Nathan Rourke wins the gunfight at the McMahon Corral & eight other thoughts on the Lions’ stunning rally against the Stamps

Photo courtesy: CFL

There may be no cheering in the press box but I assure you those same rules do not apply in my living room.

Sean Whyte hit a 25-yard field goal with two seconds remaining on Saturday to give the B.C. Lions a 41-40 victory over the Calgary Stampeders in an instant CFL cardiac classic.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Gunfight at the McMahon Corral

The first meeting between Nathan Rourke and Bo Levi Mitchell was billed as a battle of gunslingers, a contest between an exciting young upstart and a grizzled veteran who was once in his shoes.

When the two locked eyes twenty paces apart at McMahon Stadium on Saturday, the flashy new star of the West put a decisive bullet between the eyes of his predecessor — but only after twirling his pistol five times and putting a misfire firmly into his own thigh.

Rourke’s awful start to this contest was as bad as we’ve seen him play since he arrived in the CFL. He was badly off-target for much of the first quarter and threw two costly interceptions, including a pick-six, while seemingly being flummoxed by the Stampeders’ defence.

It nearly cost B.C. the game but the bullet missed the artery.

When Rourke rolled out down 20-3 early in the second quarter to deliver a 30-yard touchdown strike to Dominique Rhymes, you might as well have sent all the fans home.

From there on out, he was nothing short of pinpoint accurate, delivering jaw-dropping throws with impressive regularity. The Lions’ 20-point fourth quarter seemed like an inevitability as he calmly pulled the trigger to the likes of Bryan Burnham and Lucky Whitehead, firing the ball into windows no larger than the circumference of a football.

“I feel like there’s going to come a time in my life where I look back and realize how fortunate I was to be able to play with him,” Burnham confessed post-game. “And now I’m just excited to be a part of it.”

Defender T.J. Lee put it much more simply.

“Man, we call him Nate Brady for a reason.”

After starting the game with more interception return yards surrendered than passing yardage accumulated, Rourke broke his own single-game Canadian passing record for a second consecutive week — the third time he’s set a new mark for a homegrown quarterback this season.

He did so on a night in which Lee told the media he felt physically ill before the game, a fact Rourke neglected to mention while dismissing another historic performance.

“Honestly, I don’t know what else to tell you at this point,” he deflected. “I think it was cool to do it the first time but at this point, I’m just trying to help this team win in whatever way possible.”

The final numbers are startling. While Bo Levi Mitchell was 18-of-32 for 206 yards and two touchdowns, Rourke completed 39-of-52 passes for 488 yards, two touchdowns and two picks, while adding a pair of scores on the ground. At 24 years old, he has far surpassed whatever accomplishments Mitchell had in his first year as a starter in 2014 and will likely reach statistical heights that the two-time former Most Outstanding Player has barely even dreamed of.

The two shared kind words post-game and it’s clear from both of their comments that the men share a deep mutual respect. That’s well-deserved on Mitchell’s part given his Hall of Fame career but in a fair fight between the two, he’ll always be left to the vultures.

Mechanical disadvantage

Despite his sensational late-game play erasing much of the stink, it is still worth examining Rourke’s early mistakes.

As has been a trend throughout the season, when Rourke misses, he misses high. That is exactly what happened on his first interception when he overthrew Jevon Cottoy, as well as on an errant throw high and behind Dominique Rhymes on the team’s first series that was nearly picked.

There is a simple reason for this phenomenon, as Rourke explained a few weeks ago. The quarterback does extensive offseason training with Vancouver-based kinesiologist Rob Williams, a program that has completely erased the questions around arm strength and accuracy he had during his time at Ohio.

However, the proper throwing mechanics emphasized by Williams can sometimes lead to high throws, as those are far more mechanically correct than a low ball. More simply put, Rourke’s muscle memory will send a ball high when he is panicked or off-rhythm because that’s what he is trained to do from a body mechanics standpoint.

The trade-off is more than worth it, given that Rourke now possesses a cannon on his shoulder and is on a historic pace when it comes to completion percentage.

