There was a palpable anger in the B.C. Lions’ locker-room following a last-second loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats two weeks ago.
Wally Buono would like to see a little more of that emotion from his team on the field.
“After the fact, it’s too late. Maybe go into the game a little more angry,” said B.C.’s head coach and general manager. “Football is an emotional game played by angry men.
“The anger has to come before the game, not after the game.”
Fresh off a bye week, where all they could do was stew over the crushing 24-23 home defeat that put another major dent in their playoff hopes, the Lions (6-7) sit last in the CFL’s West Division as they prepare to host the Ottawa Redblacks (5-9-1) on Saturday.
Even if B.C. sweeps the club’s final five games, it still might not be enough to make the post-season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders (7-6) and Edmonton Eskimos (7-6), who sit third and fourth in the West, both holding the tiebreaker over the Lions.
“You wanna be in the playoffs? You’re in the playoffs,” Buono said in describing his team’s current predicament. “I’ve been here a million times.
“I can handle the pressure. Can you?”
The good news for B.C. is Edmonton has lost six straight after starting the season 7-0, but the success or failure of the teams ahead of the Lions in the standings won’t matter if they can’t figure out their own game.
“It’s playoff football for us right now,” said B.C. wide receiver Bryan Burnham. “We can’t lose. We can’t rely on other teams. We have to do what we can.
“Every game’s a must-win from here on out.”
Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings showed signs of life in the loss to Hamilton after a dismal performance against the Calgary Stampeders the previous week, but an offence that was supposed to light up the scoreboard has still yet to find its rhythm for a club that has lost two straight and five of its last six.
“It’s been a tough season for all of us,” said Jennings, who has just six touchdown passes and an ugly 12 interceptions. “It hurts to lose, especially with all the expectations we have for ourselves.
“But we know it’s not over. We know our chances aren’t lost.”
Wide receiver Chris Williams, who signed with B.C. following two outstanding seasons in Ottawa, said the Lions’ biggest problem has been a lack of execution in key moments.
“We’ve just got to go out there and make plays when the opportunities are given,” said Williams. “There’s going to be some opportunities out there. We’ve got to sting them. We’ve got to make it count.”
The Redblacks, meanwhile, sit second in the East after two straight losses – including last week’s 18-17 home defeat to Saskatchewan – but should have star quarterback Trevor Harris, who suffered a separated throwing shoulder on Sept. 9, under centre at B.C. Place Stadium.
Last season’s Grey Cup champions, seven of the Redblacks’ nine losses have been a combined 17 points in what has also been a frustrating 2017.
“You play football to play football, not to watch it or be on the (injured reserve),” Harris told reporters in Ottawa before the team flew west. “Even just missing three weeks is something that’s an eye-opener.”
The Redblacks beat the Lions 31-24 in the nation’s capital back on Aug. 26. The visitors trailed 31-3 in the fourth quarter before a frantic comeback attempt fell short after quarterback Travis Lulay replaced an ineffective Jennings.
But Lulay suffered a torn ACL in his right knee two weeks later, thrusting Jennings back into the starting role.
Despite his struggles, Buono said the third-year pivot still has a chance to save both his and the Lions’ season.
It just has to start now.
“Athletes thrive on success,” said Buono. “When success doesn’t happen, everybody’s confidence starts to wane. It’s what your foundation is, it’s what your beliefs are, it’s what your support system is that helps you to get through it.
“At the end of it you’ve got to pick yourself up. Nobody’s going to help you.”