Lucky scoots past the competition & nine other thoughts on the Lions beatdown of Ottawa

Photo courtesy: Jeff Vinnick/B.C. Lions

After a week off between matchups, the B.C. Lions met the Ottawa Redblacks at home on Saturday and improved off their Week 4 road win, thumping the team in plaid by a score of 45-13.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Fast start, quick finish

Every football game has a defining play, that one moment when momentum shifts for the final time and the result seems to become inevitable.

It’s not very often that play is the first one of the game.

From the moment Chris Rainey caught the opening kickoff for the Lions and burst outside for a 53-yard return to put his team at the Ottawa 45-yard line, you got the sense that the next 59 minutes and 50 seconds would be little more than filler in the end result. Unfortunately for the Redblacks, that may become a theme with them this season.

The Lions struck fast and furious. Offensively, they scored on each of their first three drives to make it 21-7 by the end of the second quarter. Big plays on defence and special teams made it an easy 35-13 by half-time. Dominique Davis kept giving Ottawa glimmers of hope, but this one was over well before it started.

“I thought that was going to be a key to the game. How we came out of the blocks and with really good energy, I thought if we could make that happen, then we could have a good night,” head coach Rick Campbell said post-game. “I was very happy that our guys did it for 60 minutes all the way through, which isn’t always easy to do.”

“We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks and even after we got back from Ottawa about how we felt like we were playing well coming out of the locker room after halftime, but we needed to do that same thing to start the game,” quarterback Michael Reilly added.

“I think we certainly took care of business, of course, and secondarily, we had talked offensively about how we needed to start finishing in the red zone. It was definitely a nice way to start the game with a punch.”

B.C. added 10 more points in the second half and their defence pitched a shutout, but in the final tally Ottawa beat them in every yardage category, as well as time of possession.  That was little more than an illusion, because the Lions gained the points that mattered and then some.

Scooting away from the competition

In the doldrum of pre-game, I found myself scrolling through Twitter and came across a video that made me audibly snort in the press box.

There was Lucky Whitehead in his suit jacket, riding an electric scooter through the halls of B.C. Place while sporting a rainbow propeller beanie and and a ninja turtles backpack. It was hilarious and original, a genuine expression of a one of a kind personality and athlete.

“I certainly couldn’t pull it off, but when you got as much speed as he does, you can wear anything you want,” fellow hat aficionado Michael Reilly joked post-game.

As I watched Lucky Whitehead blaze down the left sideline for a 119-yard missed field goal return touchdown in the second quarter, I almost had to laugh as I pictured him astride that scooter, whizzing past the Ottawa cover team. I thought he was much faster on foot, but Whitehead felt differently.

“For sure the scooter, cause I was jogging a little bit so my blockers could catch up,” he laughed post-game.

Whitehead flashed early in 2019 before seeing his role reduced in Winnipeg, but he’s been one of the true breakout stars of the 2021 CFL season. He’s been a dangerous receiving weapon thus far and on Saturday he reminded fans just what he’s capable of in the return game as well, an opportunity he’s been begging for all year.

The former Dallas Cowboy is nothing short of electric any time he gets the ball in his hands and the Lions have done an exceptional job taking advantage, as he led the team in receiving yardage once again with 82 on three catches. With Speedy B struggling in Hamilton, Whitehead has become the new sparkplug in the CFL and his best is yet to come.

Just a little bit longer

There are some — myself included — who might question why B.C.’s star quarterback remained in a 32-point blowout until the final drive of the fourth quarter and was still taking shots in a pass heavy offence. Predictably, Michael Reilly dismissed the possibility that he should have bowed out earlier.

“That’s not a conversation I ever had with anybody. That’s how it’s always been throughout my career in the sense that the coaches make those decisions. I certainly don’t ever expect to get pulled,” Reilly said, later referencing Montreal’s too early pull of Vernon Adams Jr a week ago.

“In the CFL, it’s kind of a fine line. It’s always tough because you don’t want to send a message to your team that we’re done when there’s eight or nine minutes left in the game. It just sends a bad message.”

We all know that taking Michael Reilly off the field would likely require handcuffs and a police escort — the man will not come quietly — but a few more reps for Nathan Rourke and a few less hits for the starter would have had every Lions fan sleeping easier, even if it slimmed the margin of victory.

Double-edged quarterback

Speaking of Reilly, Saturday proved a perfect example of the benefits and drawbacks of his particular style of play.

Reilly is aggressive to his core and utterly fearless. The result is that he holds the ball for longer than most other quarterbacks. That, coupled with his veteran ability to extend plays, is part of what makes him so special. Few are better at that home run shot or getting to that last read in the progression and that’s why he can go 22-of-26 for 319 yards, four touchdowns and a pick on nights like this.

It can also get him into trouble. Reilly takes more hits than your average QB because so often he’s waiting for that late-developing route to get loose. Pressure is now widely considered to be a primarily QB driven stat and while the Lions offensive line is far from good, Reilly invites a lot of it while trying to make big plays. Other times he gets caught trying to force it places he shouldn’t, for example his endzone attempt to Keon Hatcher late in the game that should have been a 110-yard pick six for De’Chavon Hayes.

That is the cost that you happily pay for a passer like Reilly, who can change a game by himself. Many of the most exciting quarterbacks across football share the very same traits. It’s simply one of many aspects you have to take into account when assessing the Lions’ play up front.

