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Canada West Quick Six: Week Two

Regina interim head coach Mark McConkey is congratulated after his first U SPORTS win. Photo by Piper Sports Photography.

Regina’s upset of formerly No.1 ranked Calgary headlined another exciting week of action in the Canada West conference, once again proving the parity amongst all six teams. Full details on all week two games are below. Click here for the week one recap.

No. 9 Regina (1-1) 34 – 21 No. 3 Calgary (1-1)

The Regina Rams made history in their 13-point win over the Dinos, knocking off a No. 1 ranked team for the first time ever. The victory moved Regina into the U SPORTS Top Ten rankings at number nine, while Calgary fell to third. It was also the Rams’ first win over the U of C since 2016, and interim head coach Mark McConkey’s first ‘w’ as bench boss at the university level.

A big shout out has to be given to Rams defensive coordinator Sheldon Gray, whose timely blitz calls and numerous looks kept the Calgary offensive line on their toes all game. Regina recorded three sacks on the day, and lead the conference with nine after two weeks of play. The U of R also forced three interceptions, the second of which came because of extra pressure in the face of Dinos pivot Josiah Joseph.

Conference Defensive Player of the Week Gowrishan Aravinthan had two of the team’s three picks, including the one previously mentioned, and both came at critical times. The first resulted in Regina’s first major on the ensuing drive in the first quarter, while the came late in the fourth in the corner of the end zone, when the Dinos were attempting to narrow the 13-point deficit.

Aravinthan, who made a name for himself as an aggressive ball-hawk for Campbell Collegiate in Regina (the program won the Saskatchewan High Schools Athletic Association 4A provincial title in 2017, ending a five-year run from city rival Dr. Martin LeBoldus), is one of a few different Tartan alums who’ve made an immediate difference at the U SPORTS level. The second-year man started the last two games of the 2019 season as a redshirt freshman, while fellow Campbell standout Josh White – who had 59 tackles as a senior – stepped right into the lineup as a linebacker in 2018 and hasn’t missed a beat since. He had six tackles against the Dinos and is in the top ten overall in the conference with ten.

With reference to the defensive game plan, it’s impossible not to mention the play of fellow linebacker Ryder Varga, the team’s unquestioned leader and captain in the middle. He had a game-high 11 tackles and a sack on the day, making a massive imprint on the contest as a whole. The Team Canada alum’s range and versatility have been clear throughout two weeks of play, as he leads the conference in solo tackles, with 13 and is second in total tackles with 15. Click here for more on the Rams' versatile defensive unit.

Offensively, the story for a second straight week was the play of running back Kyle Borsa, who, despite carrying the ball just 11 times, rushed for 100 yards while averaging 9.1 yards per carry. He primarily did his damage in the first half, tallying 94 yards on a number of off-tackle plays that took advantage of his track speed. The Rams scored twice in the final two minutes of the second quarter, taking a two-score lead into the second half that they didn’t surrender, and a large reason for their success on both drives was due to Borsa.

Not to be forgotten was the solid protection up front from a young Rams offensive line. The team started three players in their first year of eligibility in the interior in Connor Taylor (third-year with the program previous experience at tackle in high school), Sean Usselman (former nine-man provincial champ with Melfort) and Apete Tuiloma (fourth year with the program), who was shifted from right guard to centre.

Calgary notes

Receivers Jalen and Tyson Philpot once again dominated the stats sheet, combining for 11 receptions, 260 yards and a major on the day. One hundred seven of Jalen’s 132 yards came on one play, helping set up the Dinos’ first major and only lead of the game 2:35 into the contest. Through two weeks of play, the Philpots are first and second in receiving yards in the conference, as Jalen has 378 while Tyson has 283. They’re also tied for first in receptions, with 16, while Jalen’s 23.6 yards per reception (minimum of ten catches) is tops in CanWest. The latter of those stats yet again showcases Jalen’s route-running skill and ability to separate himself from opposing defensive backs.

Perhaps the biggest story of the game came early in the fourth quarter, when Dinos fifth-year pivot Josiah Joseph went down with a lower body injury. As a result, 6’5” first-year signal-caller Matteo Spoletini stepped in, finishing the contest 6-for-11 for 61 yards, with a touchdown and a major, as well as ten yards rushing. The status of Joseph for this week’s game against first-placed Manitoba is unclear, but he did have the thanksgiving break to rest up, so we’ll see.

If it’s Spoletini – a 2018 recruit out of Calgary who played for both Rundle College and Notre Dame in high school – that goes, fans should be in for a show. The 6’5” pivot has an absolute cannon of an arm and is a threat both inside and outside the pocket. He’s a proven winner, with multiple midget league championships under his belt in 2016 and 2017, as well as a Most Outstanding Offensive Player nod in the Big Rock League in 2016. He’s also represented Team Canada on the international stage multiple times.

