UBC Thunderbirds, Michael O'Connor flying to Vanier Cup

UBC Thunderbirds, Michael O'Connor flying to Vanier Cup

Michael O'Connor, whose stated goal is to win multiple Vanier Cups, will help the UBC Thunderbirds play for one against the Montreal Carabins next week.

Whether the T-Birds, who were seemingly built faster than a Vancouver condo development since Blake Nill came over from Calgary just before last Christmas, can hang in with the Carabins in the Vanier in Ste-Foy, Que., will remain to be seen.

The narrative was alluring by the time O'Connor was done slinging in the rain in Antigonish, N.S., finishing  21-of-31 for 272 yards with two touchdowns during UBC's 36-8 Uteck Bowl victory against the host St. Francis Xavier X-Men. The Vanier will put a talented still-teenaged transfer — with two fellow frosh from Ontario, Trivel Pinto and Alex Morrison, as O'Connor's favorite receivers — leading a West Coast legacy program deep into Quebec against mighty Montreal, the defending champ with a devastating defensive line led by Junior Luke. Both the 'Birds and Les Bleus have already won at Laval's TELUS Stadium this season, although UBC will be spotting Montreal experience and size on both lines.

"It means a lot to us, the whole program, the whole organization," O'Connor told Sportsnet 360. "We definitely have to play better if we want to beat Montreal next week."

The 19-year-old O'Connor, of Orléans, Ont., was on many a major U.S. college coach's wishlist as a high school senior before choosing Penn State. As O'Connor told Sportsnet's Arash Madani this week, after a redshirt season in Happy Valley, Pa., and coach Bill O'Brien's departure for the NFL's Houston Texans, to sport came be as tedious as to work for the 6-foot-5 QB. So O'Connor transferred, passing on Syracuse, the closest Football Bowl Subdivision team to Ottawa, to cast his lot in Canada West. It was just a matter of when he would prove to a once-a-decade recruiting coup for Nill.

The 6-foot-5 O'Connor and the T-Birds had some travails with three turnovers in the first quarter and a half, including an interception and a fumble recovery by X-Men linebacker Daniel Tshiamala. The 6-foot-5 O'Connor, though, reset and showed off an arm and acuity that is rare in Canadian Interuniversity Sport. He put up a jump ball to Pinto for a 39-yard gain on the last play before the three-minute warning. On the next play, Pinto, a converted high school QB from Brampton, Ont., tapped a toe inside the boundary for a seven-yard score.

The game was virtually in hand after the frosh princes' cashed in for a 16-yard TD 2:58 into the third quarter after being staked to a short field by a strip sack. On the TD play, O'Connor spread St. FX out with seam routes and then threw a frozen rope to Pinto (four catches, 73 yards) in front of the corner pylon. That kind of arm strength isn't seen often in CIS, let alone on someone who is a couple seasons away from being eligible for either FL's draft.

The Thunderbirds, the rare CIS team that uses a 3-4 defence, limited St. FX to 291 total yards and had three interceptions. The T-Birds have contained two quality running backs, Calgary's Mercer Timmis and St. FX's Ashton Dickson, over the past two weeks, but Montreal's running game looked formidable against Guelph.

"We think we've found a balance defensively," Nill told Sportsnet 360. "Hopefully we can get it together for next week. Montreal has a hell of a team."

Copying 1997, so far

The T-Birds are on the same path as the Vancouver school's most recent Vanier winner in 1997. Both had a two-loss regular season, beat Calgary in the Hardy Cup for the Canada West championship and travelled 6,000-plus km to Nova Scotia to play and win the national semifinal.

Everything else seems like a perfect storm for a team that was 2-6 in 2014 and had last appeared in a conference final in '11 (losing by 49 points to Nill-coached Calgary). The T-BIrds have only 60 players, which has necessitated eschewing full-pad practices for the past two months.

Nill and his staff have seemingly had more conversions than ol' Joseph of Arimathea did back in 46 AD. Defensive coordinator James Colzie's  opportunistic outfit includes three converted tailbacks, including linebacker Terrell Davis, an Arizona State transfer. Of course, UBC doesn't need either Davis brother, Terrell and his brother, slotback Marcus, rushing the ball much. Fifth-year downhill runner Brandon Deschamps had 178 rushing-receiving yards and a touchdown on 23 touches to cop MVP honours on Saturday.

Defensive back Taylor Loffler, who had two takeaways with a fumble recovery and interception, did his undergrad at Boise State before transferring back to his home province. Another rookie receiver that O'Connor will have in his quiver for a few falls yet, Malcom Lee, started at Nevada.

It is an only-in-CIS story that UBC is going to the Vanier Cup this fall. Nill, who is 2-5 in the championship game with Calgary and Saint Mary's, achieved a Vanier berth in his second season in each of his other head coaching tenures.

The last two Canada West teams that won a national semifinal down east, the 2000 Regina Rams and Nill's '09 Dinos, each lost in the Vanier.

The result is the eighth loss in a row in the national semifinal by an AUS team, by an average margin of 24 points. The X-Men, in their first national semi since 1996, hung in for a time before fatigue took a toll. Coach Gary Waterman has achieved a turnaround in Antigonish, although the Hec Crighton Trophy-nominated Dickson and slippery receiver/returner Randy Roseway are among the graduating fifth-year seniors.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.