Dome-field advantage returns (& eight other thoughts on the B.C. Lions’ blowout win over Edmonton)

Photo courtesy: Jeff Vinnick/BC Lions

The B.C. Lions began the 2022 season just as they ended 2021, demolishing the Edmonton Elks in a 59-15 blowout that was historic in more ways than one.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Dome-field advantage

There was nothing that happened on the field on Saturday that could have possibly been more impactful than what happened off of it.

For the first time in eight years, there were more than 30,000 people in the stands at BC Place — 34,082 to be exact. According to those within the organization, the only thing keeping the number that small was the fact that the stadium couldn’t be properly staffed to accommodate any more.

On a beautiful Vancouver night, the roof was open and there were fans in the upper deck. I arrived at the stadium on foot roughly two hours before kickoff and, for the first time since I’ve covered the team, had to push my way through a crowd to get inside. People were packed shoulder to shoulder on Robson Street to take in the pre-game festivities and the atmosphere was positively electric.

Like many of those who cover the CFL, I began my life as a fan — admittedly one raised to love green and gold, but a fan nonetheless. I’ve been coming to Lions’ games since my family moved to the Lower Mainland when I was eight and I remember what it used to be like in this city.

I remember sitting in the nosebleeds with a pair of binoculars and a hand-drawn sign, waiting breathlessly for Ian Smart to bust a return. In a drawer somewhere I still have a shirt I caught out of a cannon at one of those games, four sizes too big back then and perhaps a bit snug now, emblazoned with the words, ‘Dome-field Advantage.’

It has been far too long since that statement was true. I’ve sat through hundreds of contests in a near-empty stadium as the club fell into relative disrepair. Tonight it was true again, proof that the Lions fan base hasn’t gone anywhere. This can still be a football city, so long as there are engaged people in charge making them feel wanted.

“Me being a CFL lifer — it’s literally been my whole life — I get a little emotional over things like that,” head coach Rick Campbell said post-game.

“I’ve been an opponent here at BC place when it’s been just a horrible place to play for the visiting team because it’s loud and all that stuff. What an atmosphere, it’s a beautiful stadium. You get enough people in here and it’s a great environment. I’m happy, obviously, number one for the B.C. Lions. I’m also happy for the CFL and I’m glad guys like Amar [Doman] step up to the plate and invest in this team.”

We may never know exactly what marketing trick motivated so many to come out tonight when they haven’t in the past. The pre-game concert from Grammy-nominated artist OneRepublic played a role, but it certainly isn’t the whole story. What is undeniably true is that it is the product of months of effort from dozens of dedicated individuals who made this all possible.

From new owner Amar Doman — who rightfully treated his first season-opener as something of a debutante ball — to team president Rick LeLacheur — whom I ran into meandering the crowd in Terry Fox Plaza — to those on the business operations and marketing side like communications manager Matt Baker and dozens of others who have worked themselves ragged to make this happen.

There is a lot more work to be done to make sure this is more than just a flash in the pan but each has more than earned the right to take a deep breath this weekend and pat themselves on the back. Teams across the CFL would be wise to emulate whatever lightning in a bottle the Lions captured this weekend because for the first time in nearly a decade this organization has proven itself to be the class of the league.

The dawn of a new era

After attracting so many people into the building, it was essential for the Lions to put on a show worthy of a return ticket. Fortunately, OneRepublic exited the stage after having played a couple of smash hits from the new Top Gun movie and the Lions’ new top gun entered with twice the star power.

Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke could not have begun his tenure as B.C.’s face of the franchise in a more spectacular fashion, executing a masterful nine-play touchdown drive to open the game that showcased the very best of the club’s offence.

The throws were quick and on time, the scheme stressed the defence by frequently moving the team’s most explosive athletes across the formation, and Rourke got the ball in their hands in space with plenty of designed screens. It was so damn beautiful, I almost cried.

There would be no slowing the offence on this night, as they massacred an inexperienced Elks’ defence in a way that must have violated the Geneva Convention. As my colleague J.J. Adams pointed out on Twitter, the 42-point onslaught was the highest-scoring first half in team history and it was fully deserved. All of a sudden, this looks like a club with a polished offensive identity.

Rourke finished the game a remarkable 26-of-29 passing for 282 yards and three touchdowns while taking off seven times for 78 yards and two more scores on the ground. There aren’t enough superlatives in the Oxford Dictionary to describe how good he looked but I’ll settle for calling him simply sublime.

The Butler did it

Be honest, you probably didn’t have James Butler in your CFL fantasy lineup. The people that did are going to finish Week 1 on top of the standings.

Butler had a rough go of it for much of last season, but things turned around for him towards the end of the year. That coincided with the Lions axing the bulk of their running game playbook in favour of a simplified inside zone attack.

At a coaching clinic the Lions hosted earlier this offseason, offensive line coach Kelly Bates remarked to those in attendance — including myself — that he expected a huge leap forward from the running back this year after seeing him buy into the north-south system. Clearly, he wasn’t exaggerating.

