Lions’ victory over Riders a waking nightmare & 12 other thoughts on losing Nathan Rourke to injury

Photo courtesy: CFL

For the first time all season, the B.C. Lions captured a resounding victory and not a single fan cheered.

Here are my thoughts on the 28-10 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Friday night.

Waking nightmare

Prepare yourself CFL fans, there is only one story that will matter in the entire league next week.

The injury sustained by Nathan Rourke early in the game’s fourth quarter is a waking nightmare for anyone who cares about the B.C. Lions or the CFL generally. Watching the brightest star the league has seen in a generation hobble off the field with the assistance of teammates, unable to put any weight on his right foot, was already a gut punch and everyone is bracing for more bad news.

“We’re just not going to know until he gets more tests done,” head coach Rick Campbell told the media post-game. “Our doctor says he just can’t know until you get it checked out. There’s a wide range of outcomes and we’ll find that out as soon as we can, maybe tomorrow.”

The Lions’ season very much hangs on the nature of his diagnosis and it’s natural to seek somebody to blame. Yet, no one is truly at fault here.

Yes, it felt as if the game was already in hand but pulling your starter a full quarter early while up just 18 points would be foolish in the CFL. While Rick Campbell may be guilty of regularly leaving his quarterbacks in the line of fire for too long, we had not yet reached that stage.

The offensive line, meanwhile, had mostly managed to hold arguably the best pass-rushing unit in the CFL in check. Right tackle Kent Perkins got beat cleanly by the league’s sack leader Pete Robertson — a rep he’ll no doubt play continuously in his head for however long Rourke is absent — and A.C. Leonard perfectly executed a stunt to meet at the quarterback. It was a clean play, the first Saskatchewan sack of the game, and the twisting as Rourke tried to step up in the pocket was unavoidable.

The reality is that every time you take to the football field, you are gambling with your health. In this case, Rourke rolled snake eyes.

“That’s hard. At this point, we’re trying to remain optimistic,” veteran receiver Bryan Burnham acknowledged of the injury. “We don’t know what’s going on, just trying to be positive, trying to be optimistic and rally around him.”

Campbell noted that Rourke was walking on his foot post-game despite some pain and there is not a soul in Canada, fan or foe, that doesn’t want to see him back on the field next week, celebrating a false alarm. Given the level of discomfort we saw him in, that feels unlikely.

The best case scenario for B.C. may be a short-term absence. The team plays Saskatchewan again at home next week with the season series already in hand and then have a bye week, a near-perfect timeline for recovery.

In the end, a game in the middle of the season to assess possible succession plans for Rourke’s inevitable NFL departure could be a net positive. My fingers are crossed that it will be the only meaningful action that backup Michael O’Connor has to steer the team through this season.

Wheat from the chaff

Before Rourke’s injury spoiled the evening, there was only one possible takeaway from three quarters of action: the Saskatchewan Roughriders are nowhere near the upper echelon of the CFL West Division.

While the Lions rode a dominant second half to victory when the two teams met previously in Week 8, there were no illusions of early parity here. A newly healthy Riders’ defence made some tremendous plays to keep things close, notching a pair of interceptions on below-average throws from the B.C. quarterback, but their offence could muster nothing that resembled opposition. Rourke’s 90-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open Lucky Whitehead late in the first half essentially sealed the victory.

In what was a fairly average performance by his standards, Rourke still completed 22-of-31 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns, while also being the team’s leading rusher. Dominique Rhymes and Whitehead were both well over 100 yards. The defence was sensational.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan starter Cody Fajardo didn’t survive the first half.

In true prairie fashion, the Lions have separated the wheat from the chaff and proven beyond a doubt that the Riders are a tier below the West Division’s big three on a level playing field. The only thing capable of changing that will be a doctor’s note on Saturday.

Uno reverse

The return of three dominant defensive line starters for the Riders — Pete Robertson, A.C. Leonard and Garrett Marino — was the talk all week, but the far superior unit on Friday was on the visiting side.

The entire B.C. defence was sensational, notching three interceptions and seven total turnovers, but it was once again the Lions’ pass rush that far exceeded expectation and vastly outplayed their overhyped opponent.

