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November 6, 2017

Bisons | 2017 Season Wrap

University of Manitoba Bisons head coach Brian Dobie was blunt went asked about his team’s early season struggles in 2017.

“This team needed an exhibition game,” began Dobie. “That was a mistake on my part, and that hurt us early in the season. We were too young in too many areas and we needed to come out of the gate at a faster tempo.

“Our players competed all of the time, but they were handcuffed by not getting what they needed going into the season. Again, that’s on me.”

Just to put things into perspective, the Bisons started the season 0-3 with difficult losses to Saskatchewan, UBC and Calgary – the latter two of which were locks in the U SPORTS Top 10 rankings all year. In the span of those three games, Manitoba was outscored by a combined total of 152-57.

But with a roster that included nearly 50 players in their first or second year of eligibility, the early season growing pains were to be expected.

Cue Week 4, where the Bisons travelled to Regina to take on the nationally-ranked Rams. A motivated group despite their record, Manitoba was able to emerge with the 18-16 upset on the heels of two Jayden McKoy interceptions.

Two weeks later, they had a fourth quarter lead against the same Calgary team that was at one point the best team in the nation, and a week after that, they fell just one point short against UBC. Long story short, this team made significant strides in the second half of the year against the same teams that had brushed them aside in the first half of the season.

“Those games (against Calgary and UBC) came down to the last seconds or minutes of the game,” Dobie said. “Our team is right there, but at this level, that thin line, it’s very precarious and we were just shy.”

Putting the prior seven games aside, it was Manitoba’s win in the season finale against then 2-5 Saskatchewan that really opened Dobie’s eyes to the true potential of his squad. The Huskies were fighting for their playoff lives, while Manitoba had nothing on the line expect for their pride.

At first glance, it appeared that the Green Dogs were well on their way to securing victory number three on the year, as the Bisons entered the fourth quarter trailing 32-15 to a team that had whooped them by 21 earlier in the season. But the Herd never gave up, scoring 21 points in the final three minutes to complete the come-from-behind win.

Rookie quarterback Des Catellier was poised and confident, throwing three accurate touchdown strikes, including the game winner with just 16 seconds left, while fellow rookie Arjay Shelley came up with an onside kick recovery at a critical moment.

“For our players in Saskatchewan, that was a true measure of their compete level with nothing on the line,” Dobie said.

“My eyebrows were raised. I didn’t know what to expect, why should I? We’d won one game previous to that. This team was absolutely the most-improved team in the conference in the second half of the season, wins or losses regardless, and that’s all you can ask of people.”

It’s easy to be optimistic about next season based on the way Manitoba finished the 2017 campaign. They return the vast core of their team on both sides of the ball, which includes the aforementioned Shelley, as well as Shae Weekes – both rookie defensive backs who started in seven and eight games respectively. Fellow first year players such as Catellier, defensive tackle Cole Adamson and linebacker Brody Williams, also got invaluable playing time as the year went along.

“Their (the first-year players) minds are boggled sometimes when they’re coming in and learning so much so fast. So credit to those young guys. It’s going to really propel them forward next year, there’s no question,” Dobie said.

“I like our team for next year, and that’s one of the reasons that I do. Young kids won’t be young kids anymore.”

There are plenty of storylines to pay attention to next season, such as the battle for the starting quarterback job between Catellier and fifth-year Theo Deezar, as well as who will replace veteran offensive lineman Tom Clarkson and Anthony Daley. But entering the offseason, Dobie is simply looking for “leadership and mental toughness” from his squad, as well as a hunger and passion to improve on this year’s late season success.

“I think it’s easy to do things that you like and that you’re good at,” he said. “I think you need to be mentally tough to do things that you don’t like and that you’re not good at. So we need everybody to buy in.”