Wally Buono relaxed on British Columbia’s picturesque Sunshine Coast for a couple days before taking a trip up to Whistler. Solomon Elimimian visited friends south of the border and found himself at a Seattle restaurant eating fried grasshoppers.
No matter how or where the B.C. Lions chose to unwind during their bye week, the three consecutive losses that helped push them into the basement of the CFL’s ultra-competitive West Division loomed overhead like the smoky haze from wildfires that continue to blanket the region.
“You can’t separate yourself from what you do,” said Buono, the Lions’ head coach and general manager.
“It’s always on your mind,” added Elimimian, B.C.’s standout linebacker and the league’s leading tackler.
Seemingly in good shape a month ago, the stumbling Lions (5-5) will look to get back on track Friday when they host the Montreal Alouettes (3-7) – a club equally desperate to snap its own three-game slump.
“Adversity and difficulties bring teams together,” said Elimimian. “It makes guys focus.”
Much of the focus from a Lions’ perspective is on Buono’s decision to start veteran quarterback Travis Lulay after the ineffective Jonathon Jennings was pulled at halftime of a 31-24 loss to the Ottawa Redblacks in the nation’s capital on Aug. 26.
Lulay, who was 3-1 while Jennings was out with an injury to his throwing shoulder earlier this season, nearly rallied the team back from a 31-3 deficit in the fourth quarter against the Redblacks, wracking up for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns through the air before a late interception sealed the result.
“Just look at (Lulay’s) success,” Buono said when asked why he made the switch. “When he’s played, he’s played very well. The team responds to him.”
Lulay has thrown for 1,693 yards with 10 touchdowns against seven picks in 2017, and owns the league’s highest passer rating and completion percentage.
The most valuable player of the Lions’ 2011 Grey Cup victory, Lulay has dealt with shoulder and knee injuries on and off since 2013, but is back at full strength for a franchise that needs to make a push in a division where, at this point, a .500 record is only good enough for last place.
“I’m confident this team can be back playing better football and be the team we set out to be,” said Lulay, also the league’s most outstanding player in 2011. “If we focus on the little things and being 1-0 every single week, the playoff scenario takes care of itself.”
The West holds a dominant 19-3-1 edge in head-to-head meetings with the East this season, including B.C.’s 23-16 triumph in Montreal on July 6, but the Alouettes did pick up home wins over Saskatchewan and Calgary early in the schedule.
Much like Friday’s opponent, Montreal is searching for answers after the club’s current slide stretched to three games with an ugly 32-4 loss to Ottawa last week. The Alouettes sit third in the East, but will probably need to finish first or second in the division to qualify for the playoffs because of the crossover rule.
“It’s always tough playing a team coming off the bye, especially with the situation they’re in,” quarterback Darian Durant said in Montreal this week. “We know they’re going to be ready. We have to start fast.”
The Alouettes, who are 2-14 in Vancouver since 2001, have failed to score an offensive touchdown in two of their last three games and come in 0-4 on the road.
“We just have to be consistent across the board,” added Durant. “It’s mental or physical errors being made by a different guy each play.”
While quick to point out their current predicament isn’t all Jennings’ fault, the Lions are excited to see where Lulay, 33, takes them.
“He’s been doing this a long time,” said B.C. wide receiver Bryan Burnham. “Since I’ve been here, I haven’t really seen Travis healthy.
“He’s finally got that zip back on the ball like his 2011 self.”
Lulay said he feels for the 25-year-old Jennings, a friend on and off the field who led the Lions to a 12-6 record last season, pointing to some of the ups and downs of his own career.
“I’ve been in those shoes,” said Lulay, who lost the starting job to Jennings at the tail end of the 2015 campaign. “People think the path to success is a straight line, but that’s not the case.”
And although the change under centre is the focal point, the Lions also need better efforts from a defence that has surrendered too many big plays and a special teams unit that has only been average.
“We know what’s at stake,” said Elimimian. “We know that these next eight games are going to determine where our future lies. We’re excited for that challenge.”
Oh, and how were the grasshoppers?
“Actually, pretty good.”
– With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Bill Beacon in Montreal