Thunderbirds back their way into CIS playoffs after loss vs. Calgary

UBC Thunderbirds Trivel Pinto tries to break the tackles of the University of Calgary Dinos during CIS Canada West football action at UBC on Saturday. RICH LAM/UBC Athletics /PNG

The defending Vanier Cup champions have managed to stumble into the Canada West playoffs.

Looking to advance directly to the post-season with a win over the visiting Calgary Dinos on Saturday in the regular-season finale for both teams, the UBC Thunderbirds started off red-hot but cooled considerably en route to a 41-35 overtime loss.

The silver lining to their disappointing evening?

The Manitoba Bisons, who entered the evening locked in a battle with UBC at 3-4 for the conference’s fourth-and-final playoff berth, could have knocked the ‘Birds out of the post-season with a win in their finale against the Regina Rams.

Instead, they were crushed 55-21, and despite the fact both finished at 3-5, UBC owned the tiebreaking advantage based on its 53-50 overtime win over the Bisons back on Sept. 30.

The bottom line: UBC will travel to Regina Saturday (2:30 p.m.) to face the conference champ Rams (6-2) next weekend in the Hardy Cup semifinals, while Saskatchewan (5-3) will travel to Calgary (6-2) the same day in the conference’s other matchup.

The ‘Birds looked like they might have enough to pull an upset Saturday.

Ben Cummings, the UBC running back who finished with 260 all-purpose yards, caught a 74-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Michael O’Connor. After Trevor Casey caught a two-point convert pass from O’Connor, UBC led 35-28 with 6:33 remaining.

However, with under three minutes remaining, Michael Klukas caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from pivot Adam Sinagra against a busted coverage to tie the score 35-35.

In overtime, after UBC failed to score on its opening possession, Dinos’ running back Bryce Harper ended the game on a 19-yard run.

UBC Thunderbirds Dylan Chapdelaine wraps up University of Calgary Dinos Jack McDonald during CIS Canada West football action at UBC on Saturday. The T-Birds defence started hot but finished cold, allowing four second-half touchdowns to the Dinos. RICH LAM/UBC ATHLETICS / PNG

“Right now, I don’t think we deserve to go (to the playoffs),” said frustrated UBC head coach Blake Nill, who finished with a losing record for just the second time in his 19-year career.

“But by tomorrow morning I will be fully focussed on trying to win a playoff game. I can promise you that. But right now I am just humiliated. Not that we lost. But I just didn’t see the urgency in my crew in the second half, and we had chances to win it.”

UBC looked every bit ready to beat No. 5 nationally-ranked Calgary on Saturday as they led 24-11 at halftime.

After surrendering the game’s first touchdown on the Dinos’ opening drive, UBC moved quickly into scoring position after Cummings, who rushed for 179 yards on the game, peeled off a 48-yard scamper to the Calgary eight-yard line.

On the next play, quarterback O’Connor found Will Watson in the end zone to tie the score at 7-7.

O’Connor then made it 14-7 when he dropped an end-zone pass right into the arms of Will Watson, running a crossing pattern through the end zone.

The Thunderbirds made it 21-7 when O’Connor fired a 28-yard strike into the end zone and the waiting arms of receiver Trivel Pinto.

Yet a defence which surrendered just one first-half touchdown to the Dinos and three times forced them to settle for field goals, surrendered four second-half touchdowns.

“It took me nine years to get that culture in Calgary,” said Nill, who spent almost a decade as that program’s head coach and built them into a national power before coming to UBC in 2015.

“The Calgary team believes they are always going to win. We don’t have that attitude yet.”

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