The pivot is continuing the Spoletini legacy at the U of C, as his dad Tony won national championships with the program in 1983 and 1985 at fullback, while his uncle Tom was a four-year starter at offensive tackle in the early 80’s. His cousin Thomas also played five years for the program as a linebacker, while his older brother Giancarlo spent four seasons as a receiver.

Defensively, first-year outside linebacker Daniel Flanagan stood out for a second week in a row, posting seven tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. The highly-touted 2019 recruit out of powerhouse St. Francis leads the team with 14 tackles overall and has filled a much-needed gap at the position for Calgary, which saw CFL athletes Grant McDonald, Charlie Moore and Nick Statz all move on following the team’s 2019 Vanier Cup season. The trio were huge parts to Calgary’s defence over the last number of seasons, combining for 285 tackles during their careers, making Flanagan’s emergence particularly invaluable in terms of production.

Calgary’s secondary also had to replace key players such as Deane Leonard and Treshaun Abrahams-Webster, and through two games, they’ve shown out fairly well. Their 203 passing yards allowed per game is the best in the conference, and is good for tenth in the nation entering the thanksgiving weekend. Veterans like Jacob Biggs and Matthew Lucyshyn, who combined for 41 tackles and two interceptions during the Vanier season, had a total of 13 tackles and three pass breakups against Regina, while third-year Noah McDonough added an interception, and true freshman Deakon Taylor-Young out of New Westminster has four tackles through two games. He’s also averaging 18.4 yards per return as a kick returner.

No. 8 Manitoba (2-0) 31 – 17 Alberta (1-1)

For the first time since 2012, the Manitoba Bisons opened the conference season 2-0, doing so in impressive fashion against a talented Alberta squad. The victory propelled Manitoba into the national rankings, as they made a statement in all three facets of the game.

Offensively, it was the Jackson Tachinski and Gavin Cobb show. Tachinski, a former ANAVETS Bowl champ with power three high school Vincent Massey Collegiate in Winnipeg, was making his first career U SPORTS start after veteran Des Catellier went down last week, and he didn’t disappoint. The two-sport star, who’s also a point guard on the men’s basketball team and is a proven winner, frequently set his team up in second and manageable situations, making smart decisions all game. The 6’4” pivot threw for three majors while also rushing for a team-high 75 yards as the Herd never trailed.

Tachinski is in his third year with the program (first-year eligibility) and came into camp ready to take the next step in his development. He went to numerous NCAA camps in the states this offseason, including LSU, Alabama and Florida State, where he had the chance to compete against some of the top-rated recruits in the United States. He’s a team-first guy, who showed exactly that when he was asked about taking over from team-captain Catellier. Tachinski noted multiple times that “we worked hard, we practiced enough, and we’re ready.”

Tachinski’s first-ever regular season passing touchdown came just 5:10 into the game, and the beneficiary was former Simon Fraser standout Gavin Cobb, who added a second touchdown reception less than three minutes later. Cobb also had a 91-yard punt return for a major in the second quarter, where he dashed through a seam on the near sideline, making a quartet of Golden Bears miss en route to a touchdown. He had over 200 all-purpose yards in the contest and was named the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week.

Anyone who’s seen Cobb play knows how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands. He had 1,108 yards receiving while playing at the NCAA Division 2 level, and was also a conference all-star in 2017 after tallying 1,041 return yards. He was one of the team’s biggest commits for 2020, not only for his ability to score in a variety of different ways, but also because of his natural fit in offensive coordinator Vaughan Mitchell’s pass-heavy offence. Cobb is used all across the formation, and at 5’10”, 170, is incredibly difficult to tackle due to his ability to manipulate defenders and bend them with his angles. He leads Manitoba with 127 yards receiving after two weeks, and has 263 all-purpose yards overall.

Defensively, the Bisons held Alberta starting quarterback Brad Launhardt to under 100 passing yards in the game. Through two weeks, the group has 13 pass breakups and haven’t allowed more than 230 yards in either matchup. It’s a diverse group with a great blend of length, athleticism and football IQ that can plug-and-play in multiple spots.

Second-year safety Stephen Adamopoulos is a student of the game with great length at 6’4” and a winning pedigree as a former ANAVETS Bowl champ, while 6’4” fifth-year field corner Arjay Shelley was a conference all-star in 2019 and had a sack against the Golden Bears. Boundary corner Jake Nitychoruk made his first career start as a true freshman and didn’t look out of place at all, using 6’4” frame and physicality to his advantage. He had one pass breakup in the game and added two tackles as a fill-in for former CanWest all-star Marcel Arruda-Welch.