His second pick had nothing to do with mechanics, as Rourke delivered the ball right into the hands of defensive end Folarin Orimolade — who was playing linebacker at the time and promptly returned it for a touchdown.

Calgary rushed three on the play and dropped nine into zone coverage, a strategy meant to confuse Rourke. It worked here, though not without an assist from his receiver Cottoy.

The bruising Canadian pass catcher came to the correct decision on his route to settle into the gap in the zone before Orimolade rather than cross his face but did so indecisively and late in the play. Rourke came back to him late in his progression and assumed Cottoy was continuing on, handing the Calgary defence a gift.

Return to sender

For all the early mistakes on offence and average defensive play, it was the third phase of the game that pushed the B.C. Lions to the brink of defeat in Calgary.

In a game where kicker Sean Whyte hit a game-winner, virtually every other special teams unit decided to take the night off. Jalen Philpot and Peyton Logan combined to rack up 297 kickoff return yards against the Lions, a ridiculous sum, and Bo Levi Mitchell was able to keep pace with Rourke thanks to near-perfect field position.

Then, moments after Rourke delivered a dazzling touchdown throw to Burnham to put the team within two, Logan squirted right up the middle for a 99-yard score. It was only by the grace of their God-like quarterback that the Lions were able to recover with two more scoring drives.

“Special teams in the CFL is about one-on-one matchups and that’s highlighted because it’s an open-field game. The returners that hit it 100 miles an hour with courage like Calgary’s guys do, if you err at all, it’s out the gate,” head coach Rick Campbell told the media. “We’ve got to win some matchups. We’ve got to put our players in a better position and go from there.”

The kick coverage units have been the ugly triplet for this team all season and they routinely seem to allow big gains right up the alley. The return game is no better, as Canadian Shai Ross is not a viable threat and Lucky Whitehead made two half-hearted attempts on kicks that went into his end zone, both of which hurt his team.

Some of that is poor personnel — the Lions’ special teams might best be described as Josh Woods, Kevin Francis and David Mackie in a trench coat — but poor coaching and scheme are playing a large role.

This has been a consistent issue since coordinator Don Yanowsky took the job last season and it will cost the Lions in big games. They’ll need to seriously evaluate his role with the team this offseason.

Open plains

He may be scintillating through the air but Nathan Rourke continues to keep one of his best weapons in its holster — and this week there was no excuse.

Facing three-man pressure for much of the game, the Lions’ failed to exploit that defence’s weakness against the run and Rourke made life tough on himself by not taking off meaningfully once — except on a play where he accidentally crossed the line of scrimmage while trying to pass.

This was a prime game to burn the Stamps with a designed QB draw and the escape routes were there if he wanted to scramble. Rourke never did and made a couple of bad decisions as a result. Yes, linebacker Cameron Judge seemed ready to track him down often, but Rourke has beaten faster players with an angle before.

It’s hard to believe at this stage but B.C.’s superstar quarterback is not playing a complete game. Once he does, we’ll really see something special.

RTP, more like WTF

After receiving a mountain of flak for their handling of Friday night’s game in Hamilton, CFL officials threw two more awful roughing the passer penalties in Calgary. Both had massive impacts on the game.

The first came against the Lions’ David Menard in the second quarter and to describe it as soft would be an insult to pillows. The Canadian defensive end let up as he made contact with Mitchell and half-heartedly spun him to the ground following the throw, as one might lay a lover to rest. Nevertheless, a flag was thrown and a certain Calgary field goal became a Shawn Bane touchdown.

The referees made sure that the Stampeders got their comeuppance on the game’s pivotal final drive. Cameron Judge delivered a blistering hit to Rourke right as he was tossing an incomplete pass from his own endzone. The contact was perfectly timed and in the strike zone but officials deemed it too violent, kickstarting an 86-yard game-winning march for B.C.

I rarely take aim at the officials but these roughing the passer penalties took things a step too far. Neither quarterback was in any undue danger and the league needs to stop punishing defensive players for simply playing the game.

