Lions fail to rally for Rourke & seven other thoughts on B.C.’s loss to the Riders

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

The worst part of a bubble is watching it pop.

Without their generational franchise quarterback for the first time, the B.C. Lions couldn’t overcome the Saskatchewan Roughriders at home, falling 23-16 on Friday night.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Twice the man

There was no doubt that the potentially season-ending injury to Nathan Rourke last week in Regina left ginormous shoes to fill under centre for the B.C. Lions. Unfortunately for the home squad, they proved so large that two different passers were required.

Fellow Canadian Michael O’Connor drew his first career start in Rourke’s absence but lasted just a quarter and a half before he too succumbed to an injury. The ailment was reported as a groin issue and wasn’t attributed to any specific play in the game, but head coach Rick Campbell told the media that his quarterback never felt comfortable returning despite the training staff’s best efforts.

The UBC product showed flashes in the limited time he was on the field — neither his arm strength or toughness can be questioned — but the speed of the Lions’ gameplay was a far cry from their typical lightning efficiency with him at the helm. O’Connor couldn’t quite connect on the handful of deep shots he took and his longer delivery felt slightly out of touch with the Lions’ system. He would finish 6-of-15 for 94 yards.

Short-yardage quarterback Antonio Pipkin took over for the remainder of the game and never found a happy medium in his performance. The five-year CFL veteran initially looked more comfortable than his predecessor as he led a scoring drive towards the end of the half but languished through a third quarter in which he completed just a single pass, which came with 39 seconds remaining in the frame.

Oftentimes, backup quarterbacks can be seen as trigger-happy. Pipkin appeared to have left the safety on his weapon.

He finally started squeezing off throws in the fourth, beginning with a 35-yard dime to Dominque Rhymes, but the surge came too little, too late. He finished 9-of-17 for 112 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 26 yards on six carries, but that stat line — and the score — might have looked a lot different had Rolan Milligan squeezed a potentially field-flipping pick-six opportunity moments before the Lions’ lone major.

In the end, the team’s quarterbacking was not good enough to get them past a beatable opponent and everybody knows it.

“Honestly, I’m just a little hurt after,” Pipkin admitted at the podium.

“I got here after camp, after guys had to deal with that tough grind and this locker room truly welcomed me with open arms and showed a true brotherhood. Ultimately, there were enough plays out there to be made for us to win. I feel like I just need to be better in the third quarter to help us do that.”

Head coach Rick Campbell, ever the understated optimist, praised the glimmers of competence shown by both his quarterbacks and attempted to let the backup off the hook.

“Pip’s taken so little reps, and I sure appreciate the way he competed and stuff but we were in scramble mode a bit,” he said post-game. “I don’t think we were as crisp as we would normally be.”

I think it is fair to say that Pipkin won’t be the long-term solution for the Lions; this isn’t the journeyman’s first crack at running an offence and we know what he’s capable of. Despite the limited practice reps, it’s roughly what we saw Friday.

O’Connor, on the other hand, deserves a little more patience and kindness from fans. Unable to complete his first start, we didn’t get a chance to see what he would have looked like once he got comfortable — remember Rourke’s first start against the Riders last year?

If healthy, it appears that the team is committed to riding with the Canadian once they return from the bye week. That is the correct decision in my eyes.

“I sure like him and I sure like him in practice and I sure like how he can throw the ball. He’s going to make some really good throws, so if he’s healthy and ready to go, he’s certainly going to be in the mix,” Campbell said.

“I don’t want to make any declarations right now because we all need to wait. I guess there’s a lot of factors that go into it, health and all these different things, but do I think he can play? Yes, I do.”

Ratio woes

While O’Connor’s early injury was disappointing for those of us hoping to see another homegrown quarterback find success, it also wreaked havoc on the Lions’ offence for another reason entirely.

Canadian quarterbacks now count as one of your seven required National starters, a fact that helped incentivize B.C. to bring in O’Connor as insurance this offseason. In case of emergency, the team could flip between their passers with no other alterations needed to the lineup.

This was not the case when Pipkin entered Friday’s game, as the move dropped the Lions one below their previously declared number of four Canadians on offence. As a result, B.C. was forced to take running back James Butler off the field in favour of fullback David Mackie or sub in Jacob Scarfone for Keon Hatcher. The team generally opted for the former, but neither is a recipe for success — despite Scarfone’s fourth-quarter touchdown.

On a night where a functional running game could have greatly aided a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks, the Lions didn’t start to touch that phase of their game until the second quarter and were forced to abandon it almost entirely once Pipkin entered. Butler had just three carries for 13 yards in the first half and added just one more for five yards in the second. The usually reliable outlet never even caught a pass.

Hamstringing the team to that degree is simply not a sustainable strategy going forward and the Lions will need to make changes next week to avoid that situation. That could feasibly happen on the defence, with Ryan Philips starting both Mathieu Betts and David Menard at defensive end and altering the team’s rotation accordingly, but a change along the offensive line is far likelier.

Rookie second-round pick Noah Zerr could replace Phil Norman at left guard relatively easily — ruining the team’s season-long streak of starting the same offensive line without change.

