UBC's Will Watson, left, tries to break away from University of Regina Rams Cord Delinte and Korey Greene during Canada West playoff football action at Mosaic Stadium on Saturday. RICH LAM / PNG
'Birds won't surrender playoff pulse as pride and precision carry Vanier champs to upset of Rams
They backed into the playoffs carrying all of the momentum that a two-game losing streak and a sub-.500 record can offer.
The Canada West regular season had been such an about-face from their magical run to the 2015 Vanier Cup that not many figured that the UBC Thunderbirds would return home from their conference semifinal date in Regina on Saturday with a post-season pulse.
Yet somehow, some way, the 3-5 Thunderbirds found a way to hold on late and leave the conference’s first-place team, the No. 4-ranked, 6-2 Rams, thunderstruck.
UBC’s best effort of the season, keyed by a defence which shutdown the most dangerous offence in the nation, came at exactly the right time in a 40-34 victory in the final football game at Taylor Field. Now, it’s on to Calgary this Saturday for a repeat of last season’s Hardy Cup championship final.
Calgary punched its ticket Saturday with a 47-17 win over visiting Saskatchewan.
The ‘Birds much-maligned offence, led by the near-400 passing yards of quarterback Michael O’Connor, played perhaps its most efficient game of the season, boasting a balance between its effort through the air and along the ground, all keyed by the maturity of its offensive line.
“Michael had an incredible game but the kid is a leader,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill, who is now 5-0 in the playoffs over his two-year Point Grey career.
“But what we’re seeing is an emergence in the confidence of the offensive line and the run game, so I have got to throw some bouquets in their direction, too.”
And speaking of balance, O’Connor was simply masterful in spreading the ball around, showcasing the depth of a receiving core many thought was the best in the nation at the start of the season.
The Penn State transfer, who went 29-of-40 for 397 yards and two touchdowns against just one interception, completed at least four passes to five different receivers, with every UBC receiver on the day averaging at least 11 yards-per-catch.
“It was nothing fancy,” said O’Connor. “We just executed and when we do, this is what happens. For me, it’s not so much about throwing to certain receivers. The coverage tells you where to go and I trust every one of them. Today, they all stepped up.”
One of them, David Mann, expertly managed to stay in bounds to haul in an 11-yard touchdown strike from O’Connor just under three minutes into the fourth quarter, giving UBC a 39-13 lead.
Regina roared back with a trio of late scores, the last a nine-yard pass from quarterback Noah Picton to Ryan Schienbein to trim the gap, yet the gulf was still too large. Regina failed to corral and on-side kick with eight seconds remaining for one last-ditch Hail Mary attempt.
The preparation for Calgary started right after the win, but Nill was unhappy that his team regressed to significantly over the final 10 minutes of play.
“Our first 50 (minutes) were our best of the year,” he said, “but you’re talking to a guy who is a perfectionist. We can compete against anyone. Our biggest obstacle is simply ourselves.”
After its 41-35 overtime last week at home to Calgary in their regular-season finale, the ‘Birds attacked practice this past week knowing a slow start would be their demise.
They started well and took a 13-3 lead midway through the second quarter when A.J. Blackwell blocked a punt which was returned 27 yards for a touchdown by Colton Zayshley.
Marshall Cook hauled in a 15-yard scoring pass from O’Connor for a 20-3 lead with three minutes left in the first half, but Regina was able to answer in the final minute behind a one-yard TD run by Atlee Simon.
Will Watson led the receiving corps with nine catches for 116 yards while Trivel Pinto caught five passes for 86 yards.
And so much of the credit for UBC’s passing effort Saturday fell at the churning feet of running back Ben Cummings.
UBC had no running game to speak of over the first half of the season, but Cummings led the charge back to offensive balance, carrying 21 times for 92 yards, including a one-yard TD run late in the third quarter that put the visitors ahead 29-13.
Now, it’s on to Calgary, where in last season’s Hardy Cup, UBC beat the then-undefeated and No. 1-ranked Dinos by a 34-26 score.