Kitty bar the door & eight other thoughts on the Lions’ second blowout win of the season

Photo courtesy: Jeff Vinnick/BC Lions

Maybe they really are just that good…

For the second straight game, the B.C. Lions cut through their opponents like a hot knife through butter. In fact, melted butter might have offered more resistance than the Toronto Argonauts did during their 44-3 defeat in Vancouver.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

To the Maks

After years of frustrating and ineffectual offensive performances, the B.C. Lions suddenly look like a juggernaut that could turn around the CFL’s scoring woes all by themselves.

The Leos were forced to punt just twice on Saturday night as they ran over Toronto for 583 yards of total offence. For the second time in this young season, it was a quarterbacking clinic from young star Nathan Rourke, who set a new Canadian single-game passing record by throwing for 436 yards through the air and four touchdowns while completing 86.7 percent of his passes.

While in Week 1, the Lions attack might have been construed as conservative, they were unafraid of throwing the deep ball against the Boatmen. All four of Rourke’s scores came on shot’s down the field and most were wide-open because of what came before them. In fact, on Jevon Cottoy’s third-quarter score, Lucky Whitehead raised his arms aloft with his back to the play as soon as Rourke let go of the ball, knowing a score was certain.

This was more than a dominant quarterback strutting his stuff and Rourke is more than willing to admit it.

“It’s a system. It’s the guys are in the right positions. [Offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic’s] putting together some great game plans with the rest of the assistant coaches and the guys are doing a great job executing,” he said at the podium post-game. “I’m just a distributor of the football out there. Those guys are getting in the right positions and they’re making big plays for me.”

I harped on Maksymic a lot last year for the rigid boom-or-bust offence that took the field with Michael Reilly under centre, but he’s done everything right in maximizing Rourke’s considerable abilities. The ball is out so fast that defences are forced to give up yards underneath and when they do bite on the array of swings and screens, the home run gets hit right in behind them.

Right now there isn’t a team in the league that looks this polished and dangerous. In fact, there hasn’t been for several years. It may still be early days, but Maksymic deserves all the praise he can get.

Battlefield triage

For all the offensive brilliance the B.C. Lions put on display tonight, this game will be defined by three heart-wrenching plays at the end of the first half and their potential ramifications on the team for the remainder of the season.

The parade of miseries began on defence when Delvin Breaux and Bo Lokombo both broke on an Argonauts’ pass at the same time and their imperfect perfect timing resulted in the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Canadian receiving a blow to the head from Breaux’s hip. It was immediately apparent that Lokombo was out cold on the field and the medical staff quickly rushed to him as his left arm twitched aimlessly above him. After what seemed like an eternity, he was escorted to the sideline by a pair of teammates and carted away for medical treatment.

The Lions’ ensuing series, the last of the second quarter, brought another scary scene. A scrambling Rourke found running back James Butler as a safety valve underneath but linebacker Wynton McManis was waiting to make it anything but safe. The hellacious — but clean — hit that followed sent Butler careening through the air like a rag doll and while the third-year back initially popped up, he collapsed again soon after.

Mere moments after Butler was helped off the turf, the Lions’ medical staff were forced to sprint out one final time. It was veteran receiver Bryan Burnham struggling to pick himself up now, having made another outstanding catch over the middle while absorbing another huge shot to the ribs. He became the third Lions’ starter to leave the game for good.

Following the sudden rash of serious injuries, there were some online that directed their criticism at Nathan Rourke for putting two of his receivers in harm’s way. While I think Rourke’s ball placement could have been improved on a few throws Saturday, I felt those comments were off base given the nature of the Lions’ offensive system means aggressive defenders are occasionally going to tee up pass-catchers for big shots underneath.

In typical Rourke fashion, he took more responsibility than I was willing to place on him.

“I was pretty frustrated by the plays that Burnham and JB got hurt on. I felt like I put them in bad positions and it could have been avoided with a better throw, a better decision,” he acknowledged. “I think what’s great about this team is there’s no pointing of fingers. Those guys understand that it’s football and it’s the next man up.”

While head injuries are fickle, head coach Rick Campbell said post-game that both Lokombo and Butler are doing well and doctors say they could return as early as next week. Burnham, by contrast, will be heading to the hospital to undergo tests on his rib injury and his status is far more uncertain.

Kitty bar the door

It’s not very often that a defence can hold a team to three points and fly under the radar, but Ryan Phillips’ unit will suffer that fate this week. Despite their place in the offence’s shadow, the group may have been responsible for the turning point in the game.

It looked as if the Argos were destined to make this game a shootout on their first series, when receiver Davaris Daniels hauled in a deep ball down the seam and caught both Quincy Mauger and Marcus Sayles attempting to lay a highlight-reel hit rather than securing the tackle. A play later, Toronto was down to the one-yard line and it seemed the inevitable score was only moments away.

That’s when the Lions’ defence decided to finally enter the game. On three consecutive plays — first an Andrew Harris run up the middle, then two quarterback sneaks from third-stringer Austin Simmons — B.C. matched the Argos physically on the interior and held their opponents short of the goal line.

One might criticize Toronto head coach and offensive coordinator Ryan Dinwiddie for his lack of creativity whilst being routinely repelled but in a league where the defence gives you a yard, it should be a foregone conclusion that you can gain as much with three opportunities to do so.

For the Leos, a goal-line stand of that magnitude shows a level of grit, effort and discipline from the defensive line that has been missing in recent years. While it can be difficult to attribute specific responsibility for plays of that nature — particularly when watching in person — there should be plenty of love to go around.

Josh Banks was a stout force coming in low and Tim Bonner proved to be a penetrator, but the player that most caught my eye was Global defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie. The native of Belgium knocked the blocker in front of him back into the ball carrier on at least two of the stops, showing off the brute strength that had him put up 31 bench reps at the 2021 CFL Global Combine.