A little bit of everything

Everyone knows what Bryan Burnham is capable of. The star receivers’ two spectacular touchdowns on Saturday — one while fighting off pass interference — have simply become the expectation. Six weeks in to the season and Lucky Whitehead is also earning similar attention. Yet it is the rest of their receiving corps that the B.C. Lions are going to feel the best about after demolishing the Redblacks.

Missing Lemar Durant and Dominique Rhymes due to injury, the Leos had their pass catching depth tested and are more than happy with the results.

“Having one or two star caliber players makes things nice, but having a group of five wide receivers that play at that level like they do makes it very challenging for teams to be able to stop us, because we can go anywhere with the ball,” Reilly raved post-game.

“You’ve got Jevon Cottoy having another big, long touchdown reception. Shaq [Johnson] is out there making plays and a lot of them were late in the game to sustain drives and big catches on the backside of routes and things like that. Then Hatch [Keon Hatcher] comes in and in his first game has a touchdown on the first drive of the game. They all compliment each other really well.”

While Whitehead had 82 yards and Burnham had 72, the remaining three starters combined for 142 yards and two scores. What is most impressive from the outside is how the group has been constructed, each with a distinctive skill set that they bring to the offence.

Uniformity can render a passing offence predictable and dull, but Lions have game breakers like Whitehead alongside bruisers like Cottoy. The result is a varied attack that is awfully hard to cover and, frankly, this group may have worked better together than with Durant and Rhymes in the mix. That’s not to say the team shouldn’t want either of those players back as soon as possible, but they won’t be missed nearly as much as they might have been in years past.

Burn victim

The B.C. Lions secondary has been nothing short of spectacular this season, which made the massive coverage bust that gave Ottawa their first and only touchdown a bit of a shock. The fault lay with field corner Victor Gamboa, who bit on a Ryan Davis double move like an over-eager kid at the dentist and let the rookie get wide open in the endzone for a 33-yard score.

Gamboa got his start with the Lions last season, but lost his starting job to Jalon Edwards-Cooper after Week One of this year. He got the nod again this week with Edwards-Cooper on the one-game injured list, but noticeable mistakes like the one on that early score are unlikely to win him the role back long term.

Bo knows

A lot of truly awful things have happened over the past few years, from political turmoil to a once-in-a-century pandemic, but at least we got the arrival of Bo Lokombo as a legitimate CFL starter out of the deal.

The Canadian linebacker out of the University of Oregon hardly ever got his due after the Lions drafted him in 2013, cutting his teeth on special teams and only getting on the field for specific defensive packages for years despite earning an NFL stint. He broke out in 2018, then left for Montreal in 2019 where he starred at safety. Now back home in B.C. and at the weakside linebacker position, he’s become one of the best in the league.

His first career pick six on Saturday showed the type of veteran experience he’s earned the hard way, reading Dominique Davis’ eyes the whole way and baiting him into a throw he knew he could intercept. It was subtle, but brilliant, and exactly the type of play Lokombo has delivered this year.

Elite Pete

If you polled CFL fans, I don’t think you would find many who would classify Gary Peters as an elite CFL corner. It is past time that changed.

Now five years into his CFL career, Peters has quietly become one of the most consistent boundary cover men in the league. You’d be hard-pressed to find many busts in his coverage this season and he was there for a couple of spectacular pass break-ups again against Ottawa.

My theory is a number of dropped interceptions — he had another Saturday — keep Peters from ever getting his name mentioned with the elite CFL defensive backs, but his play down in and down out demands that type of company. Few have done it better the past two years and right now there is no one I want more covering top pass catchers.

Vernon’s finest

For the first time this season, I noticed rookie linebacker Ben Hladik getting significant rotational reps on the Lions defence and that has to bode well for development of a promising young draft pick.

A local product from Vernon who was one of the country’s best defensive players during his time at UBC, Hladik fell into the Lions lap in the third round of the 2021 draft. He’s a dynamic athlete on defence who has the potential to be a difference maker for this team down the road and a personal favourite prospect of mine.

Some of Hladik’s friends were seated in front of the press box in B.C. Place and to say they were thrilled for every one of the rookie’s four tackles — two on defence and two on special teams — would be an understatement. It’s always special when homegrown talents make their mark on their childhood team and Hladik isn’t far away from making his.

No run around

It’s tough to find negatives in a game like this, but while other teams may have run out the clock in the fourth quarter of a blowout, the Lions still had to pass due to their lack of faith in the run game.

As far as offensive problems in the CFL go, an inability to run the ball is probably the best one to have. Unfortunately, it remain a useful skill to ice games and B.C. hasn’t had any success with it. They entered Saturday a distant eighth in the league in rushing yards per game, then got out rushed by the worst rushing team despite leading by 32-points.

“There’s lots of things we can get better at and the run game would be one of those things,” Campbell said afterwards. “We will continue to work on it. I think we got the right guys to do it and we’ll keep working on it.”

There is a lot that needs to be cleaned up in the blocking department and OL coach Kelly Bates had the whiteboard at the ready in the fourth quarter for some schematic chats with his group. While zone runs helped revive the Lions two years ago, they aren’t working right now and I wonder if a few more gap concepts would better suit guys like Sukh Chungh, Peter Godber and Joel Figueroa.

At the same time, I haven’t seen any of the flashes from Shaq Cooper that he exhibited during his short tenure in Edmonton and good zone running requires some degree of patience and decisiveness from the runner. If neither scheme nor running back is working, some changes have to be made.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.