Win and you're in. Seven games and two months come down to one night. All the University of Calgary football team needs to do to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2004 is win their final game of the regular season against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds Fri., Oct. 26. This isn't going to be an easy task. Both teams are tied for the fourth and final playoff position with a 3-4 record. The winner of Friday's game will go on to play the nationally third-ranked Canada West regular season champions, the University of Manitoba Bisons.
The T-Birds have made the playoffs each of the last three seasons and haven't missed the playoffs since 2003, when they went 0-8.
For the Dinos, they've missed out on playoff action each of the last two years, going 4-12 in that span. Last year, head coach Blake Nill's first with the team, the team was young and suffered a couple of close losses early in the year while finishing out strong down the stretch with two wins. This year, the team was forced to dropped down the quarterback depth chart when last year's starter Dalin Tollestrup went on a mission for his church, last year's backup Ben Davies, who was unhappy with the team's situation, left, experienced recruit QB Casey Brown went out for the season in the pre-season with a torn ACL and replacement starter Jordan Flagel went out three weeks ago with a thumb injury. The early quarterback shuffles may have contributed to the Dinos 1-4 start, but since former Calgary Colt Julian Marchand has taken the helm after Flagel's injury in the Dinos fourth loss, the team has made strides with two wins against U of S and SFU.
"I don't want to say [I'm confident but], I'm happy with where we are as our team is," said head coach Blake Nill. "I'm not sure if what the UBC team's going to bring, but I see a lot of similarities between the two teams and I think it's just going to be a matter of who comes out and who executes the best."
The Dinos' two wins in a row give them significant momentum coming into Friday's game, especially when compared to the T-Birds. However, both coaches aren't placing much emphasis on the momentum effect.
"It's hard to say. We'll be rested to put it that way," said T-Birds head coach Ted Goveia. "Will it affect timing and stuff like that? I don't know. This late in the season, it's really hard to tell."
Nill is more succinct.
"I don't think it matters if you're coming in [with a bye-week], you have to be ready to go," said Nill. "There's no excuses at this point."
At this point of the season, rest may be as important as momentum. The Dinos will be playing their second game in less than a week but did have plenty of time to rest their important starters in the second half of a 54-3 blowout against a weak Simon Fraser team.
The two teams have had very similar seasons so far. Both teams beat Simon Fraser twice and both teams' other victories came in come-from-behind wins, Calgary against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies on a last-second field goal, UBC against the University of Alberta Golden Bears with two touchdowns in the final quarter. And both teams have had a merry-go-round of quarterbacks this year.
"We've lost three quarterbacks this year, we're in similar situations," said Goveia. "They've got good runningbacks, we've got some pretty good runningbacks too. We've both got young quarterbacks. I don't think it's going to be a high-scoring affair."
The running game will feature prominently with young quarterbacks behind the helm for both teams: Marc McVeigh, who has 796 yards, five touchdowns and 10 interceptions for the T-Birds and Marchand who has 378 yards in two starts for three TDs and two interceptions for the Dinos.
The Dinos have the best running offence in Canada West with second-year Anthony Woodson tops in the conference with 938 yards and rookie Matt Walter behind him in second with 637 yards. Goveia was direct when asked about his game plan.
"We're going to play cover zero and place eight in the box," said Goveia. "We're going to load up the box and force them to throw. We are pretty confident [in our pass defence against Marchand.] He's played a couple games of CIS and that's about it, he doesn't have a lot of experience and it's a playoff game. We'll see how he handles it."
Nill understands that teams expect the run when they play the Dinos, but is also confident in putting the ball in the hands of Marchand after two competent starts already.
"Julian had his best practice tonight [Tuesday]," said Nill. "We're going to give him the ball more and we're going to have to because we can't just line up and play run. We've gotta to be able to be balanced offensively and spread the ball out."
Fortunately for Marchand, the Dinos have one of the best offensive lines in the conference because he'll be staring down T-Bird third-year defensive lineman Scott McCuaig on every play. McCuaig, standing at 6'4", 240 lbs, paces Canada West with 10 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. His 27 tackles are also second in the conference for tackles by a defensive lineman.
"They've got a great offensive line, they're really good up front," said Goveia.
The greatest challenge for the T-Birds may not come from an opposing player, however. The game will be played in Calgary at McMahon Stadium on artificial turf--a surface UBC does not have much experience with.
"We've been practising on turf this week, so hopefully it's not a factor," said Goveia. "Again it's playing on the road. It's always tough no matter where you're playing."
Both coaches tried to make it out as just another football game, but the importance of Friday's game is evident. For the Dinos, a win will be another step in rebuilding a program that has had a couple of lean years and a confidence boost to a young team. For the T-Birds, a win will keep their playoff streak alive and give them another shot at the Bisons, a team they came close to beating twice in the regular season.
"I don't really worry what they're going to do," said Nill. "I just worry that we're ready to play and we're ready to go out there and play our game and just put it in the hands of our kids."
"We're similar football teams," said Goveia of the Dinos and T-Birds. "It should be a great football game."