Manitoba and Calgary to win the Canada West Conference before trouncing St. FX 36-9 in the Uteck Bowl last week. That put them into the Vanier Cup game for the first time since 1997.
They did it with a first-year quarterback, 19-year-old O’Connor, whom some consider the best Canadian quarterback prospect since Jesse Palmer more than a decade ago.
Asked if his team was the underdog, Nill said: “We have to be. There’s no question. But if you look at it, we were probably the underdog in all those earlier games, too.
“It doesn’t make sense that this team is here at this point, but we won a very tough game in Saskatoon. We won a tough game in Manitoba and a couple of weeks ago we won a tough game in Calgary – all on the road.”
The national final could be a duel between UBC’s passing game and the Carabins’ impressive ground attack.
Stocky back Sean Thomas-Erlington has run wild in the postseason, putting up 199 rushing yards as Montreal upset Laval in the Quebec conference final and another 170 in a 25-10 win over Guelph in the Mitchell Bowl.
The Carabins also have the country’s best run defence, although it is their defensive secondary that is likely to be under pressure. O’Connor likes to fire the ball downfield, mostly seeking favourite targets Marcus Davis and rookie Trivel Pinto.
“Their secondary is pretty good, but personally, I think we’ve gone against stronger secondaries,” Pinto said. “But you don’t take anybody lightly at this point.”
O’Connor said a bigger challenge awaits at the line of scrimmage.
“They have a very strong pass rush, so I’ll have to get the ball out of my hands quickly and be accurate and good on my reads,” he said.
The Carabins had a run of injuries on defence, particularly at linebacker, so Maiko Zepeda, an all-Canadian defensive back, has been playing linebacker in the postseason.
Nill said his team has evolved over the season and its performance in the postseason suggests it has become less predictable. They will need it against a well-rounded Carabins team that has looked loose and confident this week.
“It’s not a secret that if we’re going to have success we’re going to have to throw the football,” Nill said. “Hopefully, that will loosen it up a bit and allow us to balance it off by running a bit.
“Teams have looked at us as one-dimensional, which we were, but in the last month, you’re starting to see an element of a run game and we hope to be able to continue that.”
(Photo: UBC Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill talks to his players as they defeat 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-Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)