UBC head coach Blake Nill and quarterback Michael O’Connor talk strategy on the sidelines before Friday’s lopsided pre-season loss to the Manitoba Bisons. O’Connor threw three interceptions in the first half, two of which led to Manitoba touchdowns.
When the second half of the UBC’s season-opening debacle began Friday evening at Langford’s Westhills Stadium, the defending Vanier Cup champion Thunderbirds were trailing 34-0 en route to what would be a stunning 50-7 loss to the Manitoba Bisons.
True, the game was nothing more than an exhibition contest. But with the Canada West conference opener hot on the horizon this Saturday (8 p.m.) against Alberta at Thunderbird Stadium, ’Birds head coach Blake Nill realized in those few minutes before halftime that his most important job wasn’t going to be trying to coax some kind of a miracle comeback out of his team.
Instead, it was all about challenging their pride and getting them to realize just how big the target on their backs had grown since last season when they dispatched every elite team in the country— Manitoba included — en route to winning the national championship.
And so when the ’Birds came out for their first offensive series of the third quarter, they were without their on-field leader.
Quarterback Michael O’Connor, the field general who three times last season led UBC to wins over the Bisons, was on the sidelines, where he would remain the rest of the evening.
The simple explanation, of course, was to say ‘Why risk an injury to your starter when you’re trailing by five scores at the half of an exhibition game?’”
But ask Nill about his decision, and the answer is not quite that simple.
“We could have put him in for another series and he might have thrown it well, and all of that is OK,” Nill said after O’Connor went 16-of29 for 132 yards and three interceptions in the first half, the final two of which led to Manitoba majors.
“But he has to realize that there is an expectation where he has to perform. I think it’s good for Michael to realize that he has to work harder. And I will be the first to tell you that Michael O’Connor will respond with a superior effort next week. He is 100 per cent the kind of individual who will not take this lightly.”
Of course, the loss wasn’t O’Connor’s fault. As Nill stresses, it was a setback that fell on the collective shoulders of the entire UBC roster, including his own.
Yet it’s because of the relationship the two have developed over the past year that Nill knows he can lean on his quarterback when things go south.
Last season, with more hype than any incoming athlete in 100 years of Thunderbirds athletics, O’Connor arrived as a transfer from the Penn State Nittany Lions. In his first game, a 41-16 upset of the powerhouse Laval Rouge et Or, Nill had to pull O’Connor for a few series early in the game, just to allow him to calm his excitement.
Over a miraculous and ultra-efficient four-game playoff run to the title, O’Connor passed for eight scores and almost 1,300 yards, surrendering just two interceptions over 156 pass attempts.
That’s why Friday three-pick performance seemed like such an anomaly.
“Our offence is as talented as any in the country,” Nill said. “But we have to execute. Tonight, we had breakdowns everywhere. Once we’re able to move the ball in the air, which I’m confident we will, teams will have to over-play our passing game and we will start to run the football.”
O’Connor needed no convincing. To him, Saturday can’t come fast enough.
“I can’t wait to get back on the field for that game,” he said. “I just really want to get back on the field and get that (loss) out of my system.”
You can’t begin a title defence by stumbling any harder than the ’Birds did Friday. Their job now is to prove how good they actually are.