Bruce Alrighty

Running backs might not matter according to new-age football thinking but the Lions certainly missed James Butler this week.

Backup Bruce Anderson filled in for the injured starter in the backfield and managed nine carries for 37 yards, fairly average output given the style of defence they were facing. He chipped in with six catches for 35 yards but struggled to live up to the high bar Butler has set as an outlet for Rourke.

It was clear that he was not nearly as adept in pass protection either, an area in which Butler has been quietly adept. A miscommunication in slide protection between Anderson and Jevon Cottoy allowed Rourke to be blindsided by Fraser Sopik in the first quarter, causing a fumble that was narrowly recovered.

Rug-burnt

The other inexperienced addition to the Lions’ lineup was defensive back Emmanuel Rugamba, who made the start at SAM linebacker.

I thought the Miami of Ohio product looked out of place on several occasions, especially early in the game, and it appeared he got beat badly on Calgary’s first touchdown pass to Jalen Philpot.

However, veteran halfback T.J. Lee — who was victimized on the team’s second touchdown allowed as well — took the blame for confusing his young charge.

“We got a young guy in there and I’m talking too much to him,” Lee admitted. “I took over his job and he took over mine and I didn’t do his job too good.”

Ghost of rookies past

Former Lions’ general manager Ed Hervey pulled off one of the best draft day trades in league history back in 2020 when he swapped the third and 12th overall picks with Calgary for the first and 15th overall selections.

The Stampeders got the players they coveted in defensive end Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund and receiver Trivel Pinto — who has yet to play a CFL game due to sexual assault allegations. In exchange, B.C. got the chance to pick undisputed top prospect Jordan Williams to start the draft and still managed to take a flyer on some project quarterback from Ohio in the second. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Williams more than lived up to the hype as the team’s starting middle linebacker in his first season, taking home the trophy as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie last year. His follow-up campaign has been a much different story.

The East Carolina product has started every game for the team in 2022, bouncing from the middle to the weak-side spot following the injury to reigning Most Outstanding Canadian Bo Lokombo. He has been a ghost during that time, the weak spot in the defence sandwiched between a talented secondary and a burgeoning young defensive line.

Williams is far too athletically gifted to be so much of a non-factor but he seems content to allow plays to come to him, rather than attacking downhill. He mustered two tackles against the Stamps and his highlight of the night was being juked out by Bo Levi Mitchell on a blitz that should have ended a drive.

The linebacker is currently being outplayed by his second-year teammate Ben Hladik and frankly, I’m starting to question his effort level on both defence and special teams.

Take your pick

Much of the speculation heading into the 2022 CFL Draft centred on the possibility of the Lions drafting one of the two exciting local receivers, Jalen and Tyson Philpot. The identical twin brothers seemed to be a perfect fit for the organization: uber-talented Delta natives whose father, Cory Philpot, was once one of the team’s biggest stars.

They ultimately elected to select defensive tackle Nathan Cherry with the third overall pick, a choice that was considered a bit of a surprise at the time but has proven to be valuable in rebuilding the team’s defensive line. He is hardly a marquee name in his first season but had a key forced fumble in this one.

Meanwhile, both Philpot twins have gotten off to a flaming hot start to their careers and Jalen had a sensational outing against his dad’s old team on Saturday. He sliced through the Lions’ abysmal kickoff coverage team for a couple of huge returns and added a 19-yard touchdown catch — the first of his career — before unfortunately exiting before halftime with an injury.

Based on the way the Lions were constructing their ratio, taking a receiver didn’t make a tremendous amount of sense from a needs perspective. Cottoy is their only starting Canadian pass catcher and he’s not even a necessity ratio-wise. However, the team’s National depth of Jacob Scarfone and Daniel Petermann are virtual non-factors on gameday and mid-season signee Shai Ross hardly inspires awe as their primary returner.

Seeing the impact that they can have up close, it’s hard not to have second thoughts about whether a Philpot in the first round could have been the piece to put the Lions over the top.

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.