Jeff Sargeant, UBC Thunderbirds
VANCOUVER – Michael O'Connor and the UBC Thunderbirds offence clicked on all cylinders while the defence did the same for a convincing 32-18 win over the visiting Manitoba Bisons Saturday afternoon at Thunderbird Stadium.
Up by three points at the half, UBC had a monster third quarter outscoring the Bisons 19-0, highlighted by an Elliot Graham 107-yard interception return for a touchdown, the longest such play in Thunderbirds history.
After a disappointing outing last week in Regina, O'Connor finished with 257 yards passing with two touchdowns and a 70 percent completion rate.
Ben Cummings led the way on the ground for the 'Birds with 145 yards rushing on 24 carries.
"When you can run the ball it's demoralizing for the other team," said the third year running back.
"We can really keep running the ball over and over down the whole field and it's a momentum builder for sure."
UBC head coach Blake Nill praised his defence which kept the Bisons to just 24 yards on the ground.
"Our defensive line is probably as strong as it's been since I've been here," said Nill.
"We've got some veterans there but now we've surrounded them by four 18 year-olds who just play the game so well."
Ball security was an issue early on for both sides with the 'Birds losing the ball on a fumble on their first possession, but solid defensive play kept the Bisons off the board.
After the 'Birds' first possession went sideways, O'Connor engineered an impressive 86-yard drive culminating in a five-yard touchdown pass to Trivel Pinto. Greg Hutchins' convert gave UBC a 7-0 lead with 3:19 remaining in the first quarter.
The first play of the second quarter saw the 'Birds add to their lead with a 38-yard Hutchins field goal.
After forcing the Bisons into another punt, UBC drove down the field once again, helped by a huge 35-yard Cummings rush on second down to get to the Manitoba 35, eventually setting up another Hutchins field goal.
Faced with being shutout in the first half, the Bisons forced UBC into a punt deep in their own zone providing instant field position. Theo Deezar needed just 1:55 to put a major up with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Riley Harrison. The convert cut the 'Birds' lead to six with just under four minutes remaining in the half.
The Bisons then added a 46-yard Brad Mikoluff field goal in the dying seconds of the half as the 'Birds' lead had been whittled down to three going into the break.
The T-Birds came storming out of the gate to start the second half forcing the Bisons into a quick two and out and the UBC offence picked up where their defence left off executing a four play, 72-yard drive finished off with a four-yard O'Connor pass to Marcus Davis to restore the 10-point T-Bird lead.
The Bisons looked set to respond, getting the ball down to the UBC 10-yard line, but that's when Graham returned his historic pick six, edging the school's previous record of 106 yards set by Sandy Beveridge back in 2000.
"It was very thrilling, I owe it to my D Line, the defence for helping me out," said the first-year linebacker who set the record with his first career Canada West interception.
"The secondary picked up blocks, it was a long run and it was hard but I'm just grateful to be in position to be able to make that play."
A safety and a 40-yard Hutchins field goal capped off the monster third quarter for the 'Birds who led 32-10 with 15 minutes to go.
The Bisons scored the only points of the final quarter when Stephen Ugbah caught an eight-yard Deezar touchdown pass with eight and a half minutes remaining in the fourth, followed by a two-point convert. The 'Herd were unable to muster any more falling to 0-2 on the season.
UBC improved in every aspect from week one, perhaps most notably when it comes to discipline, being tagged with just four penalties for 39 yards against the Bisons.
"We came together as a team and a family, we came out with a high tempo and progressed and we're going to come back even stronger next week," said Graham.
The 'Birds have now won three straight home openers and five straight regular season and playoff games against the Bisons.
Next up for UBC is homecoming on Saturday, September 16th against the Saskatchewan Huskies.
"We need to be more consistent offensively, finishing when we're in the end zone," added Nill.
"We're going to get better, our goal each and every week is to get better."
Kick off for homecoming is 5:00 p.m. PT at Thunderbird Stadium.