Aggressive second-year halfback Nick Conway started at corner in 2019 and added three tackles and nearly had his first interception of the year against Alberta, while first-year halfback Jarrett Alcaraz (third year with the program) – who was also the starting quarterback for Garden City in high school and lined up at all three spots in the secondary during camp – had four tackles and a pass breakup.

Alberta notes

One of the major talking points for Alberta this year has been the rise of second-year (third year with the program) running back Matthew Peterson. The power back from Brooks Composite was ranked as a top 100 player in the class of 2019, and saw time towards the end of his first year after starter Jonathan Rosery was lost for the season with a knee injury. Rosery’s shift to receiver in 2021 shows that the coaching staff believe in Peterson’s abilities as a ball-carrier, and also gives the former a chance to remain on the field. The situation draws comparisons to what the Bisons did when they shifted Grey Cup champ Nic Demski from running back to receiver in order to ensure that he and fellow Grey Cup champ Anthony Coombs could both remain on the field in the mid 2010’s.

Peterson has a solid combination of size and speed at 5’10”, 190 pounds and is a dual threat out of the backfield. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry against Manitoba and had 96 yards overall, while accumulating 22 yards through the air. Through two games, Rosery and Peterson have combined for 356 all-purpose yards, good for first and second on the team overall.

Saskatchewan (1-1) 43 – 15 UBC (0-2)

For a second week in a row, special teams breakdowns hampered the UBC Thunderbirds, as they fell by 28 to the Huskies. They also went 2-for-4 in the red zone, including a 102-yard drive in the third quarter that was stalled at the one-yard line.

While the above were certainly factors in the outcome of the contest, they accounted for just a portion of the game story. Saskatchewan’s offence was near unstoppable, combining for 606 yards between the pass and run games – 49 of which came from kicker David Solie on a third and 13 situation. Two household names in the province in running backs Adam Machart and Josh Ewanchyna did their thing in the victory, combining for 330 all-purpose yards and two scores.

Both Ewanchyna and Machart – a 2021 East-West Bowl selection who set a program record with 1,331 rushing yards in 2019 – know what it takes to succeed at a high level, having won three CJFL national titles with Saskatoon prior to making their U SPORTS debuts. They offer the green dogs a dangerous combination of speed, vision and power, and that was on full display against the T-Birds. Machart, the 2019 Canada West Player of the Year and U SPORTS All-Canadian, busted out a 43-yard major early in the first quarter to give his side a 14-0 lead, and finished the day with 92 yards on just 11 carries. He also added two receptions for 97 yards, once again displaying his elusiveness in open space. The third-year Ewanchyna’s yards per carry average was even better, as he went off for 114 yards and a score on just seven carries. The man they call chewy also added a 27-yard kick return.

Ewanchyna’s touchdown, which made the score 21-7 with less than five minutes left in the first half, was due partly to the presence of Machart. The versatile ball-carrier motioned out of a two-back set in shotgun, running to the strong side of the field as if to catch a pass. His execution of the play resulted in hesitancy from the UBC linebacking corps to commit to the short side run, and Ewanchyna did the rest, running off tackle and down the sidelines for the touchdown.

It’s important to acknowledge the blocking up front, not only on the Ewanchya major, but all game for the Huskies, who established the line scrimmage well, both in one-one-one and open-field situations. A great example came on Ewanchyna’s second big run of the day, where 6’7”, 300-pound second-year lineman Bryce Zerr pulled from his right guard position, knocking a blitzing T-Birds defender back a few yards while allowing a massive hole for Ewanchyna to cut back into on the short side. He, alongside the likes of East-West Bowl selection Noah Zerr, fifth-year Nicholas Summach, a towering force at 6’8”, 335, fourth-year Connor Berglof – a 2019 First Team All-Canadian – and first-year Austin Haas have been impressive through two games, helping the Huskies to a conference-best 176 rushing yards per game.

UBC notes

The T-Birds continued to make strides offensively, getting over 330 all-purpose yards from Texas standout Garrett Rooker (more details on him here). He scored two majors on the ground, and has looked comfortable inside and outside the pocket through two games for UBC.

Rooker also got a valuable target back in the lineup, as fifth-year Trey Kellogg suited up for his first regular season action of the 2021 season. The 6’3” dynamic pass-catcher, whose dad Jackie played in the CFL, finished with a team-leading six receptions for 70 yards. Kellogg, who saw time right away for UBC in 2016, now has 1,561 receiving yards in his career and adds another dimension to a UBC attack that saw a breakout first game from Vancouver College product Jason Soriano, while running back Isaiah Knight took advantage of his reps, with 82 yards on a 7.5 yards per carry average.

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