I thought that entire defensive line unit was outstanding against Toronto, routinely collapsing the pocket around McLeod Bethel-Thompson. If they can keep that up going forward, it’s hard to see people putting up points on B.C.

The eye in the sky doesn’t lie* 

*Warning: some exceptions may apply. The eye in the sky may occasionally make things up as it goes along.

I’m rarely one to criticize officiating on the field and have even been known to be soft-hearted when it comes to the CFL Command Centre. On Saturday night, there were a pair of calls so baffling that they left me with no defence for the league’s decision-makers.

The first came early in the second quarter, when cornerback Delvin Breaux came over the middle of the field and nearly intercepted a McLeod Bethel-Thompson pass intended for Brandon Banks. Ryan Dinwiddie threw the challenge flag and upon review it was determined that Breaux was slightly early to the play, making mostly incidental contact to the receiver as he leapt for the ball. The infraction set up a Toronto field goal.

Roughly eight minutes later, it was Rick Campbell’s turn to throw the red flag. Toronto cornerback Jamal Peters arrived early on a deep throw to Lucky Whitehead and appeared to push off the speedster with his hands before breaking up the pass. To everyone in BC Place, the call couldn’t have been easier.

The CFL Command Centre apparently disagreed and the call on the field stood.

The two plays were remarkably similar and ticky-tack in nature. If anything, I would argue that Peters’ play was more deserving of a flag, if only by the narrowest of margins. Frankly, I would have been satisfied with no penalty being called on either play. Had both been retroactively flagged, you would have heard nary a whisper from me. It is the inconsistency between the two calls that many found perplexing, including Rick Campbell.

“It’s a mystery what they’re gonna find on the DPI,” he mused to the media. “I mean, I’m not actually ripping the guys, you just don’t know. That’s why coaches go fishing. They don’t want us to go fishing for challenges and you don’t really want to but when it’s a big play like that, I guess you take your chances.”

You’ll often hear fans griping that they don’t know what constitutes pass interference in the CFL and it is nights like this one that give rise to those sentiments. From an officiating standpoint, you can be right or wrong when you make a call and I can live with either outcome. I only asked that you are consistent, so I know what the hell I’m watching.

Poetry in motion

Poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme, but Dominique Rhymes is always poetry.

The Lions’ underrated American receiver was forced to step up to the plate with Burnham out of the ball game and he responded by catching all eight passes thrown his way for 143 yards and two scores. They weren’t all easy receptions either, as Rourke put a couple balls high and in behind the receiver.

Rhymes has clearly earned the trust of his quarterback and while he is often overshadowed by the cinematic highlights of Bryan Burnham and Lucky Whitehead, he deserves far more love from fans. There is still beauty in the written word, even with all these moving pictures.

Odd understudy

Speaking of players that had to step up to the plate due to injury, the departure of James Butler left the B.C. Lions are without a running back for the entire second half. In stepped fullback David Mackie, who punished the Argos despite having never carried the ball before in four CFL seasons.

There were some shaky moments early, as Mackie fancied himself something of a showman on a shocking 25-yard run up the gut in which he tried to hurdle a defender and promptly fumbled the ball. I’ll forgive Mackie the misplaced excitement — I don’t think he’s ever been that far downfield before — because once he settled in he was outstanding.

The Lions opted not to dress a second running back because of how much trust they had in Mackie’s ability to step up. The fullback rewarded their trust with 16 carries for 90 yards and his first career touchdown.

“I said don’t limit the playbook or anything. Mackie, he knows what he’s doing. He’s a tough, tough kid and he’s big. Good on him for showing up,” Campbell raved post-game, before adding a caveat. “Just don’t tell Mackie how good he did or he’s gonna get a big head.”

Like many Canadian fullbacks before him, Mackie is a force in the Lions locker room and a glue guy who goes mostly unheralded. It was nice to see him get his moment in the spotlight.

Peanut butter jelly time

You didn’t really think I was going to finish this article without talking about Rourke some more, did you?

Rather than bore you with more detailed analysis — spoiler alert: he looks like the best quarterback in football right now — I’ll leave you with the words of defensive back Gary Peters, who said he predicted this performance from his offence.

“We gotta deal with him in practice all week, so I already knew what was gonna happen today,” he said shaking his head. “They killed us on day two.”

Head coach Rick Campbell said his team’s offensive consistency was a reflection of their quarterback’s dogged work ethic. You simply can’t argue against that and for Peters, it extends throughout the whole team.

“It’s easy to follow guys like that,” he said. “When you come in the facility, he’s the first one there and I’m one of the last people to leave, he’s literally there after me, walking around, eating a peanut butter jelly sandwich, trying to find something to do.”

“He’s always working. No matter what. He’s trying to perfect himself and you can see he’s a young guy, but you can see in his eyes that he’s really hungry. It’s a different look in his eyes when you look at him.”

Welcome to the CFL

Vaunted college quarterback Chad Kelly got his first taste of CFL action late in this one and immediately got smoked from the backside by Canadian defensive end David Menard, who also knocked the ball loose on his second sack of the night.

Maybe I’m sick, but nothing warms my heart more than watching a young college superstar quarterback get crunched by a U Sports defender who never got a second look from the NFL.

Return to earth

While the storylines on the field are all positive, the Lions followed up their tremendous showing at the box office in Week 1 with a relatively dismal crowd this week. It was extremely disappointing given the fact that the team is doing everything right in the community and demolishing opponents.

The fans will come with time but if you have been hesitating to make your way to a game, don’t wait any longer. This team is the best show in town and they are only getting started.

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.