Linebacker Thomas Hall was just a practice roster player in 2007 when the University of Manitoba Bisons football team last made the playoffs.
Though Hall wouldn't crack the roster as a rookie until the next year, he was a passenger on the Bisons' ride to the 2007 Vanier Cup championship and never imagined it would be another five years before the Bisons saw the post-season.
Fast-forward to Saturday at the U of M Stadium where Hall, now a fifth-year player and team captain, and the Bisons, now 4-3, defeated the UBC Thunderbirds 37-31 to clinch a Canada West playoff berth.
"It's fantastic, I'm not ready for this victory lap to be done. It's awesome and I'm really happy to be in the playoffs," said an emotional Hall, who is one of 15 Bisons in their fifth and final university football season. He sacked UBC quarterback Billy Greene during UBC's last possession of the game as the Bisons made a defensive stand.
"You see in our younger guys' eyes, and the fifth-year guys' eyes. When we win, they look in my eyes and say 'This one's for you guys.' Our team is rallying around it," Hall said. "We've got a great group of core fifth-years and all those younger guys making plays. We're all finally starting to realize what it means to rally around that, be Bisons and win the games we're supposed to win."
The No. 10-ranked Bisons played what they hope is their last game at the U of M Stadium, the program's home for the past 45 years. The new Investors Group Field next door is expected to open in time for next season.
"Because of the delays in the (new) stadium, we got a second chance to bring something forward in terms of heritage from this field, this program, this stadium to the new one," said Bisons head coach Brian Dobie. "We won that (last) day and we bring it in. We start our culture by ending our culture right here."
Though the Bisons held their playoff destiny in their hands coming into the game, they very nearly fumbled it. Manitoba led 30-4 at the half but suffered a colossal collapse in the fourth quarter for a third straight game.
UBC scored four touchdowns in the second half -- three in the fourth quarter -- including a 98-yard catch-and-run by Jordan Grieve to take a 31-30 lead with about seven minutes left in the game.
With 5:38 left to play, Manitoba's Anthony Coombs caught an eight-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Cam Clark (failed convert) followed by Nick Boyd's 85-yard kickoff single to regain the lead.
But unlike their last two games, which saw them suffer losses in the dying seconds, Manitoba's defence held.
UBC had the ball for all but 10 seconds of the last 2:41 of the game before turning it over on downs.
Coombs said the collapse is cause for concern, but the fact they battled out of it will be a building block as they finish the regular season next weekend in Calgary against the Dinos.
"The last two games were rough, we blew a bunch of leads and we all kind of thought, 'here we go again, they're coming back' but we rallied, we came together as a team and we pulled out the win," said Coombs, who rushed for 177 yards and scored two touchdowns. "All those fifth-year guys on our team who have never been to the playoffs, this is awesome to make it happen for them."
Manitoba looked like it had the game wrapped up by halftime, scoring four touchdowns and a safety. UBC (2-5) had gone up 4-0 after a field goal capped some wind-aided field position, and a punt single.
Then the Bisons proceeded to clip the T-Birds' wings. Scoring Manitoba's touchdowns were Kienan Lafrance (16 yard rush), Andrew Barry (two rushing touchdowns of one yard each) and Coombs with a pair (TD pass and 11-yard rush). Barry's second major was set up by a fake punt by Brendon Bowman, who rushed 17 yards for the first down.
Coombs had 116 yards on the ground in the first half but in the second half, the Bisons inexplicably went away from the run. The T-Birds took flight, led by Greene, who passed for 428 yards.
Bisons safety Teague Sherman led all players with 12 tackles.
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