Lessons learned from Lions rout over Riders

Things worth thinking about after life returned to normal and the B.C. Lions’ 30-15 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders Saturday.

Déjà vu, not: first came the hit, then a flood of memories as Travis Lulay lay motionless on the turf once again.

There was the smack to the shoulder only a few yards away on the turf at B.C. Place Stadium in 2013, when Geoff Tisdale nailed the B.C. Lions quarterback with a shot that took months before Lulay felt normal.

There was the shot he absorbed a year later on a rainy night in Ottawa, when for an instant Lulay thought he might not play again and needed all his inner strength to control his emotions in the locker room.

The hit he took Saturday, which left him unable to move for several minutes after Willie Jefferson of the Roughriders got him, looked the same. It was painfully familiar too, Lulay said, as the largest crowd of the season so far seemed to hold its collective breath.

“I was holding my breath as well. I took a shot to the ribs and it took me a minute. It’s been a while since I’ve taken a shot like that and I was sore on the left side,” said Lulay after the Lions had piled up 535 yards net offence.

“But this game was not about me. We rebounded the way we needed to.”

B.C. rebounded all right, but Lulay sold himself short as he recalled the most poignant moment of the Lions’ fifth win in seven games. He rebounded too, in a way that put so much of his past to rest quickly.

He was on pace for a 460-yard passing game alone at the time he was shaken, when the sheer decisive nature of the game with the starters involved dictated a change to a ground attack, which resulted in a 202-yard assault on the Riders defence. But what Lulay did when he found his second breath was like a shot to the Riders of a different sort.

The first two drives of the second half each started inside the Lions’ 10-yard line and yet Lulay helped drive the offence down the field. His best throw of the night, a 50-yard completion to Bryan Burnham, completely erased any suggestion of inadequate arm strength.

Lulay may not play another down this season, should the Lions deem the recovery of Jon Jennings is good enough to let him start the rematch with the Roughriders. What he proved, however, was a resilience and toughness that was never in question by his teammates, and had to assure doubters that everything which had happened to him before was not worth discussing again.

Pride on the line: There were doubters around the Lions last week, however, and the guy who needed the most convincing was the man in charge. Wally Buono wasn’t impressed with his offensive line in Edmonton and told them as much in the days leading up to Saturday’s contest.

“It was made a point during the practice week that we had to step up,” centre Cody Husband said later.

Husband watched the end of the game from the bench, having pulled himself out of the contest when he took a knee from the Riders’ Henoc Muamba to the head. B.C.’s depth all along the line of scrimmage had been tested in a way that had rarely been done before. It remains to be seen if it will be tested again.

Charles Vaillancourt had to play Husband’s spot with but a handful of practice reps at the position all season. Hunter Steward and Antonio Johnson had to switch positions too.

And the Lions don’t have much further to go before reaching the end of their depth chart on the offensive line. Backup centre Jas Dhillon is still weeks away from a return from his triceps injury. David Foucault, who had lost his roster spot last week, was nowhere to be seen for the third straight day, having failed concussion protocol. Felix Gacusana was signed as a free agent after the season started, and the Lions may soon have to forget their misgivings about his pro experience and put him in a game for the first time.

But if Brett Boyko would like to give up what to this point has been a futile chase of an NFL backup job with the Los Angeles Chargers, the Lions would welcome their 2015 draft pick with open arms. Then they can go about addressing what is becoming a developing issue on their defensive line, which lost starting rush end DeQuin Evans to the six-game injured list with a bulging back disc last week. Some concern was alleviated Sunday when the club brought back veteran free agent tush end Ricky Foley for the remainder of the 2017 season. Foley approached the Lions during the off-season. The club became considerably more receptive with injuries to Evans, Bryant Turner, Andrew Hudson and Dylan Ainsworth.

Patience rewarded: The rout was well underway Saturday, but for a brief moment the only player seemingly not enjoying the unfolding scenario was rooted to the Lions bench.

Shaquille Murray-Lawrence had the look of someone who thought he was going to get more playing time in the first game after he was re-signed by the Lions, and knew he had to do something once he finally got his chance.

One of the quietest players on the Lions was asked by Buono in a meeting at the start of the week to stand up and tell his teammates what being unemployed felt like, and what the game means to him.

Murray-Lawrence did something better when he did get in against Saskatchewan, showing a burst from the backfield not always seen during his first two years with the Lions but one Buono was convinced still represented part of his game.

“I was so hungry after being on the streets,” Murray-Lawrence said. “I’m not going to lie. I was in a dark place. I was in a cave…But my teammates had my back.”

The Lions looked as if they had a choice to make when they needed to nail down the win Saturday, as Murray-Lawrence began getting ratio playing time with the injury to Husband.

Leading 22-0, they could put Jeremiah Johnson back into the contest with the offence two yards away from a touchdown. A score would have been the seventh in as many games in a row for the tailback and given him a chance to get closer to a club record.

Instead, they gave the ball to a player who didn’t have a job a week earlier, who couldn’t wait to watch his scoring run back on his smartphone in the locker room after it was over. Murray-Lawrence’s week ended a lot better than it began. The same held true for his teammates.

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.