Bailing out the golden boy & seven other thoughts on the B.C. Lions’ defensive win over Hamilton

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/B.C. Lions

It wasn’t the high-flying dominance to which we’ve become accustomed but the B.C. Lions prevailed against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Thursday, winning 17-12.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Bailing out the golden boy

For the entirety of the 2022 season thus far, the play of Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke has been the story to consume all others.

Somewhat reluctantly, he’s become the CFL’s homegrown messiah and when he walked out onto the field up five points with just over two minutes remaining on Thursday night, things looked done and dusted. Surely, he’d simply put the icing on the cake.

But it was not Nathan Rourke and the Lions’ high-powered offence that powered this team to victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. With the game in his hands, the 24-year-old quarterback made a critical miscalculation failing to look off safety Tunde Adeleke and short arming a long comeback to Dominique Rhymes that was easily intercepted.

Nathan Rourke nearly cost the Lions a victory. It was their stingy defence that saved it.

Three times in the final three minutes — once before Rourke’s pivotal pick and twice after — the Leos stepped up to silence a desperate Tiger-Cats offence. Marcus Sayles provided a pass breakup in the end zone to force a turnover on downs, TJ Lee and Louchiez Purifoy provided the knockdowns to crush momentum from the Hamilton interception, and Gary Peters sealed it all with an interception after a final Lions’ two-and-out.

“I know our defence will tell you that there were times they wanted to get off the field and make more plays, which is definitely true,” head coach Rick Campbell said post-game. “But the other thing that’s true is they made the plays that made the difference in the game.”

That fact is indisputable, as the Lions’ offence struggled to get anything going for long stretches of the game, collapsing on second down. Quietly, sometimes unglamourously, it was the defence who stepped to the forefront. The Dane Evans-led Ticats offence was afforded plenty of yards and won the time of possession battle, but ultimately scored just 12 points and never seemed comfortable.

The B.C. defence stumbled and faltered at times but never broke, picking up a couple of critical stops in the middle of the game and three when it really counted.

“We’ve all been in this situation before and as long as we’re talking to the guy next to us, we just know that this is a serious play, this is a serious series and we just got to be that person to make that play,” halfback Marcus Sayles said after the game.

“As long as everybody does their responsibilities, that’s just the results of what happened. I’m proud of all the guys, everybody was in position because if one guy messed up, a whole different scenario could have happened. It’s just credit to everybody locking in and a credit to the coaches for putting us in that position.”

For his part, Rourke wasn’t bad and finished 22-of-30 for 250 yards, two touchdowns and two picks — one of which wasn’t his fault. However, after weeks of saying the Lions’ success wasn’t all his doing, he was finally right and he knows it.

“We just didn’t execute as well as we can. It just comes down to that,” he said, visibly frustrated at the podium. “Whether it’s me missing the throw or just not making the right read, whatever it may be, I wasn’t as sharp as I needed to be.”

A whole lot of Luck

Hampered by injury before the team’s most recent break, the B.C. Lions’ offence once again ran through Lucky Whitehead. So did their return game, resulting in a heavy workload and mixed results for the dynamic pass catcher.

Whitehead opened the game by hauling in a 43-yard strike from Rourke, a taste of what was to come from him that was slightly undercut when he let the next ball thrown his way ricochet off his chest and into the hands of Ticat Julian Howsare for an interception.

That would prove to be the only target of the game that he failed to haul in, as Whitehead racked up eight receptions for 111 yards and a score. Included in that stat line were a few spectacular toe-tapping grabs on the sideline.

“It was an exciting game for myself,” Whitehead said. “Getting to show that I’m healthy, getting to show my guys that I’m back.

Where Whitehead struggled was as a returner, averaging just four yards per punt and allowing one kick to slip between his legs on what was millimetres away from being a costly mistake. As explosive as we all know Whitehead can be in that aspect of the game, he looked tired and slow — probably because he was.

You simply can’t have one player be both the focal point of your offence and your primary returner without the risk of diminishing one of those areas. The Lions know this, which is why Canadian Shai Ross has been handling the return duties.

Unfortunately, Ross woke up feeling under the weather and was unable to shoulder the load despite dressing. Whitehead was informed of his dual duties when he arrived at the stadium.

Given he was injured on a return on Week 2, Whitehead admitted he played conservatively in the return game to keep fresh for offence. Given his importance to the attack, it’s hard to blame him.

Slow feet, don’t eat

As good as the B.C. defence was in critical moments, there was a lot of room for improvement as well.

In particular, the team’s open-field tackling — traditionally a strength for this highly athletic unit — left a lot to be desired. Players routinely got caught flat-footed on the perimeter and the Ticats were able to extend drives by bouncing off late contact to get across the sticks.

The Lions looked slow in the loss against Winnipeg and I think some of those tendencies remained after the bye week. While they made the big plays, in the end, some lax effort allowed for Hamilton to put them in those positions, as exemplified by the 14-play, seven-minute drive that ultimately resulted in Sayle’s end zone break-up.

It seems to me this team needs to be injected with a little more energy in practice this week and hopeful the end of this ball game can provide it.

