FB: T-Birds victorious in key matchup with Huskies

Stu Walters/T-Birds Communications

VANCOUVER – The UBC Thunderbirds leaned on their ball hawking defence for, four interceptions to stymie the No. 8 Saskatchewan Huskies offence en route to a 20-10 win in front of 1,021-boisterous fans at Thunderbird Stadium Friday night.

It was all about timely takeaways for the T-Birds who improved to 3-3 on the season while climbing the standings largely thanks to a young defensive secondary that came up big when it counted most with three second half red zone interceptions to frustrate the Huskies who fell to 3-3 on the campaign.

"Coach Pat Tracey's defence did a great job today," said UBC head coach Blake Nill. "We had a lot of young men step up, they played incredibly well and delivered. We've been forced to play a lot of young kids in many areas and it typically comes down to four or five plays and we made some big ones tonight and I though we took some steps forward."

On the offensive side of the ball the 'Birds were led by a pair of veterans in receiver/returner Trivel Pinto who was all over the field in amassing 267 all purpose yards and a major on the night while quarterback Michael O'Connor was very efficient under center with two touchdown tosses and no interceptions.

The T-Birds and the energetic home crowd enjoyed a quick start right from the opening kickoff thanks to aforementioned Pinto's slashing 63 yard return up the left sideline before being finally taken down in Saskatchewan territory. With favorable field position to work with O'Connor led the offence on a six play 40-yard scoring drive that was appropriately capped off by an 11-yard Pinto touchdown reception and an early 7-0 lead.

The Huskies responded by moving the ball to the T-Birds 44-yard line where they set up for their first points of the contest but Sean Stenger pushed the field goal attempt wide right and it was time for Pinto to shine once again. Pinto broke out for another spirited return, this time scampering for 68-yards before being tackled at the Huskies 42-yard line. Saskatchewan's defence would hold strong however as UBC would settle for a 43-yard Greg Hutchins field goal to increase their lead to 10-0.

Ahead of closing out the first quarter Huskies quarterback Kyle Siemens would lead the visitors on a six-play drive totalling 55-yards into UBC territory that resulted in a 27-yard Stenger field goal cutting the T-Birds lead to 10-3.

The second quarter turned into a battle of field possession without much scoring, the highlights for the hosts included kicker Greg Hutchins showing off his range making good on a 47-yard field goal early in the frame to increase UBC's lead to 13-3. The Huskies struggled in moving the ball while the Birds were flocking to it in earning their first of four interceptions on the night, Harland Hastings would pick off a Siemens pass attempt at midfield and the score would remain 13-3 heading into the break. UBC had the scoring edge while Saskatchewan had the edge in total offence in the opening half with 172 total yards compared to 163 for UBC.

To open the second half Saskatchewan replaced fifth-year starting quarterback Kyle Siemens with second-year backup Mason Nyhus who would go on to move the ball well at times but would be denied the ultimate payoff on several occasions. The visitors seemingly looking for a spark after Siemens stat line read 9 for 18 with 117 yards passing and one interception in the first two quarters of play. Nyhus did start efficiently however leading the Huskies on a seven play 82-yard drive to start the third-quarter that was capped off by a sneaky shovel pass to slotback Colton Klassen who swung around the left side and ran 30-yards for a touchdown cutting the lead 13-10. Shortly thereafter Nyhus moved the Huskies into UBC territory once again but instead of giving the visitors the lead he threw his first of three interceptions in the half. Nyhus' end zone pass was picked off by 'Birds defensive back Payton Lagrange to end the scoring threat.

UBC would hold onto their slim 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter and add to it early in the proceedings as O'Connor led the 'Birds on a much needed 10 play 85-yard drive that was finished off by a 30-yard toss and touchdown run to slotback Liam Wishart. It gave the T-Birds some much needed breathing room and a 20-10 advantage before another takeaway minutes later. Midway through the fourth quarter Saskatchewan moved the ball into T-Birds territory with a nice 35 hook-up from Nyhus to receiver Finley Easton who caught the ball in traffic at the UBC 15-yard line. On the next play with Nyhus looking for the end zone he found the opposite jersey in T-Birds defensive back Jaxon Ciraolo-Brown who counted the 'Birds third interception of the night.

Late in the fourth quarter it was UBC defensive back Jean Ventose who stepped up for the fourth and final interception on the evening, and the third on the second-year Huskies slinger while helping secure the T-Birds a third victory on the season.

UBC pivot Michael O'Connor finished the game with a very tidy 29-for-35 for 277 yards and two touchdowns while his favorite target Trevel Pinto finished with nine receptions for 81-yards and a touchdown. Huskies backup quarterback Mason Nyhus put up some numbers in his two-quarters of play finishing 12-for-24 for 235 yards and one touchdown toss but the glaring number is the three interceptions he threw while in the red zone.

"We had a ball hawking mentality tonight and we still have a way to go," added coach Nill. "We're not as confident in ourselves as we should be but we're going to get there, it's just a process. We're a well-coached football team and we have the tools to make systems and design plays and it comes down to these kids being able to execute at full speed. It's been a roller coaster season but I'm proud of the work everyone put in to earn this result."

With the win UBC suddenly finds themselves occupying second place in the Canada West standings and they'll next hosts the University of Alberta next Saturday, October 20 for a 1:00 p.m kickoff at Thunderbird Stadium. Meanwhile the Huskies welcome the Manitoba Bisons to Saskatchewan next Saturday with a 2:00 p.m. start time.

PHOTO: Rich Lam/UBC Thunderbirds