The Blitz: Resilient Thunderbirds secure home-field advantage for playoff semifinal

Thunderbirds running-back Ben Cummings caught a 2-yard touchdown pass in overtime to complete a 21-point comeback against the Manitoba Bisons on Saturday. With the 38-34 win, UBC secured themselves home field advantage for the first round of the Hardy Cup playoffs next week against Saskatchewan.

The ‘Big Three’ on offense collectively came alive Saturday afternoon. Quarterback Michael O’Connor passed for a whopping 467 yards, 4 touchdowns against 1 interception on 73 per cent accuracy. Wideout Trivel Pinto picked up where he left off last week, catching 12 passes for 184 yards and a pair of scores. Cummings rushed for 97 yards on 17 carries (5.4 yards per rush), added 3 catches out of the backfield for 20 yards and the walk-off touchdown.

A tale of two halves

The first 30 minutes of football did not go well for UBC. They allowed a sack on the second play of the game and were pinned inside their own 20-yard line, thus losing the valuable field position. The ensuing punt granted Manitoba a short field to work with to start their drive, which resulted in a swift touchdown.

To their credit, the Thunderbirds responded accordingly, perfectly executing a play-action pick route for a 1-yard Trey Kellogg touchdown. The euphoria was short lived, however, as the Bisons’ Dylan Schrote took advantage of UBC’s appalling tackling and slipped through for a 66-yard reception ­— setting up Manitoba’s second offensive touchdown.

It didn’t get any better for the T-Birds as the half waned to a close. Between a porous defensive performance and an offense content with playing into the flats, UBC conceded another two scores to Manitoba.

Demoralized and down 31-13 at the half, it would have been easy for UBC to have cut their losses and moved on. After all, removing star players from a ‘lost’ game isn’t so foolish ­— minimizing the risk of injury is at the forefront of every coach’s mind in this situation.

But for the Thunderbirds, an 18-point halftime deficit wasn’t much to sweat.

“All we did at halftime was reflect on how important football is to us and ask each other if this was worth the battle,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill. “There are enough kids on this team where football truly means everything to them and we saw that kind of effort in the second half.”

On the T-Birds first possession of the third quarter, O’Connor slung it to Pinto for a 26-yard TD reception with a six-man blitz in his face. The two connected again mid-way through the fourth quarter with a 46-yard touchdown pass, Pinto using his blistering pace to shred Manitoba’s soft zone coverage. Cummings plowed into the end-zone out of the shotgun for a subsequent 2-point conversion to tie the game.

With the defense holding Manitoba to a field goal in overtime, UBC’s offense handily drove 35-yards for a Cummings touchdown to cap-off a ferocious comeback effort.

Perhaps the biggest turnaround for the ’Birds was defensive. UBC intercepted Bison QB Jamie Ybarra twice in the second half, once in the red-zone, in which Stavros Katsantonis stayed inside of the receiver to haul in the pick. Additionally, the Thunderbirds exerted more pressure on Manitoba ­— two of their three sacks came on critical downs in the second half.

With the win, UBC will play the Saskatchewan Huskies at Thunderbird Stadium next Saturday at 2 p.m. in the semifinals of the Hardy Cup playoffs. Considering the amount of effort the team put into winning this game, make sure you’re out there watching them next week.