Both Cody Fajardo and backup Mason Fine were made extremely uncomfortable by the Lions’ rotation as they racked up five sacks. Obum Gwacham had his best game of the season with two sacks and a forced fumble, David Menard also got home twice and Mathieu Betts continued to prove he’s the CFL’s most underrated defender with a number of disruptive pressures.

“I don’t overlook it at all,” Campbell said of the defensive performance. “I thought it was a huge part of the game and we literally would not let them back in the game and our defence was a huge part of that; shutting the door when they needed to on third down or down in the red zone.”

What I find myself appreciating about this defensive line is how productive they’ve been despite rarely being acknowledged in national conversations. I would bet that if the voters were polled today, not a single member would receive an all-star selection. Yet the pass rush by committee approach has them looking more dangerous than any group in the CFL.

Pip-sneak

The B.C. Lions debuted an entirely new wrinkle to their already potent offence this week, taking Rourke off the field in short-yardage situations in favour of third-string quarterback Antonio Pipkin.

It was a move that almost certainly drew the ire of fantasy football players across the country but the results on the field bore fruit. Pipkin rushed for two touchdowns on the evening — one on a standard sneak and another on a designed quarterback run after he was kept in for an extra play in the red zone.

I have been vocal about my desire to see Rourke run the football with more regularity and he rewarded me this week with a couple of spectacular scramble — taking off three times for 63 yards. What I will never hope for is to see a starting quarterback take more meaningless shots plunging for single yards and I doubt I need to explain that position given the events of the fourth quarter.

There is no need to put the most valuable player on your team in any extra danger. The significantly larger Pipkin can do the job at a high level and the Lions’ coaching staff was wise to make the switch.

You can’t find good help these days

On paper, the Lions’ offence should have gotten a boost in Regina from the return of running back James Butler after a one-game absence. Despite playing with the lead for the entire game, the usually active back was an almost complete non-factor in the game-plan.

Butler had just four carries for 14 yards in the first half, with two of those coming in the final 30 seconds. He added nine more carries, mostly in the fourth quarter, and mustered just two more yards, while adding three catches for 12 yards as a receiver.

It was clear that the B.C. offensive line got out-physicaled in the run game by Saskatchewan, but Butler didn’t look like himself either. It rendered the Lions’ attack one-dimensional and one has to wonder if Rourke emerges from this game healthy if his team was able to mount a meaningful presence on the ground.

Victory by unanimous decision

The heavyweight tilt between receiver Bryan Burnham and Saskatchewan strongside linebacker Derrick Moncrief in coverage was one of the highlights of Friday’s game and both made some huge plays.

Moncrief appeared to have the edge in the battle after directly causing both B.C. interceptions, deflecting the first up to Larry Dean and hauling in the second himself thanks to fantastic coverage in the endzone. With one spectacular touchdown catch, the judges unanimously awarded their decision to Burnham.

Fading backwards while blanketed by Moncrief, the highlight-reel machine trapped the ball low with his left hand and somehow got a knee down in bounds. On a long list of career catches that boggle the mind, few have been greater.

“It’s kind of hard to explain; it’s just instincts,” Burnham offered post-game. “I don’t really remember thinking too much. I just saw the ball, things kind of slow down for me when the ball’s in the air and yeah, I went and caught it.”

See guys, it really is that easy.

Wynn-ing isn’t everything

The Lions shook up their depth chart heading into Friday’s game, opting to roll with one fewer American defensive lineman and dress receiver Shane Wynn as the team’s designated returner.

It was a move that was desperately needed, as B.C. has struggled to generate anything in the return game with Canadian Shai Ross or an exhausted Lucky Whitehead back to field kicks. They fared little better in Wynn’s debut — he averaged 8.8 yards on six punt returns — but the process should be lauded.

Failing to dress a dangerous designated import returner is inexcusable in the CFL; it is part of the reason why those spots exist. The Lions have been guilty of that crime in order to compensate for their atrocious kick coverage unit but an added body there hasn’t helped at all. Meanwhile, they’ve eliminated any chance of good field position for their offence.

Wynn may or may not be the guy to do that for this team — the blocking certainly won’t help him — but the Lions do need to find someone. It’s nice to know they are starting to try.

Zero to hero

How’s this for a fun fact? Despite a fantastic seven-year CFL career in which he has excelled at virtually every position in the defensive backfield, Loucheiz Purifoy has never been named a Division All-Star.

