After a couple of humbling weeks, the B.C. Lions returned to their dominant ways at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, toppling the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 32-17.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Patience is a virtue
In a world ruled by instant gratification, Nathan Rourke reminded all of us on Friday that the best rewards come to those who wait.
Down 17-4 early in the first half, it would have been easy for the Lions to panic and throw away the game plan. Add in the adverse environment that is Mosaic Stadium and every armchair quarterback was ready to do something drastic.
The real one wasn’t. After showing glimpses of vulnerability the last few weeks, the Lions’ Canadian wunderkind put together another near-perfect performance despite the slow start.
To his credit, offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic stuck to his system and Rourke executed it to a tee. He was patient and methodical, picking apart the Riders’ defence as if they were hardly there. Pressure barely seemed to faze him on the rare occasion he encountered it and his eyes never dropped from downfield — even when he was spinning like a top.
As a result, the game turned on the Lions’ final drive of the first half, a seven-play, 73-yard affair that began with a 40-yard strike to Keon Hatcher and ended with Rourke plunging in for six.
“I’m just so proud of the guys,” head coach Rick Campbell said post-game. “At halftime, I said the thing I was most impressed with was their poise and their belief. You could see the look in their eye, they believed we were going to find a way to win the game.”
Make no mistake, that belief comes directly from the team’s faith in Rourke and his ability to deliver the ball exactly where it needs to be. He was once again over 80 percent through the air, completing 27-of-33 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns as he led the Leos to 28 unanswered points and a dominant victory.
Of course, regardless of his success, Rourke continues to arrive at post-win press conferences with the demeanour of someone who just pulled the plug on a beloved family member.
“We’re very confident that when we execute to the best of our abilities, we don’t feel like there’s anybody who can get in our way except ourselves,” he stated flatly this time around.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve criticized Rourke for not running the ball more. I stand by that opinion and felt there were opportunities for him to do more on the ground against Saskatchewan, taking off only once for 12 yards. Yet as I tried to track these instances, Rourke made me look as foolish as he did the Riders.
If it’s possible to go through your reads to a fault, Rourke may be guilty of it. But it’s awfully hard to complain about that when he’s finding huge gains late in plays, even if first-down yardage was available to him with his legs. For now, I’ll shut my yap and simply marvel at the brilliance.
War of attrition
As much praise as Rourke deserves for the way he threw the ball in Regina, there was a reason he was able to work the field with impunity and take the occasional siesta in the pocket.
The B.C. offensive line had an otherworldly performance in pass protection against the Riders and after vigorously expressing my doubts about this unit to start the season, I’m all out of excuses.
Some scary early moments seemed to indicate they might finally be exposed, as Saskatchewan completely collapsed the pocket for a sack on the first play of the game and Joel Figueroa struggled to handle speed off the edge. By mid-way through the second quarter, the problems had disappeared and the Lions were absolutely stonewalling their opponents up front.
Look no further than Rourke’s go-ahead touchdown throw to Dominique Rhymes for an example of what I’m talking about. Yes, Saskatchewan sent just a three-man rush, but it could not have been handled more perfectly. Rourke had more than six seconds to throw without having to move an inch — an eternity in pro football.
“They didn’t blink,” the quarterback praised afterwards. “Early, yeah, it was a rough start and I think they’d be the first ones to tell you that, but they certainly got it together and that’s awesome.”
The group was very respectable on the ground as well, helping James Butler gain 77 yards on 19 carries. What many may not have realized is that those yards came in a rather unusual way — after limiting themselves to almost exclusively inside zone runs since late last season, B.C.’s biggest plays Friday were all outside zones.
Executing a different scheme that tested their lateral agility — not a strength for any of B.C.’s linemen — the men up front covered up their responsibilities and got hats on the second level. It wasn’t perfect execution by any stretch of the imagination, but Butler didn’t need it to be.
Saskatchewan was missing the likes of Pete Robertson, AC Leonard, and the much-maligned Garrett Marino, but this was still an incredibly deep defensive line unit. B.C. wore them down and demoralized them to the point where they were a complete non-factor by the end of the game.
It’s been a long time since the B.C. Lions could claim to be dominant on both sides of the line of scrimmage, but they accomplished that feat against Saskatchewan.
If the offensive line was great, the defensive line was sublime and they were the catalyst for another stifling defensive performance.
With Cody Fajardo rendered relatively immobile by his injured knee and the Riders forced to use guard Logan Ferland at centre, not being able to generate pressure would have been an embarrassment. Still, the Lions exceeded all expectations and took over the game in a way few might have expected.
With four defensive ends and four defensive tackles all getting reps, Cody Fajardo didn’t get a moment’s peace in the second half and was held to just 168 yards passing.
“It takes a lot of effort to rush the passer, so we wanted to make sure that in the fourth quarter we had gas in the tank,” Campbell said of the way he chose to construct the roster. “That’s when it becomes fun on defence for the players and the coaches when you can rush four guys and win and find a way to get to the quarterback.”
At one point or another, it seemed like every B.C. lineman flashed in a way that went beyond the team’s four sacks.
Heavily criticized in Edmonton last year, Mathieu Betts turned Na’Ty Rodgers into a turnstile, notching two sacks, another QB takedown at the line of scrimmage and the hit on Fajardo that caused Louchiez Purifoy’s game-sealing interception. Obum Gwacham had a sack and a couple of QB hits, Tibo Debaillie notched his first career quarterback takedown, and both Sione Teuhema and David Menard had some memorable pressures.
The Lions’ defence gets a lot of attention for their big names in the secondary, but this game was won in the trenches.
Ahead by a century
The longest-serving Lions player crossed an important milestone on Friday night, as T.J. Lee played his 100th career CFL game.