You’ll find flashier performances from ball carriers than the one Butler put forth Saturday, but no more perfect ones. His four-touchdown outing — two on the ground, two through the air, and all in the first half — was all about taking exactly what was given to him and getting vertical at the earliest opportunity.

It’s the type of slashing style that so many recent CFL rushing champs have employed to great success and it brings an element to the offence that was sorely lacking the last few years.

“I just think as a unit we’ve grown since our last year,” Butler said post-game. “We left with obviously a sour taste in our mouths, not being able to make the playoffs, but we knew as an offence, we were doing a lot of good things towards the end of the year.”

In addition to his quartet of majors, Butler had 17 carries for 108 yards and six receptions for 33 more. Most impressive perhaps was his pass blocking, as he stepped across the pocket to decleat rookie Enock Makonzo in spectacular fashion on one fourth-quarter play.

It’s a trap!

I’ve harped on the B.C. Lions’ offensive line an awful lot the last few years and continue to have questions about how they’ll stack up against the league’s best pass rushers. But as is my way, I’m more than happy to trade snark for effusive praise of the big men up front.

B.C.’s hoggies did exactly what was asked of them on Saturday evening and Butler’s big night wouldn’t have been possible without their work as road graders. This style of ground game — which I advocated for heavily last year — suits their specific skillsets and they had some genuine highlights.

In particular, I thought veteran left tackle Joel Figueroa made the play of the game on Butler’s 36-yard touchdown scamper when he pulled inside to deliver a vicious trap block and widen the hole by several feet. Figueroa may not be as nimble as he once was but he certainly hasn’t gotten any less violent. It was a thing of beauty and Figueroa stood out again in the third quarter when he got some nice push downfield on Rourke’s second rushing score.

Counting stars

There were few redeeming features to the Edmonton offence in their opener but I certainly don’t envy quarterback Nick Arbuckle for the challenge he had to face.

B.C.’s star-studded secondary appeared to be exactly who we thought they were, despite the absence of former CFL all-star Delvin Breaux at corner. In typical fashion, Edmonton’s quarterbacks were allowed plenty of open throws underneath — sometimes slightly too deep down the field for my liking — but those windows closed quickly whenever the Lions wanted them to.

Veteran T.J. Lee was outstanding once again, turning on a second gear when recovering to make a couple of fantastic interceptions and a few more pass breakups. Louchiez Purifoy was no slouch himself in his return to the den, adding a late interception, while Gary Peters had one of his own and Marcus Sayles nearly took one away in the first half.

I’ll always prefer the game in the trenches but since he joined the B.C. Lions’ staff, Ryan Phillips has given me a newfound appreciation for the excitement of great defensive back play. They continue to put me on the edge of my seat every time they are on the field.

Beginner’s luck

I wondered in my column last week where the Lions’ pass rush was going to come from this year and based on Week 1, the answer is backup defensive end Sione Teuhema. The rookie American from Southeastern Louisiana flashed early and often against the Elks, racking up three sacks in his first career CFL game.

He was full value for each of them, as the first came on a well-executed stunt between he and fellow rookie Nathan Cherry, the second on a devastating inside move, and the third by completely bulldozing Global tackle Steven Nielsen. The 250-pounder showed a quick first step and plenty of bend to finish, which bodes well for his career trajectory.

Re-runs are never as good

Lost amid all the other storylines in this game was the return of former B.C. Lions receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux to the CFL after a season-long absence. Few will be talking about it going forward either.

“The Manny Show” was one of the greatest pass catchers in franchise history when he was with the Leos, amassing 556 catches for 8,169 yards and 55 touchdowns in eight seasons. He has now played three games against the Lions wearing enemy colours, two with the Riders in 2019 and now this one with the Elks. He has combined for just four receptions and 30 yards in those appearances, with 19 of those coming on Saturday.

Maple-soaked miracles

Rourke will deservedly earn all the headlines, but this game was historic for Canadian quarterbacks in much bigger ways.

In total, three homegrown signal-callers took snaps as Elks’ rookie Tre Ford and Lions’ backup Michael O’Connor both had their moment under centre. While neither had a huge impact — O’Connor plunged in for a garbage-time touchdown and Ford threw a pick — that has never happened in the history of the CFL.

“I was talking to somebody this week about the fact that it was super cool that when I was drafted in the league, Michael was the only other Canadian quarterback in the league and now there were three of us playing in this game,” Rourke said after the game.

“That’s pretty cool. Hopefully, we continue to go in that direction. I think we have some very talented talent, quarterback or not, and hopefully, we’re able to continue to prove that Canadians belong in the CFL.”

People in this country have waited more than fifty years for a Canadian quarterback to emerge and fill the shoes left by Russ Jackson. The candidates are finally here and there are many more coming down the pipe.

We’ve entered the golden age of the Canadian passer and it feels downright miraculous.

Popping the question

The Lions will break for an early-season bye next week and there will no doubt be plenty of people asking the pressing question: is B.C. this good or is Edmonton just that bad?

I don’t have an answer for you just yet, but the best response might be both.

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.