Ben there, done that

Thursday night marked the first career CFL start for former UBC linebacker Ben Hladik in place of reigning Most Outstanding Canadian Bo Lokombo and it’s fair to say the review will be mixed.

Hladik led the team with seven tackles, including six on defence and made some real splash plays with a batted pass on a blitz up the middle and a third down stop mid-way through the fourth quarter to generate a crucial turnover. He was also guilty of a few of those aforementioned missed tackles as he struggled to operate in space as well as Lokombo.

A steal of a third-round pick, Hladik will only grow in his role and there will be plenty to build off of from this game. The fact that a second-year player could even step into that important role and have success is a testament to the Lions’ bright future.

“I don’t know if we win this game last year. I think he’s an example of that we have more depth,” coach Campbell said when asked about the youngster. “He had to step in and play for Bo but we have more depth and more guys that can step up and make big contributions.”

Running in one dimension

You can file James Butler’s performance against Hamilton on your list of deceiving stat lines, as the 76 yards he amassed on 13 carries do not tell the real story.

Butler broke free on two huge runs up the middle in this game, quite a feat against a run defence as stout as Hamilton’s, but he was otherwise held in check. The Ticats held position against the Lions’ inside zone blocking scheme and swallowed him up consistently on first down, putting the team in some tough situations.

B.C. has a simplified running game because it has been shown to be more successful with their limited personnel, but the lack of creativity means it can be easy to stop for a talented defence. The Lions often combat this by using their receivers on jet sweeps to stress the perimeter, but that wasn’t working in this one.

In my opinion, if the Lions want to be more versatile on the ground then Nathan Rourke needs to pull the ball more often on their designed options. He went another game without a non-QB sneak designed run and that simply cannot keep happening.

Rourke’s legs are a lethal weapon but right now his reluctance to use them — either by instruction or misguided self-discipline — has rendered this offence one-dimensional on the ground.

Eraser head

It’s hard not to be impressed by the play of Hamilton safety Tunde Adeleke.

The uber-athletic Canadian defensive back is everywhere on the field and foiled the Lions’ offensive all on his own on two big plays in the first half. Lucky Whitehead looked like he was going to have big gains on a pair of shovel pass end-arounds but Adeleke erased the speedster’s angle on both, stopping him for a short gain each time.

“I was out there talking to him the whole game, telling him he looked good,” Lucky Whitehead said post-game, admitting disappointment for not turning the runs upfield earlier. “I’m not gonna give him too much credit though. I can outrun him.”

Adeleke finished the first half with 7 tackles and added what could have been the game-defining interception in the fourth. It’s rarely a point of pride for a defence when your line of last resort is making the majority of your plays but in this case, it came at full value.

Costly trade-off

After being embarrassed by Winnipeg’s Janarion Grant before the bye, the Lions had to make some tough decisions to beef up their special teams.

The choice was made to leave Josh Pearson off the roster while he nurses a minor ankle injury and not replace him with another American receiver, allowing depth Canadian Jacob Scarfone to start in his place. In exchange, recently signed American linebacker Omar Fortt drew into the lineup to provide another kick coverage body.

The results of that somewhat unusual decision are hard to determine on the first watch. The Lions didn’t allow a big special teams bust, which is a positive, but Lawrence Woods still average nearly twelve yards per return and Fortt finished with a costly unnecessary roughness penalty to set up the Ticats first touchdown.

Meanwhile, Scarfone was an afterthought in the offensive attack and didn’t have a ball thrown his way. The Lions have fallen in love with Scarfone’s work ethic and value him highly, but realistically the Guelph product should not be starting in a CFL offence — particularly one that isn’t bound to a second Canadian pass catcher in their ratio. On a slow offensive night, it would have been nice to have a more explosive threat on the outside.

The Lions have been slowly but surely reconstructing their Canadian depth to get better on special teams but you simply can’t be in a position where you need to hurt your starting lineup to bring on extra designated imports. A homegrown kick-covering receiver is a must-acquire next offseason.

Hot box

On a lovely summer evening where temperatures were still in the low twenties following kickoff, it was a perfect time for the BC Place roof to be open to the elements.

Unfortunately, due to mechanical issues, that wasn’t possible and the result was a sweltering environment in the stadium that was more akin to a sauna than a football game. The facility gave fans fair warning, issuing a press release earlier in the day reminding people they were allowed to bring water bottles to the game — never a good sign — but it couldn’t make the humid environment any more pleasant.

A cool breeze would have been especially appreciated in the press box, where the pre-game meal was a delightful but piping hot bowl of clam chowder. Far be it for me to be critical of free food — I would have eaten a second helping if I could have — but sweating like a jockey with a belly full of warm cream provided a new set of challenges for writing my gameday article.

Just like the players, you adapt and overcome.

Helping hand

Not to be overshadowed on the second to last drive, the B.C. defence was able to get a stop thanks in part to a time count violation by Hamilton’s offence.

That was a direct result of the noise made by the 16,155 fans who were sweating through the heat in BC Place along with me. They got even louder after that.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a fan-induced penalty in Vancouver. Hopefully, there are many more to come.

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.