I believe that travesty will end for the man wearing number zero this season and he was fantastic once again in his second game starting at safety. Purifoy notched one easy interception early and almost had another on a knockdown at the goal line that saved a touchdown, all while flying around to make seven total tackles — four on defence and three on special teams.

That outing was made possible by rookie Emmanuel Rugamba rising to the occasion at Purifoy’s old SAM linebacker spot. While he drew my ire for a couple of notable busts last week, Rugamba looked like a star in the making in this one. He was a problem for the Riders as a blitzer, punished opponents with a couple of hellacious hits and had a key pass breakup to keep a touchdown out of the hands of Duke Williams.

As my colleague Farhan Lalji pointed out on Twitter, if the pair keep playing like this, it may be difficult for Quincy Mauger to get his job back when he recovers from injury. The weak point in the secondary currently looks like former all-star halfback Marcus Sayles, who was bullied by big Canadian Justin McInnis in this one.

Death by paper cuts

In a game where very little went right for the Riders, returner Mario Alford still averaged 30 yards per kickoff return and kept me on the edge of my seat every time he touched the ball.

The Lions are currently the only team in the CFL that is at the greatest risk to itself when scoring touchdowns because it means they will have to try and stop a return. Their inept special teams play seems to draw blood every week and eventually one of these paper cuts will hit an artery.

Teenage dirtbag

Saturday marked the return of controversial Riders’ defensive tackle Garrett Marino from his historic four-game suspension for intentionally injuring Ottawa’s Jeremiah Masoli — while using racially-charged language — and I saw no evidence of a changed man.

It took all of two minutes for Marino to tee off on centre Peter Godber after a B.C. offside call, a questionable hit that was obviously intentional given he was standing over the ball that was never snapped at the time. There was another borderline shot at Nathan Rourke later in the game and plenty of run-of-the-mill roughness as things got chippy, but it’s clear that Marino has not been suspended for the last time.

The defender is regarded as an imminent safety threat by opponents and has exhibited little in the way of remorse for his indefensible actions. The Riders, meanwhile, shielded him from any accountability during his suspension and made a show of listing him as a backup for this game, before playing him virtually the whole time.

When Marino inevitably repeats his offence down the line, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.

Emotional letdown

The usually disciplined Lions committed a whopping 13 penalties for 131 yards in this game, many of them late as the game devolved into chippiness.

While mistakes were made throughout, it seemed to me that things got worse after Rourke’s injury. An event of that magnitude inevitably leads to an emotional letdown and a loss of composure, though Coach Campbell shot me down hard when I floated the idea post-game.

There will be no love lost when the two sides meet again next week, though the Lions do not appear concerned with emotional spillover.

“I’m not too worried about it,” Burnham said. “Things definitely got a little sloppy but, you know, it’s Sask-B.C. It’s gonna be like that sometimes but we definitely have to keep our composure and focus on the task at hand.”

Fighting words

On a lighter note, B.C. cornerback Delvin Breaux credited increased reps on the jugs machine for the secondary’s hat trick of interceptions against Saskatchewan. That prompted me to ask Burnham who was commanding that piece of equipment the most: the defensive backs or the receivers.

His response was classic.

“I will probably say the DBs there. They’re out there every day after practice,” Burnham conceded, before adding a caveat. “But that’s probably because we’re catching every pass in practice.”

It was nice to see a little humour injected into the press conference given the pall cast over everything by Rourke’s absence.

The right kind of Fine

The Roughriders pulled starting quarterback Cody Fajardo towards the end of the second quarter and rode the rest of the way with backup Mason Fine, who went 16-of-25 for 210 yards, a touchdown and a pick in a promising performance.

The decision will rightfully spark rumours of a quarterback controversy in Saskatchewan and while I suspect Fajardo will get the nod at BC Place next week, it could have major ramifications for the Lions as well.

With a hopefully healthy Rourke’s future calling him south of the border next year, the Lions will need at least a stop-gap at quarterback and if Fajardo falls out of favour in Riderville, he will be one of the most experienced options on the market. With existing ties to the organization from his time as a backup in 2018, a return to Vancouver could make sense.

Love that idea or hate it, there is a possibility that Week 12 will offer a chance for the Lions to evaluate potential 2023 starters under centre for both teams.

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.