UBC Thunderbirds running back Ben Cummings brought the ground game back to the attack of the defending Vanier Cup champions on Friday in a quadruple OT win over the Manitoba Bisons. Bob Frid/UBC Athletics / PNG
Half of the 2016 Canada West football season seemed to be evidence enough that the UBC Thunderbirds were not going to be the proud owners of a running game.
And for half a football game Friday at Thunderbird Stadium, the defending Vanier Cup champions were living up to that cold reality, trailing the Manitoba Bisons 19-13 and looking more and more like a team that might miss the playoffs.
“But coach talked to us at halftime,” said tailback Ben Cummings of UBC head coach Blake Nill. “It was motivating. It made me realize that it was time for me to make a statement.”
All Cummings proceeded to do for a team whose running game had yet to register anything resembling a consistent pulse through a 2-2 start was rush for 206 yards and two scores, his second major tying the game at 30-30 in regulation and sending it into what would eventually become quadruple overtime.
In the extra sessions, the ‘Birds would ride the arm of quarterback Michael O’Connor on their way to a 53-50 victory.
“It came down to a little bit of attitude on the offensive line,” said Nill, “and from Ben, he is a powerful young man. He had to pick up the urgency, and he did today.”
Cummings, the former high school star from Abbotsford’s Robert Bateman Secondary, had just four carries for 27 yards over the first half, but he carried 17 times for 179 yards the rest of the way, his offensive line gaining its best traction of the season and Cummings running with an anger that allowed him to shed first- and second-level tacklers.
On the four UBC drives in which he received three-plus carries from O’Connor, UBC put points on the board. Two were his own majors, one a 21-yard catch by Trivel Pinto, and the other a Greg Hutchins’ field goal.
For the Thunderbirds, Friday’s explosion of rushing couldn’t have come at a better time because offensive balance is going to be key as UBC navigates the gauntlet of Saskatchewan and Regina on the road and Calgary at home in its Oct. 29 regular-season finale.
Cummings looked to be the guy tabbed to fill the role of RB-1 when the season started, but as UBC attempted to find chemistry along its offensive line and in its backfield, the offence seemed to grow more and more one-dimensional each week, leaning on O’Connor and his cadre of pass catchers.
Friday’s effort seemed to vindicate the quality Cummings brought to the Point Grey campus out of Bateman. Over his final two seasons of high school, Cummings rushed for 2,898 and 32 touchdowns. Once, in his Grade 11 year, he rushed for 402 yards in a single game.
Now as the ‘Birds enter the league-wide bye week, Cummings as well as fellow running backs Kory Nagata and Liam Mahara will continue to battle for carries through practice.
“We’re all close as a running back group,” said Cummings of the trio, each of whom has started games this season.
“We’re just competing to make each other better.”
On Friday, Cummings and the offensive line carried the UBC offence to overtime. From there, O’Connor flashed his mojo in ways that made you think he was back playing in the Vanier Cup.
He went 32 yards to Pinto for a score, later 25 yards to Will Watson for another, and then with the scored tied 47-47, he brought his best into the fourth overtime.
UBC defensive lineman Connor Griffiths recorded a sack to force a second-and-22, forcing Manitoba to settle for a 38-yard field goal and a 50-47 lead. That paved the way for O’Connor to hit Pinto for his third TD catch of the game, a swing pass from 35 yards out that ended the marathon.
“It means everything,” said Nill of moving to 3-2 and keeping the team’s home playoff hopes alive while Manitoba fell to 2-3. “Every game like this is an investment in the culture of this program.”
BIRD BITS: A statistical error Friday mistakenly credited UBC with an extra 40 yards of offence, thus the team finished with 713 yards, not the 753 which was originally reported to be a new school single-game record. The record of 729 yards from 2004 remains the school standard.