Every single one of those games has come with B.C. and the veteran halfback was in vintage form once again in Regina. He posted a team-leading six tackles, making impressive splash plays that included a big tackle for loss to force a Saskatchewan field goal in the first half and a knockdown in the endzone.
Lee has been one of the league’s elite defensive backs virtually since he arrived in 2014 and quite frankly, doesn’t get enough attention for his play. Year in and year out, Lee puts up all-star numbers but has earned the honour just once back in 2018. So often he’s been overshadowed by flash-in-the-pan youngsters who put up gaudy interception stats one year and disappear the next.
Quietly, Lee has taken the mantle from Lions’ greats of old like Korey Banks, Dante Marsh and his current defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips and created a Hall of Fame resume of his own. The statistics in eight seasons speak for themselves — 408 defensive tackles, 28 special teams tackles, four sacks, 22 interceptions, and seven forced fumbles, all while being the defensive unit’s key leader.
Those are remarkable numbers already, but the 31-year-old is far from finished.
Passing the torch
Lee wasn’t the only CFL veteran to cross an important career threshold, as Saskatchewan’s Charleston Hughes moved into fifth all-time in CFL sacks when he blazed off the edge to strip Nathan Rourke in the first quarter.
The 38-year-old entered the game with 134 sacks in his career, tied with current B.C. Lions’ defensive line coach John Bowman for sixth. Just two years older, Bowman has done wonders for the Leos’ front in his first year wearing the whistle, but Hughes certainly doesn’t look like he’s itching to join him on the sideline any time soon.
The future Hall of Famer’s get-off was a real problem for left tackle Joel Figueroa early in this game, forcing him to turn his shoulders almost instantly. Right tackle Kent Perkins fared no better in the second quarter when Hughes hit him with a vicious inside spin move and flushed Nathan Rourke from the pocket to bring about what was ultimately a missed Sean Whyte field goal.
Hughes’ production fell off entirely as the game progressed but he forced the Lions to account for him with their protection calls, routinely threatening him with a chip to slow his rush. Players his age shouldn’t have that type of impact at any stage of the game.
I’m preparing to eat my words after predicting this offseason on the 3DownNation Podcast that Hughes would finish with no more than four sacks in 2022. He has three right now.
Excellence by committee
It’s easy to ignore when the guy getting them the football plays so well, but the B.C. Lions’ receiving corps had another stellar game.
Rourke once again hit every target at his disposal multiple times and they each delivered. Lucky Whitehead was the only starting Lions’ pass-catcher that wouldn’t have led Saskatchewan in receiving — finishing four yards shy of Duke Williams with 35 yards — and even Jacob Scarfone made a couple of crucial catches.
Keon Hatcher led the way with seven catches for 110 yards, Dominique Rhymes had five for 78 and a touchdown, and Jevon Cottoy had 61 yards and a score of his own. It continues to be an offence by committee and each produced at least one highlight reel catch.
I’ve seen a couple of random online commenters accuse Rourke of throwing up too many 50/50 balls and nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, B.C. receivers make some spectacular grabs, but they are usually placed where the defence has no chance at an interception. The result can only be a catch or incompletion and I trust the Lions’ hands every time — as demonstrated by Rhymes’ outstanding one-handed touchdown stab.
Rest assured, the catches are only going to get better from here. Bryan Burnham is scheduled to return to the lineup next week.
Hitting the cycle
Before their offence began clicking, the Lions managed to accrue seven points in a multitude of ways. My colleague Joel Gasson dubbed this “hitting the cycle” and I’ll trust he’s appropriating that term correctly, as I would rather watch sixty minutes of straight rouges than be subjected to a baseball game.
The complete circuit was as follows: a punt single, a field goal, a safety, and a missed field goal for a conceded point, before B.C. scored a touchdown. That’s every possible type of point you can score in the CFL, though I suppose it would have taken a two-point conversion to really make that claim.
Shout out to punter Stefan Flintoft, who left this game with a gross average of 57.4 yards and a net of 40 yards per punt — absurd numbers in both categories.
On a near-perfect night, the only real negative in this game for the Lions was a pair of missed field goals.
Local product Sean Whyte had been automatic since his return to B.C., going seven-of-seven, but he missed badly from 38 and 46 yards out. In a closer game, those may have been critical points but the veteran kicker is known for his consistency and will almost certainly bounce back.
“I just told him I’m glad to know that he’s human and he’s not a machine,” Rick Campbell joked after the win.
Whyte did manage to hit two shorter kicks and the team only lost three points on the misses, due to the aforementioned safety and single.
As my one obligatory critique of the team this week, I am humbly requesting that the Lions change their go-to short-yardage play.
B.C.’s prevailing strategy seems to be letting Rourke slide to his right before surging forward, in the hopes of avoiding the defence’s initial push up the middle. As a change-up, such a play can produce extra yardage or an easy conversion, but teams know it’s coming from the Lions. As a result, they keep getting out-leveraged and Rourke gets stood up.
The play didn’t come back to bite the Leos with a turnover on downs this week as it did against Hamilton, but they twice failed to convert on second down and there were a couple of other scares. The team was much better off when they simply thrust it up the gut and I hope they’ll make that adjustment.
The Belgian Express
I’ve often bemoaned the fact that there aren’t enough good sports nicknames being created these days but Mathieu Betts provided me with an excellent one for Global defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie, who notched his first career sack against the Riders.
“His nickname is the Belgian Express,” Betts said of the Gistel native. “He’s no SkyTrain, he doesn’t stop a lot.”
I’ve praised Debaillie in this column before and he’s earned the respect of his teammates for his unheralded work at nose tackle.
His performance is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that Edmonton never even bothered to notify him when they cut him this past offseason — Debaillie found out he was unemployed on Twitter and never received an email, text, or phone call from the Elks organization.