Live by the pressure, die by the blitz

With a struggling Cody Fajardo on one side and a question mark at quarterback on the other, both teams entered this game with the expectation that their defensive coordinators would be dialling up more pressure than normal.

That proved true early on, but B.C. failed to capitalize on either side of that equation. O’Connor attempted to imitate Rourke’s success this season by punishing the blitz but failed to connect after the opening drive. Fajardo, on the other hand, landed two such haymakers to change the complexion of the game.

The first was nearly batted down by Marcus Sayles but Kian Schaffer-Baker caught it on the tip drill down the left sideline, leading to a Riders’ field goal. The second once again landed in the mitts of the dynamic Canadian slot, this time for an 85-yard touchdown after he beat T.J. Lee with a post route against Cover 0.

The Lions never recovered from giving up that score and lost Lee to a hamstring injury in pursuit, an injury which came back to bite them later when backup Hakeem Johnson was beaten by Tevin Jones for the Riders’ second touchdown.

The Lions’ defensive identity has been their ability to get home with four rushers, something they once again did extremely effectively against Saskatchewan. B.C. racked up seven sacks and kept Fajardo scrambling all night with a stellar outing from their defensive line, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the handful of busts on the backend.

On a night where offensive scoring was hard to come by, the Riders’ big play blitz-beaters were the difference.

Not up for de-Bates

The CFL does not have an award for the best assistant coach but if they did, Kelly Bates should be the front-runner.

All season long, I’ve talked about how Rourke’s ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly has protected the Lions’ offensive line. This was the game where they were going to be exposed, up against a fearsome foursome and with shell-shocked backups behind them. The sack parade seemed inevitable.

It wasn’t always pretty but in the trenches, you aren’t trying to win a beauty contest. The Lions may have the ugliest successful offensive lines I’ve ever seen but Saskatchewan got home for a sack just once all night and the unit gave their QBs time to try and make plays.

I’m at a loss to explain their turnaround this season but it is abundantly clear that offensive line coach Kelly Bates isn’t receiving nearly enough credit for his work with the group over the past three and a half years. They get dramatically better every season he is with the team.

Bryan, where art thou?

The Lions’ receiving corps had a quieter night than we’re used to seeing due to the problems at quarterback but none disappeared more than Bryan Burnham.

The spectacular veteran had just one catch for 18 yards against the Riders and was not targeted once in the second half. That is simply inexcusable for a team that was desperately trying to move the chains.

“I’ll take that on my back, take that on my chin, for sure,” Pipkin acknowledged. “Bryan Burnham is a hell of a ball player and one of the guys on our team. He’s got things dialled up for him and I’ve got to get him the ball.”

You would have thought that a quarterback unexpectedly thrust into the fire would have gravitated towards a sure-handed safety valve. In his early panic, Pipkin failed to do so and the team suffered.

What a Hick

Friday marked the first time all season that the B.C. Lions had allowed a hundred-yard rusher, as Frankie Hickson rattled off 129 yards on 15 carries in his first CFL start.

When a team fails to stop the run, it elicits a visceral reaction in anyone who has been around football — myself included. It harkens back to the most basic fundamentals of the game, a mortal sin drilled into us to avoid since childhood.

The Lions are not a team built to stop a downhill back like Hickson and it showed this week. Despite all of our unease, it usually doesn’t matter.

The best run defence is an explosive offence and B.C. has always played from the front this season. Even on Friday night, it only allowed the Riders to ice the game, not win it. Any hint of a competent offence from the Lions would have been more than enough to overcome their physical deficit.

Entering this week, the CFL’s two best offences, Winnipeg and B.C., sat first and third in run defence for a reason. The second-place team, Hamilton, can claim to be the most technically sound in that area and it hasn’t helped them a lick.

No Rhymes or reason

Dominique Rhymes is having a career year for the Lions and led the team with 83 yards again on Friday. Despite those stats, it was a game he’d like to forget.

B.C. may well have swept the season series against Saskatchewan had their all-star receiver made a pair of crucial catches. The first came late in the first half when Antonio Pipkin hit him in the endzone but Amari Henderson made a great defensive play to knock the ball away as he double-clutched it.

The second came with minutes remaining in the game and delivered the final nail in the Lions’ coffin. A perfectly delivered deep ball from Pipkin threatened to break the one-score game wide-open but the ball fell incomplete just past his hands. In a domed stadium with a night sky overhead, you can’t blame the miss on losing the ball in the sun and a completion might have won B.C. the game.

Rhymes will have plenty more touchdowns coming to make up for the narrow miss but that won’t help him sleep tonight.

Rally for Rourke

While the Lions’ failed to live up to their “Rally for Rourke” slogan on the field, the team’s starting quarterback underwent successful surgery for his Lisfranc sprain on Friday and suffered no complications during the procedure. He now begins the long road to recovery with the desperate hope that he’ll return in time for the playoffs.

The budding superstar will have to rehab as well as he plays to get back in three months and he isn’t the only banged-up Leo who needs to heal quickly. O’Connor, Lee and receiver Lucky Whitehead all left Friday’s game with injuries and will have a bye week to get back in the lineup. Lee, in particular, may be unable to do so.

B.C. needs all hands on deck if they hope to keep the team in Grey Cup contention for any potential Rourke return and after six straight games, a break could not have come at a better time.

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.