Johnson: Distinct air of mortality hangs over Dinos ahead of 2014 playoff run

 

University of Calgary will host Regina in Canada West semifinal Saturday, but they’re coming off a rare conference loss in their regular-season finale when they fell 50-31 to Manitoba

 
 
 
 
Regina Rams defender Joey Dwyer tries to bring down Dinos receiver Kyle Brick during their Oct. 4 meeting. Calgary won that match 59-7 but will still need to be on its toes against Regina in Saturday’s Canada West semifinal.
 

Regina Rams defender Joey Dwyer tries to bring down Dinos receiver Kyle Brick during their Oct. 4 meeting. Calgary won that match 59-7 but will still need to be on its toes against Regina in Saturday’s Canada West semifinal.

Photograph by: Lorraine Hjalte Lorraine Hjalte, Calgary Herald

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Blake Nill and Glen Constantin. Long-standing big-game sparring partners. Old friends. Architects of two of Canada’s most potent, perennial collegiate football powerhouses, Calgary and Laval.

And on this rarest of mornings, each a bit at a loss; in an unaccustomed state of flux; both licking their wounds.

Sharing a few unfamiliar crib notes on shock and alarm.

“Just this morning coach Constantin and I spoke on the phone,” Nill was saying Wednesday, patiently wading through a queue of interviews in the parking lot outside Spolumbo’s. “He just suffered his first loss in quite a while last Saturday, as well (13-9 to the archrival Montreal Carabins).

“We talked about what our dressing rooms were like. The mood, the atmosphere. In our room, we had kids who were very upset and we had kids who simply did not know how to react. He said the same thing. He was upset at some of his guys because they weren’t responding the way, as a coach, you’d think, you’d like, you’d hope. And so was I. But when you stop and think about it, they haven’t had the chance. A little different with Glen because we’ve lost some big games along the way.

“In the conference, though, this was new to us. Different. A bit confusing.”

So there’s a distinctly unfamiliar air of mortality, if not fatality, surrounding the Dinos and this late fall/early winter run at an elusive Vanier Cup that kicks off at 3 p.m. (Shaw TV) at McMahon Stadium on Saturday against the 3-5 Regina Rams.

To categorize this an odd season for them under Nill’s stewardship would be a gross undersell. The early forfeit for dressing ineligible players against Alberta. Nill himself suspended a game for unbecoming sideline conduct. The odd close shave — a 42-41 squeaker over those pesky Manitoba Bisons pops immediately to mind — sprinkled in with the customary array of Warning: Graphic Violence conference clubbings.

Then, most sobering of all, a gobsmacking 50-31 mauling by the Bisons at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg to close out the regular schedule. Meaningless in the sense that first place in Canada West had already been secured. Nevertheless, a 1,000-volt jolt to the system.

In losing, the six-times-running Canada West champs plummeted all the way down an open elevator shaft to fourth in the CIS rankings. Fourth! Imagine!

“People,” sighed Nill, “just think it’s an automatic. That we’re on autopilot here.

“That’s certainly not the case. It’s very difficult to stay at the top. Not only do you deal with the fact that other teams are gunnin’ for you, you deal with complacency issues. You’ve gotta remember we’re talking about young men who haven’t fully developed their maturity skills.

“That’s our first loss in what, 22 or 23 conference games? So there’s a lot of kids who’ve never lost to an opponent in Canada West. They just assume they’re going to win. But that’s not the way it works. And it’s a painful lesson to find out.”

Fifth-year linebacker Anton Bellot insists that no one within the Dinos’ fraternity is dialing 911. In fact, he reasons, a little dose of humility can sometimes be a welcome tonic.

“We’ve handled it pretty well, in my opinion. There’s no sense of panic in our locker-room. It could actually wind up helping us. Making us focus that much harder.

“It certainly got our attention. Because now we’re at the point where one mistake could cost us our season. And for me, personally, I want nothing more than get back, because we were so close last year.”

The Rams, certainly, will be emboldened by Calgary’s uncharacteristic stumbles.

“They throw the ball extraordinarily well and sprinkle in a bit of run just in case you want to take advantage of their tendencies,” said Nill. “They’ve got a first-year quarterback (Noah Picton), just a small guy, but he has unbelievable touch on the ball.

“They’re going to go with five and six receivers a lot of the time and it really stretches your defence.”

This oddest of years in the Blake Nill regime enters its most crucial phase on Saturday.

If anything, the trials of the last few months have aided in humanizing the untameable beast, stripped away any sense of omnipotence. Might that be the magic ingredient required to finally put them over the top, help in laying claim to an elusive Vanier Cup?

Well, it’s the hope, the party line, anyway.

“When I first became a head coach,” Nill was saying on Wednesday, the queue in the parking lot at Spolumbo’s having dwindled to one, “the man I replaced, Larry Uteck — a very established coach in the CIS — told me ‘Blake, a loss at the right time is often a very good thing.”

A wry smile.

“That’s the card I’ve been playing since our effort in Manitoba.”

In their lone meeting of the season, the Dinos administered one of those Tony Soprano whack-jobs we’ve become so accustomed to witnessing, bludgeoning the Rams 59-7 at McMahon.

But any unconscious feeling of superiority, of divine right, of dominance by rote that the one-sidedness of Oct. 4th might have engendered would surely have vanished on the scorched earth of Investors Group Field.

Or at least, should have.

George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at gjohnson@calgaryherald.com

On Twitter at GeorgejohnsonCH

 
 
 
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Regina Rams defender Joey Dwyer tries to bring down Dinos receiver Kyle Brick during their Oct. 4 meeting. Calgary won that match 59-7 but will still need to be on its toes against Regina in Saturday’s Canada West semifinal.
 

Regina Rams defender Joey Dwyer tries to bring down Dinos receiver Kyle Brick during their Oct. 4 meeting. Calgary won that match 59-7 but will still need to be on its toes against Regina in Saturday’s Canada West semifinal.

Photograph by: Lorraine Hjalte Lorraine Hjalte, Calgary Herald

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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