When we all eventually look back on the 2022 season, few fans will recall the untelevised 41-6 preseason drubbing the B.C. Lions suffered at the hands of the Calgary Stampeders on Saturday. For players, it will linger considerably longer.
When Calgary defensive back Titus Wall unleashed a hellacious hit on Lions’ quarterback Kevin Thomson with just over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter — resulting in a pick-six by rookie Josiah Schakel — it added injury to the insulting stat line. Thomson remained down on the field for a considerable period of time and was taken to the locker room in obvious discomfort.
While the team would not speculate on Thomson’s condition, head coach Rick Campbell said after the game that he would likely be taken to hospital. In the eyes of his main competitor for the backup quarterback job, Michael O’Connor, the defensive play call that caused the potentially devastating injury was wholly unnecessary.
“I’m praying that he’s okay. Let’s just say that we won’t forget that,” a visibly upset O’Connor said post-game. “In the fourth quarter of a preseason game to send the MIKE and SAM on a zone blitz? Hey, we are competitors at the end of the day, but let’s just say that will not be forgotten anytime soon.”
Wall’s hit appeared to be clean, but the extra pressure was far from required in a game that was both well in hand and meaningless in terms of result. Knowing their opponents were outmatched, the Stampeders brought the house anyway in search of another highlight-reel play.
Asked if he thought the play to be a dirty one, O’Connor hesitated.
“I can’t say, to be honest. It’s football at the end of the day and they’re trying to evaluate their players just like we are,” he wavered. “I can’t speak for everybody, but it didn’t sit right with me. Let’s just say that.”
Bringing a pared-down squad made up entirely of backups to Calgary, B.C. expected to be in tough against a veteran-laden Stampeders team. In addition to their leg up in terms of playing experience, Alberta labour laws during the CFL’s recent strike gave Calgary the advantage of four more days of practice than the rest of the league.
As a result, the disparity on the scoreboard was expected and injuries were inevitable. Though he was not as angered by Calgary’s late-game play-calling as his quarterback, Campbell did have concerns over his opponent’s competitive advantage.
“They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do,” he said with irritation. “They zero-blitzed multiple times, if they want to do that then I guess more power to them. I think it’s slightly unsafe when they’ve had nine or 10 more practices than us. Anyway, it is what it is.”
Initially, it seemed that talk of the Stampeders’ advantage was overblown. The Lions’ misfit B-squad held the home team scoreless through the first quarter and essentially chased starter Bo Levi Mitchell off the field with a pair of interceptions, holding the former MOP to just 3-of-10 passing for 37 yards on the afternoon.
The wheels fell off late in the second quarter when Calgary receiver Shawn Bane scored the game’s first major on a 74-yard punt return with 27 seconds remaining in the half. Lions’ receiver Jamarius Way responded with a spectacular touchdown catch from O’Connor after the break, but B.C. would not touch the end zone again.
Dedrick Mills, Tommy Stevens, and Rasheed Tucker all added rushing touchdowns for the Stamps in addition to Schakel’s defensive score, but it was poor special teams play that sealed B.C.’s fate. Rookie Canadian Mark Milan missed both his field-goal attempts and an extra point, while also having a punt blocked by Brad Cowan to set up a touchdown.
“We played with many guys that are playing in their first-ever CFL game,” Campbell said. “It’s a steep learning curve. I’m proud of how they competed. There were some guys that did some really good things. We were battling. Obviously, it got away at the end of the game but our number one objective coming into this game was to evaluate and make sure we don’t miss on good players.”
“There’s no question, regardless of the score, that there were some guys that did some good things.”
Among the clear standouts were receiver Montay Crockett — who had five catches for 80 yards — and defensive back Tyneil Cooper — who posted five tackles and an interception — but it was the battle for the backup quarterback job that really stole the show.
The Canadian pivot O’Connor looked calm and in control throughout, completing 17-of-23 passes (73.9 percent) for 151 yards and one touchdown.
Meanwhile, Thomson, who has reportedly impressed in training camp, finished 9-of-20 (45 percent) for 129 yards and one interception. The former Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year — an award also won by Calgary quarterbacks Bo Levi Mitchell and Jake Maier — struggled with nerves early but seemed to be coming into his own late in the game, before Wall’s hit ended his night and potentially his hopes to win the job.
A frustrated O’Connor made no excuses for the offence after the game.
“We competed hard, but we didn’t get the job done. Ultimately we’ve got to put more points on the board as an offence,” he stressed. “I’m just not happy right now. We had some good plays, yes, a lot to build on, but if you want to win in this league, you need to be on point every single play. You can’t take one play off. You can’t have one mistake, especially as an offence.”
“We’ve got to be better overall, but I’m proud of these guys and how they competed. We will definitely have a bad taste in our mouths after this one.”
That sour flavour of defeat pales in comparison to their concern for their teammate, but the Lions will not be able to linger long on either emotion. The team needs to cut its roster down to 75 players, plus non-counters, by midnight eastern time on Sunday, before those remaining turn their attention to the final preseason contest next Friday against Saskatchewan.