A tale of two Rourkes (& eight other thoughts on the Lions preseason victory over Saskatchewan)

Courtesy: AP Photo/Larry MacDougal

It may not matter in the standings but B.C. Lions fans will be feeling a lot better about the state of the franchise after the team clawed out a 20-18 victory against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Friday night in BC Place.

With roster cuts coming down the pipe tomorrow, here are my thoughts on the game.

A tale of two Rourkes

It is fair to say that the hopes and dreams of the Lions’ franchise rest squarely on the shoulders of first-year starting quarterback Nathan Rourke. The Canadian phenom got a full half of action against what was mostly starters defensively for Saskatchewan, completing 13-of-19 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown. That’s an impressive stat line, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

I thought Rourke’s first appearance of 2022 was a mixed bag, bookended by two tremendous drives. He looked extremely poised on the Lions’ first series, a 16-play endeavour that ate up almost eight minutes of clock and culminated in a Sean Whyte field goal. The less than ideal result was no fault of Rourke’s, as he placed the ball where it needed to be on a goal-line corner to Jevon Cottoy that was perfectly covered.

Rourke was again sensational with a minute and a half remaining in the half. He picked his way down the field and dropped a 45-yard dime to Dominique Rhymes along the right sideline, before finding Bryan Burnham for the team’s first major. In between those two drives, things looked a lot different.

“We sputtered a little bit, but I was really glad that we were able to get that late touchdown on the half,” head coach Rick Campbell said of the performance. “I’m a big Nathan fan. I think he’s just going to continue to grow. He’s a young guy that I think the more playing time he gets, he’s just going to continue to improve.”

When asked to throw on rhythm, I’m not convinced there is a better quarterback in the CFL at getting the ball out of his hands quickly and in time than Rourke. However, when asked to stand in the pocket and wait for anything to develop, he faltered. The Ohio product looked antsy when there was even a semblance of pressure and missed badly on a couple of open throws downfield as a result. He seemed tentative to take off and run — perhaps by instruction — and the Lions felt hapless on offence for the middle portion of the half.

Hopefully this game can serve as a lesson for the coaching staff on how to use Rourke effectively going forward. A high tempo, quick passing game is the way to go here and offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic has to be cautious not to force the youngster into too many of the slow developing, big play shots down field that Michael Reilly so loved.

On regression

While all former hoggiess — myself included — will make themselves red in the face expressing the importance of offensive line play, modern analytics suggests you don’t need a dominant starting five to win football games. You simply need an average one, anything less is untenable and anything more simply a bonus. Consistent, reliable performance is key.

While far from spectacular, the Lions took important steps forward in 2021 with the goal of creeping back towards average in the trenches after a disastrous 2019 campaign. They needed to take more this year, but I fear the unit might regress.

The Lions’ starting big men looked good in the run game Friday and received the requisite praise from their coach and quarterbacks, but they left a lot to be desired in pass protection. The team’s lone change in the offseason was to let veteran Canadian left guard Hunter Steward walk and replace him with occasional American centre Phillip Norman, who was memorable for all the wrong reasons against Saskatchewan.

Right guard Sukh Chungh and left tackle Joel Figueroa — who sustained a mild injury in the second quarter — are both another year older and less mobile. Second-year player Jarell Broxton is supposed to be the next man up, but he was turned into a turnstile by depth Canadian defensive end Nic Dheilly on a couple of occassions.

The Lions depth pieces stepped up late to keep Michael O’Connor clean and win the game, but the top unit didn’t match up well with Saskatchewan’s starters when they pinned their ears back. Perhaps the solution here is in the emergence of Canadian David Knevel or 2022 second-round pick Noah Zerr, but neither played in the preseason due to injury.

This offensive line group continues to concern me and that is never a good sign with an inexperienced quarterback.

Stormin’ Norman

On the subject of Phillip Norman, the fourth-year player saw his awful night end rather suddenly when he was ejected in the second quarter for giving Saskatchewan defensive tackle Garrett Marino the old ground and pound.

Norman isn’t the first offensive lineman to want to punch the notoriously hot-tempered Marino in the face and he won’t be the last, but I suggest he show his toughness in between the whistles.

The Bethune Cookman product got manhandled on a couple of rep and let his frustration get the best of him. He can’t allow that to happen again going forward.

“Watching it live, he should be kicked out,” a fiery Rick Campbell said post-game.

“I sit on the rules committee and we’re trying to cut the crap after the whistles. Now I know football’s a tough game and there’s two sides to every story, so I’m not ripping on him, but I’m all for the league of trying to limit that stuff, because that’s not good for the game.”

No pressure

The Lions fared little better on their defensive line, another persistent problem without a clear solution. At least this one can’t be blamed on organizational inaction, as B.C. brought in two difference-making defensive tackles in Steven Richardson and Woody Baron only to have the first suffer a devastating injury while training and the second fail to report to camp due to a personal matter.

