Saturday, 5 November 2016

Rams fall short of final Mosaic miracle

Rams QB Noah Picton sets up in the pocket.
    REGINA - For a moment, you thought the Regina Rams would pull off one final miracle at Taylor Field/Mosaic Stadium.
    During their history as members of first the Canadian Junior Football League and then U Sports representing the University of Regina, the Rams in their glory days pulled out games that seemed lost guided by legendary head coaches Gord Currie and Frank McCrystal. Playing a Canada West semifinal game at their storied home park on Saturday against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, it appeared the Rams first place season was going to die on a whimper.
    With 12:31 to play in the fourth quarter, Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O’Connor hit receiver David Mann with an 11-yard touchdown toss to put the visitors up 39-13. The hosts trailed because they hadn’t played well. The Thunderbirds, to their credit, played good, but they weren’t great or spectacular.
    Despite the fact a crowd of 4,500 has been pretty raucous, the Rams appeared to be down and out.
    While there wasn’t much time remaining on the clock, the Rams roared back scoring three touchdowns, while the Thunderbirds replied with a rouge punt single from Greg Hutchins.
William McGee's punt is blocked by A.J. Blackwell (#35).
    The last U of R major came when star quarterback Noah Picton hit receiver Ryan Schienbein with an 11-yard scoring strike with nine seconds to play cutting the UBC lead to 40-34. Those that followed the Rams history know they once pulled out a 35-31 regular season victory at home in 2000 against the University of Alberta Golden Bears by scoring the winning points on an onside kick.
    That day, future CFL star Jason Clermont batted a ball out of the air into the arms of teammate Chris Warnecke, who ran the rest of the way for the deciding score. You wondered if something crazy like that would happen again to push the Rams into the Canada West championship game.
    However, Thunderbirds receiver Trey Kellogg hauled in the onside kick to ensure no miracle would happen on this day. The Thunderbirds held on for the 40-34 victory. They will travel to Calgary this coming Saturday to face the University of Calgary Dinos for the Canada West championship trophy – the Hardy Cup.
    With that loss, one of the great single season turnaround stories in recent U Sports history came to an end. After going 0-8 in 2015, the Rams topped the Canada West standings in 2016 with a six-win improvement going 6-2.
Atlee Simon darts through a hole to score a TD for the Rams.
    They were rated fourth in the U Sports top 10 rankings going into their clash with the Thunderbirds. It was an unthinkable development for anyone outside of the team.
    Under the one-year watch of former head coach Mike Gibson in 2015, the Rams fell into disarray. After the winless campaign in 2015, Gibson left the club for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos to become their offensive line coach and run game coordinator.
    From there, Steve Bryce entered the picture as the Rams new head coach. He played on their offensive line from 1987 to 1991 in the team’s CJFL days and was part of a national championship winner in his rookie season. Under Bryce, the Rams started to play up to their past image from their glory days.
    Picton completed 224-of-323 passes for 3,186 yards, 25 touchdown passes and nine interceptions in the regular season. He set a new U Sports record for passing yards in a season completing an impressive 69.3 per cent of his throws. The Rams were always known as a pass-happy team, but they took that characteristic to a new exciting level this season.
The Rams defence stops Thunderbirds RB Ben Cummings.
    Against UBC, the Rams ran into one of U Sports best ever head coaches in Blake Nill, and his staff developed a game plan to neutralize their high-powered foes. The best way to keep Picton from hurting you was to make him stay on the Rams sidelines.
    Through a combination of running and a series of short passes, the Thunderbirds, who were 3-5 in the regular season, held the ball for 35 minutes and 21 seconds, which limited the Rams to 24 minutes and 39 seconds of possession time.
    The Thunderbirds also ran 22 more plays than their foes did and piled up an unheard of 42 first downs on 179 yards rushing and 397 yards passing. O’Connor accounted for all of UBC’s yards through the air connecting on 29-of-40 passes, two touchdown strikes and one interception.
Michael O'Connor piled up 397 yards passing for UBC.
    The Rams defence couldn’t get the stops their side needed.
    Adding to the frustrations for the home side, Thunderbirds defensive back A.J. Blackwell blocked a punt in the second quarter that was returned 27 yards by teammate Colton Zayshley for a major score. That play increased a 6-3 Thunderbirds edge to 13-3.
    With their limited time with the ball, the Rams still piled up solid offensive numbers. Picton completed 25-of-35 passes for 364 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. U of R also put up 106 yards rushing. Most of those yards came from running back Atlee Simon, who ran the ball 16 times for 78 yards and scored three touchdowns.
    Fifth-year Rams slotback Riley Wilson, who was playing his final university game, caught nine passes for 184 yards in a spectacular final bow.
    Still, the Rams had to ponder what might have been.
    With that in mind, the Rams will return the core of their team next season. They only loose Wilson and seven other players to graduation.
The Rams exit the Taylor Field/Mosaic Stadium tunnel for the last time.
    U of R is miles ahead of last year.
    Under Bryce’s guidance, another golden age for Rams football might be around the corner.

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