The sweet taste of adversity & 10 other thoughts on the Lions’ gutsy victory over Ottawa

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

It wasn’t a 40-point blowout but it will count for two points in the standings nonetheless.

The B.C. Lions fought off the Ottawa Redblacks on the road at TD Place on Thursday night to win 34-31, notching their third victory of the season.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

The sweet taste of adversity

Entering Week 4, the odds were stacked against the B.C. Lions.

Road trips on a short week are rarely a recipe for success — especially when playing a hungry team — and as many predicted, we saw the effects of that on the Lions’ offence throughout the game. For the first time this season, their opening drive did not end in points but rather in a two-and-out, and it wouldn’t be the last one.

While the Leos entered the half up by a score of 14-6, their longest drive to that point was just six plays and they actually trailed Ottawa in time of possession 13:29 to 16:31. The big plays were still there but the timing and accuracy of their methodical offence were just slightly off. Faced with multiple second-and-long situations, they struggled to pick up the chunks they needed.

There were only more challenges to be faced after the intermission, as quarterback Nathan Rourke fell from the ranks of the untouchables and tossed his first interception of the season. It was soon followed by a second and the Canadian pivot coughed up a fumble later in the half as well.

Faced with their first taste of adversity, the B.C. Lions and their young quarterback took a deep swig. It may have been bitter but in the end, it tasted pretty good.

“I’m human and I make mistakes but I’ve got a phenomenal team around me,” Rourke told the media following the gutsy win. “I’ve been telling you guys the last three weeks that it’s not just me and you didn’t believe me. I think we showed tonight that this is a really good team and I just happen to play on it.”

There is no doubt in my mind that those three turnovers will have Rourke grinding the tape and spending even more time at the facility to correct his mistakes, that’s just the type of guy he is. Nevertheless, he passed the first real test of his tenure as the starter with flying colours, completing 74.2 percent of his passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns.

He also ran five times for 87 yards, including a 50-yard score. No big deal.

The best CFL homebrew in several generations proved himself to be steady-handed and determined after each of his mistakes, making some brilliant throws as he led scoring drives to re-secure the lead every time he faltered. He didn’t flinch and his team rose to the occasion.

Not only did Rourke not panic, offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic didn’t either. While during the Michael Reilly years the team often seemed to fall into a pit while trying to claw back leads all at once, this time they stayed true to their efficient system and reaped the benefits.

There will be plenty to improve upon and it certainly wasn’t always pretty, but the Lions got a tough win many would have forgiven them for losing. That might be more impressive than the two preceding blowouts.

“It’s a huge win for us, to fly across the country. Ottawa’s a good team and so to beat these guys on the road, I’m really proud of our guys,” head coach Rick Campbell said.

“Mistakes happened in the game but part of being a good football team is making each other right. We found a way to make enough plays to win the game and this is one we’re going to look back on and be glad we got in the W column.”

Big D energy

Lost in Nathan Rourke’s white-hot start to the season has been the equally transcendent play of Ryan Phillips’ defence. After a contest in which the offence needed some help, it is worth giving them some added attention.

Though they went without the slew of turnovers that has become their trademark, the secondary was superb once again and held Jeremiah Masoli to a 50 percent completion mark and just 159 yards through the air. Despite torching Winnipeg for big numbers in the Redblacks’ two previous games, he didn’t cross the century mark in this one until midway through the third quarter.

The Lions’ ability to force throws underneath and close windows with speed continued to see their star-studded crew of defensive backs get fingers on passes. I thought Marcus Sayles looked sensational in this one, but T.J. Lee, Delvin Breaux and middle linebacker Jordan Williams each had a break-up of the highlight-reel variety.

None of that would have been possible without B.C.’s improved pass rush, which continued to be disruptive for the third straight game. Tim Bonner’s two sacks were both tremendous plays from the undersized interior penetrator but the entire rotation had Masoli bottled up and off-balance throughout the night. They continue to be the feel-good story of the young season.

“We forced two-and-outs when we really needed to. We did it early in the game, that kept us in the lead, and then we did it down the stretch,” Campbell told the media. “There were some really important drives and credit to our defence for forcing the two-and-outs and making the plays when we needed to make them.”