The starting defensive line in Week 1 will therefore be three quarters of last year’s mediocre unit, with Obum Gwacham, Josh Banks, and Tim Bonner only being joined by the Canadian rotation of Matthieu Betts and David Menard. That group got very little push to speak of against Saskatchewan and the Lions’ wrapped up the preseason without a sack.

“Internal growth” is the key word for the organization here and the Lions believe that a deep dive in the preseason film will be much more favourable than initial impressions. I’m not convinced it will, though I will acknowledge that the team has dramatically improved its depth across the boar and I have more hope for a couple of backups than a few of the starters.

Cherry on top

On that note, I thought rookie Canadian defensive tackle Nathan Cherry flashed every time he was on the field in his first CFL game.

The Lions made it a point of emphasis to ensure their first-round pick and other potential rotational pieces got reps against Saskatchewan’s starters and Cherry looked every bit the relentless pocket pusher that the team promised us by making him the third overall selection in the 2022 CFL Draft.

“He’s high motor, a hundred miles an hour every snap,” Rick Campbell said of the University of Saskatchewan product. “He’s got active hands and active feet and that’s why we drafted the guy. We think he’s a guy that’s close to pro ready and hopefully he is pro ready.”

I agree with that assessment and hope to see Cherry involved in the rotation right from Week 1.

Legion of Zoom

Where the Lions certainly lived up to the hype was in the secondary, a star-studded group which flies around with reckless abandoned.

B.C. appeared even more aggressive than usual against the Riders. Marcus Sayles drove on screens and swing passes with intensity rarely seen in the preseason, while T.J. Lee, Garry Peters, and Delvin Breaux all had some blanket coverage down field.

Fans are already familiar with those names, but it appears the Lions have once again proven their ability to scout defensive backs. The team cut KiAnte Hardin — who impressed me early last year as a rookie starter at halfback before trailing off at the end — but preseason stars Tyneil Cooper and Quincy Mauger look like plug-and-play contributors on the back end.

Mauger, a former Georgia Bulldog, notched his second interception of the preseason, while Cooper led the team with four tackles after being the game’s biggest star a week ago.

“Fun guys to watch play. You see them run down that guy towards the corner of the end zone. They play hard, they have fun. They have good energy at practice and in the games they’re guys you like to have around,” Campbell said of the duo. “There’s going to be some tough decisions made, but we’re going to try to keep as many of these good players around, whether that means o the practice roster or whatever it is. Those guys will definitely be in the conversation.”

Fellow rookies Josh Thornton and Manny Rugamba hardly played themselves out of the mix either and we may have to simply get used to a revolving door in the Lions’ secondary thanks to Ryan Phillips’ player-friendly system. By allowing players to maximize their natural playmaking ability, many will thrive under the tutelage of B.C.’s defensive coordinator, but few can stick around past cutdown day.

Game mode Mike

Since arriving in the CFL, Michael O’Connor has seemingly battled a perception of poor performance in practice every year and yet every time he gets an opportunity in game action, the Canadian shines.

After excelling in B.C.’s first preseason game, he did it again Friday by completing 13-of-15 passes with exceptional poise for 151 yards and the game’s winning touchdown to receiver Josh Pearson. This, of course, was after the team brought in experienced veteran Antonio Pipkin to assuage their worries about O’Connor being able to steer the ship if Rourke were to go down.

“I’m just trying to play my best football out there,” O’Connor said post-game. “I know ultimately it’s a business and we only have two healthy quarterbacks, so of course you’ve got to bring in one. I wouldn’t say I was surprised at all. At the end of the day, I compete every day, I do my best and ultimately do what I can to help this team win a Grey Cup. Whatever role that is, I’ll do it.”

That role should be as the backup quarterback and it’s time we acknowledged a simple reality: Michael O’Connor is a gamer. He’s at his best when the lights are on him and while he might never be a player you win because of, he’s proven himself to be more than a viable game-manager thus far in a Lions’ uniform.

Mellow the yellow

I rarely have complaints about how players dress — look good, feel good, play good and all that jazz — but I might just contact the league office to personally complain about Loucheiz Purifoy’s cleats.

The dime defender’s shoes were the exact same shade of yellow as the CFL penalty flag and I spent most of the first half thinking every Saskatchewan drive was going to be extended due to his colourful footwear.

For the benefit of my poor heart, please switch to black!

Awww Canada

B.C. has promised a more community-focused approach under the leadership of new owner Amar Doman and we got a delightful taste of that right at the start of Friday’s game.

As happens at many games, the task of unfurling the giant Canadian flag for the national anthem was given to a group of youth football players. It was an especially young flag football team this time around and they were marched out onto the field rather early, placing them directly in the path of the Lions pre-game run out of the tunnel.

Rather than simply veer to the sidelines, the mass of more than 60 Lions paused their run at the end of the dance team tunnel, then proceeded to mob around the group of youngster and deliver high fives as some players made their way to the opposite end zone for a pre-game prayer.

I’ve seen individual players go out of their way to give kids on the field a special moment before, but I’ve never seen a whole team change their pre-game routine to make it happen before. It was incredibly heartwarming and I hope to see that unique confluence of events repeated going forward.

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