Story by Aaron Martin
VANCOUVER – The UBC Thunderbirds fell to 2-2 in Canada West football play (3-2 overall) on Friday night, dropping a 45-29 decision to the visiting Saskatchewan Huskies (2-2).
The T-Birds found themselves at a 21-0 deficit by the end of the first quarter, and though they fought valiantly, couldn't claw their way all the way back.
UBC head coach Blake Nill addressed the consistency concerns following the game, emphasizing the need for his veterans to become leaders when things get out of hand. as they did in the first quarter.
"The big thing is that this is a team that's growing," he said. "It shows in that we're making big plays at times, but it's a youth situation, and I keep coming back to the fact that I need my veteran players to provide some leadership here."
UBC's freshman quarterback Michael O'Connor (Orleans, Ont.) completed 30 of 48 passes for 335 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Kicker Quinn Van Gylswyk (Victoria, B.C.) also contributed a large chunk of the T-Birds' scoring, nailing all four of his field goal attempts, as well as a rouge. Tailback Brandon Deschamps (Prince George, B.C.) had a solid all-purpose day, rushing for 53 yards on eight carries, and adding three catches for 46 yards, while receiver Marshall Cook (Nanaimo, B.C.) was all over the field catching a game-high nine balls for 92 yards.
O'Connor's Saskatchewan counterpart, senior quarterback Drew Burko, went 16-for-21 for 324 yards and two scores. Running back Jarvis James also provided balance to the Saskatchewan attack, piling up 159 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. Several Saskatchewan receivers had big days, with Mitch Hillis hauling in five balls for 110 yards and Juan Lynch bringing down four catches for 88 yards and a touchdown.
Burko engineered an impressive drive for Saskatchewan following the opening kickoff, with the highlight of the sequence being a beautifully thrown ball down the right sideline to Julan Lynch for 38 yards. After running back James ran it down to the two-yard line, backup QB Kyle Siemens punched it in to draw first blood, making it 7-0 for Saskatchewan.
After the two teams traded two-and-outs, UBC took over with five minutes remaining in the first quarter. O'Connor then made an uncharacteristic mistake, putting an errant ball right into the heart of the Saskatchewan secondary, where it was picked off by freshman safety Brett Boechler.
Burko made the T-Birds pay on the ensuing Huskies drive, finding receiver Shane Buchanan for a gain of 43, then Lynch in the end zone on a 22-yard strike. Just 10 minutes into the game, the T-Birds found themselves down 14-0.
The T-Birds offence was victimized again on their next drive. After O'Connor hit Cook on a nice throw, the ball was ripped out of the receiver's hands by Saskatchewan linebacker Justin Filteau, who rumbled all the way back for a 48-yard score.
Saskatchewan conceded a safety after Van Gylswyk pinned them deep in their own end and the defence forced a quick two-and-out. Then, O'Connor connected with Malcom Lee (Surrey, B.C.) and Cook on 21- and 14-yard gains to put UBC in scoring range. The drive ended in a 39-yard Van Gylswyk field goal, cutting the Saskatchewan lead to 21-5 with nine minutes left in the half.
Burko kept his highlight-reel half going on the next Huskies drive, finding Hillis on a 57 yard catch-and-run. Hillis did well to get into open space, and raced all the way to the UBC five-yard line before being pushed out of bounds. James wasted no time adding to the Saskatchewan lead, taking the handoff on the next play and fighting his way into the end zone.
Taking over with six and a half minutes left in the half, the T-Birds offence kept up some positive momentum, driving deep into Saskatchewan territory and putting up another field goal, bringing the score to 28-8 Saskatchewan.
The T-Birds defence shut the Huskies down on the next drive, giving the offence one more chance with a minute left in the half.
Deep in his own territory, O'Connor started out the drive by hitting Will Watson (Surrey, B.C.) in the slot for a 28-yard catch-and-run. After a pass interference call on Saskatchewan and a short ball to Cook, O'Connor hit Deschamps on a brilliantly executed screen pass, and the tailback scampered for 17 yards to the Huskies 20 yard line.
Then, another defensive pass interference call gave UBC a first-and-goal opportunity on the Huskies one-yard line. Watson made no mistake, taking the handoff from O'Connor and going into the end zone untouched.
Van Gylswyk nailed a 69-yard rouge on the ensuing kickoff, making the score 28-16 for Saskatchewan at the break.
Four and a half minutes into the third quarter, Van Gylswyk went back to work, hitting a 43-yard field goal with room to spare.
James then took matters into his own hands for Saskatchewan, gashing UBC for gains of 20, 16, and 24 yards, with the last of those being a score that put the Huskies up 35-19 with eight minutes and change left in the third.
Pinto provided an immediate answer for UBC, taking the following kickoff at his own 10-yard line and running it back 95 yards behind some terrific blocking, eventually getting taken down at Saskatchewan's five-yard line. From there, O'Connor found Lee in the end zone, and the T-Birds closed the gap to 35-26.
On the next series, the T-Birds defence flashed their run-stopping upside, delivering a couple of ferocious tackles and forcing Saskatchewan into another two-and-out.
On UBC's ensuing drive, van Gylswyk made it a one-possession game, launching a 47-yard blast through the uprights.
The highlight of the night came on Saskatchewan's next drive. Burko, flushed out of the pocket, lobbed up a 29-yard pass to receiver Tevin Godfrey, who appeared to be completely covered in the end zone. Somehow, Godfrey reached out with one hand and brought the ball in for a brilliant touchdown reception with just over two minutes remaining in the third stanza.
A botched Thunderbirds punt led to the Huskies' next points, a 30-yard field goal from kicker Sean Stenger at the top of the fourth quarter that made the score 45-29.
Late in the contest, a long UBC drive went for naught after a Marcus Davis (Victoria, B.C.) touchdown reception on third down and goal was called back for offside. The T-Birds ended up turning the ball over on downs on the next play.
Boechler sealed up the win for Saskatchewan with 1:24 remaining, picking off O'Connor in the Huskies end zone. From that point, it was just a matter of Saskatchewan running down the clock, and the game ended by that same 16 point margin.
Nill expects that the game will be a good learning experience, and should provide some valuable insight as the T-Birds progress into the second half of the season.
"We made mistakes that did not put us in a situation to have a chance to win," said Nill. "This is a game that we've got to learn from. I'm going to go back, look at the film, find the guys who hung in there, and vice versa, and then we're going to make changes to move forward with this team."
Both teams will next take the field on Saturday, Oct. 3. UBC will be in Edmonton to face the Alberta Golden Bears, while Saskatchewan will battle Calgary.