Unfortunately, the nature of B.C.’s defensive system is that they will give up some chunk yardage from time to time and on this night, it came on Ottawa’s last drive of the ball game. Darvin Adam’s hauled in a huge play over the middle and a rather soft pass interference penalty against Louchiez Purifoy set up the Ottawa touchdown to get them within three points, before B.C. sealed the victory with a near-perfect onside kick recovery.

There may be improvement needed on those late-game situations but that final drive shouldn’t colour your perception of this group of defenders. The Redblacks would have put far fewer than 31 points on the board had it not been for the prime field position afforded by Rourke’s interceptions and the Lions have yet to allow a touchdown pass through 12 quarters.

That’s pretty remarkable stuff, but we’ve come to expect nothing less from one of the game’s best young defensive minds.

Growing mushrooms

The resiliency of Nathan Rourke will get headlines across the country but I was even more impressed by how another group handled the adversity.

There is an old saying about offensive linemen being like mushrooms: you keep them in the dark, shovel manure on them and hope something good grows. The B.C. Lions’ starting five have been buried in their fair share of excrement the last few years and after a much better start to the 2022 season, the budding fungi faced a real test in this one.

There is no doubt that the scheme has protected this unit to some extent this year and we started to see that falter slightly against Ottawa. James Butler struggled to get anything going on the ground at all in the first half and the group surrendered just its second sack of the year on what appeared to be a bad miscommunication between Butler and right tackle Kent Perkins. In the second half, Perkins was beaten like a drum on another play, forcing Rourke to scramble up the pocket and wildly toss his first pick of the game. The knives were being sharpened.

Instead of collapsing, Kelly Bates’ group held firm. Though Butler’s 63 yards on the ground and 3.3 yards per carry average shouldn’t be viewed as much of an accomplishment, most of the yardage came late and B.C. got a much-improved push. There were a few solid space blocks as well and the boys up front managed to stave off a whole lot of heavy pressure looks from Ottawa.

It wasn’t a stellar performance by any stretch of the imagination but their ability to keep fighting in adverse conditions gives me a whole lot more trust in this offensive line than I had coming into this one.

Hatch-et man

With Bryan Burnham out of the lineup, second-year receiver Keon Hatcher was forced into a much bigger role. His performance was a revelation.

His seven-catch, 166-yard night will be highlighted by the 71-yard touchdown he caught to stabilize the Lions following Rourke’s second interception, but it was all the other receptions that had me catching my breath. Hatcher showed clear chemistry with Rourke and worked the sideline like a ten-year vet, making a few toe-tapping catches that might have made Burnham blush back in Vancouver.

“It’s a little saying we got. It don’t matter who eats as long as we the ones that’s eating,” Hatcher said of his big day. “As long as we the ones that’s out there making plays, it don’t matter. Today was my day. Last week was Rhymes’ day. Next week, it’s always up for grabs.”

I was a big fan of Hatcher entering last season, as he was damn fun to watch coming out of Arkansas. Like most rookies, there were growing pains and he didn’t always live up to my — admittedly high — expectations.

It’s nice to see him coming into his own after signing an extension with the team earlier this year.

Learning curve

The other pass-catcher thrust into action by Burnham’s injury was Josh Pearson and I was not nearly as impressed with the Jacksonville State product’s outing.

Pearson’s first target was a drive-killing drop on the very first series of the game and he wasn’t involved much after that. His lone catch was impressive, bailing out Rourke on a ball tipped at the line that likely wasn’t even intended for him, but that was about it.

Pearson was also targeted on Rourke’s second interception of the night and I felt he could have done a better job there. His quarterback was facing seven-man pressure and the rookie was the hot read, but he rounded his route rather slowly and didn’t fight back to the ball.

The turnover isn’t on his shoulders but a veteran player might have shown more situational awareness and done things differently.

Single-game Betts-ing

There has been lots to like about the B.C. Lions’ defensive line thus far but I want to give a special shoutout to Canadian Mathieu Betts, who flashed on a few plays early in this game but won’t appear on the stat sheet.

Betts is the most dominant U Sports prospect I’ve seen since I started covering the CFL Draft closely in 2015 and I had high expectations for him with Edmonton following his short stint with the Chicago Bears. He showed early promise but got a lot of flak early for not producing during the Elks’ dumpster fire 2021 season after he beat out Shawn Lemon for a starting job. There was more complaining from fans when he signed with B.C., with accusations of him being overpaid.

It hasn’t shown up in big numbers yet but Betts is starting to come into his own and look more like the player he was at Laval. He’s also been a noticeable presence on special teams, not something you normally see from your starting defensive end.

The Lions may have broke the bank to sign him, but having Betts around has been more than worth it in my mind — especially for a team with money to burn.

Tough day at the office

Cut by the Elks less than two weeks ago, Canadian receiver Shai Ross has quickly found a role for himself as the Lions’ primary punt returner. His production has been nothing to write home about and he’s unlikely to make any highlight reel from this game, but there is no doubt he’ll be feeling the after-effects of this contest tomorrow.

Ross, who checks in at about 180 pounds soaking wet, absorbed three hellacious hits in quick succession in the first half and bounced right back up. He finished the game with seven total returns and the Ottawa special teams unit did not treat him kindly.

As a player best known for flashy, Oreo-dunking viral videos, it was nice to see that Ross can match his high-flying antics with old-school toughness.

Increased workload

The Lions are ecstatic to have local boy Sean Whyte around to stabilize the kicker position but I hope they have some extra ice laying around for his leg.

During the game, Edmonton Elks play-by-play man tweeted that Whyte kicked just 16 extra points in 14 games played last season. By the end of Thursday’s contest, he had nailed his 17th of the young 2022 season.

Rumbling Rourke

As much as his passing ability has captivated the country, Nathan Rourke’s running ability was on full display against Ottawa and boy, is it a joy to watch.

Rourke turned on the jets for his 50-yard touchdown and will be a constant threat around the edge this season, but he’s equally tough to bring down in the tight areas of the field. The 24-year-old earned a reputation at Ohio for never giving up on his runs and has carried it into the CFL, rumbling and stumbling for big gains after making defenders whiff.

Given that he now carries the hopes of a fan base on his shoulders, that is both exciting and nerve-wracking.

“I want to watch the film, there’ll be some opportunities where I can slide and take less hits, but I’m just trying to get first downs and move chains and do whatever I can to help the team,” Rourke said.

In an odd sort of way, I like to compare Rourke’s running style to future Hall of Fame Canadian running back Andrew Harris. The two are obviously very different in terms of build and aggression but both have a never-say-die mentality and look deceptively ordinary athletically, while simultaneously performing extraordinary athletic feats that few can replicate.

Where they differ most though is in the way they finish runs, as Rourke made clear to me post-game.

“I’m not a very big guy, so I don’t want to ever run somebody over,” he said flatly.

For comparison sake

There is a lot to love about Nathan Rourke; his play, his work ethic, and his character off-the-field. In exchange, we have to live with the fact that he is singularly focused and bland as melba toast in the media.

That’s a trade-off I can more than live with.

Rourke, for his part, is incredibly uncomfortable with the amount of praise being heaped on him weekly.

“It’s not something that fuels me at all. I’d rather not even deal with it if it was up to me, but it’s just part of it,” Rourke said following this one. “That’s just something that I’m going to have to adjust to as a young guy in the league.”

We’ll see if that begins to eat at him as the season goes on, because the comparisons to Russ Jackson aren’t stopping anytime soon. And if you hate them as much as Rourke does, just wait…

I give it three more weeks before the conversation shifts to asking if Nathan Rourke is the next Warren Moon.

Every man has their role

The loss of Bryan Burnham to a punctured lung last week weighs heavy on Lions fans but he played a role in this win from his hospital bed in Vancouver.

Head coach Rick Campbell told media after the game that the team phoned Burnham pre-game to get his expert opinion on the coin toss. He made the call and the Lions ended up receiving.

A nice gesture for one of the best Lions’ players of this generation.

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.