Nathan Rourke wins battle with his own humanity and nine other thoughts on the Lions’ West Semi-Final victory

Photo courtesy: CFL

After Sarah McLachlan kicked off the festivities with O Canada, the B.C. Lions fittingly produced an SPCA ad on the plight of abused horses, chasing Stampeders’ quarterback Jake Maier from the game en route to a 30-16 West Semi-Final victory.

Here are my thoughts on B.C.’s first home playoff victory since 2016.

Only gods don’t bleed

Despite all of our best efforts — myself included — to deify Nathan Rourke, it is finally official: the B.C. Lions’ Canadian quarterbacking sensation is mortal. In many ways, that makes what he did on Sunday all the more impressive.

Asked to play a full 60 minutes on his injured foot for the first time since August 19, Rourke didn’t look like the unstoppable force he was through the first nine games of the season. The injury clearly ailed him and Calgary instituted a game plan meant to maximize his struggles.

When he could throw in rhythm with timing, Rourke was as good as ever and had a couple of highlight reel completions. When the Stampeders brought blitz, he looked just as deadly and delivered a couple of tremendous throws while being stapled to the ground. Stamps’ defensive coordinator Brent Monson clearly anticipated that the traditional strengths of his game would continue and instead opted to drop into heavy zone coverage, especially early.

Stuck in the pocket while working through his progressions, Rourke’s foot was tested as he evaded the Calgary pass rush. You could see the strain as the plays went on and his mechanics suffered badly on a few throws. He took off only once — on his second snap of the game — and made some unwise decisions in an attempt to get the ball off instead, including a wild cross-field attempt to Jevon Cottoy that would make cliff-diving look like a risk-free activity.

When the pressure finally did start to get home to Rourke, it clearly took a physical toll. By the end of the game, his limp returned. And yet, despite the handful of errant throws and the visible pain, B.C.’s quarterback was still 22-of-30 for 321 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers — a pretty damn good outing by any objective standard.

“Nate’s just different. He’s a different human. The way he carries himself, the way he handles his business. Man, I have nothing but respect for him,” receiver Keon Hatcher said after the game. “He out there fighting for us, man. He’s out there standing in there for us.”

Amidst the admirable toughness and humanity that Rourke demonstrated on the field, he was just as surprisingly human off of it. Generally terse and business-like in press conferences, the 24-year-old was downright comedic on Sunday night — including making a tremendous quip about 3DownNation that you can read here.

I have no doubt it was part genuine jubilation and part defensive mechanism; this win is going to hurt Rourke tomorrow. So will the next two he needs to take home the Grey Cup. What the first-year starter showed against Calgary is that he has what it takes to pay the physical price necessary to achieve that end. Even while feeling his worst, he looks better than all the rest.

Please gamble responsibly 

It’s a tired old cliché but football games are, more often than not, determined by just a handful of plays. On Sunday, those plays just happened to be on third-and-short.

Twice the Stampeders found themselves deep in Lions’ territory and failed to come away with points thanks to baffling decisions on third down. Field goals are never going to cut it when you are trying to win in the playoff, so I take no issue with Dave Dickenson’s decision to go for it. It was the execution that left something to be desired.

In the first quarter, Calgary needed just a yard to extend their drive from the B.C. 31-yard-line. Rather than let the load that is Tommy Stevens plunge for the easily attainable first down or simply hand the ball off to one of their two stud running backs, the Stampeders opted to go galaxy brain and call an end around to Malik Henry. The only problem was that everyone in the stadium could see the play set up at a snail’s pace and the Lions could too, stopping the carry short with a block in the back penalty for insurance.

Failing to learn their lesson on the value of simplicity, Calgary again tripped over their own thought process in the third quarter. With a yard and a half to go from the Lions’ 18, Jake Maier aggressively tried to draw B.C. offside with a hard count before being forced to burn a valuable timeout. They promptly trotted back out for a head-scratching passing play against a jacked-up defence that was entirely ready for them, with Maier throwing an incompletion with pressure in his face.

On their own, those two turnovers were devastating. They looked even worse when B.C. offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic made his own dangerous third-down gamble from the Calgary 45-yard line in the third quarter and emerged with a backbreaking touchdown.

Backup quarterback Antonio Pipkin lined up for a sneak before dropping back, faking a jet sweep to Alexander Hollins, and lofting a pass up to a wide-open Keon Hatcher with defenders all over him. The call elicited an audible gasp in the stadium, followed by raucous celebration when Hatcher trotted untouched into the endzone.

The play was one that the Lions had held in their back pocket all season and head coach Rick Campbell said he gave Maksymic the go-ahead pre-game to call it anywhere in plus territory, to the great excitement of his receivers.

Very little separated the success of the Lions’ play call from the failure of the Stampeders’ but it proved to be the difference in the game. Had those plays been reversed, there would have been a different outcome.

Off the tracks

Barring brilliance from Rourke, the deciding factor in this game was supposed to be Calgary’s punishing rushing attack. It seems somebody forgot to tell the Stampeders.

CFL rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey and powerhouse rookie Dedrick Mills combined for just 10 carries against the Lions, compiling 59 yards. That’s great production per carry and absolutely abysmal usage. Nevertheless, it was a huge victory for B.C.’s generally porous run defence.

“They’re really good and they do a great job running the ball but when you hear about it so much about how good they are, yeah, pride comes in,” Campbell admitted at the podium.

The Lions had clearly geared up to stop the run and Dickenson later noted that he called an abundance of run plays that the Stampeders were forced to audible out of. Given how their passing game looked with Maier, perhaps they would have been better off running into the teeth of the defence, but I digress.

Ultimately, the modern adage that the best run defence is a good offence was once again proven true. The Stampeders had to play from behind much of the night — not even by a considerable margin until late — and they stopped feeding Carey, though he did add 41 yards receiving.

While a pat on the back is merited, B.C.’s defence still has to prove they can stop big plays on the ground when a team wants to run the ball. They’ll likely get a chance to next week.

This is not the MODP you’re looking for

Stampeders’ defensive end Shawn Lemon appears to be the favourite to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award, but there are those in the league who feel strongly that he is not even the best player on Calgary’s defence. I consider myself among the doubters and I believe we were proven right in the West Semi-Final.

Though he doesn’t have Lemon’s gaudy sack numbers, Folarin Orimolade has been a pressure-producing machine all year and is versatile enough to drop into coverage as well. He was the best player on the field against B.C., making a great play downfield to strip James Butler for the Lions’ only turnover and embarrassing right tackle Kent Perkins for two spectacular sacks.

While Lemon was a ghost in Vancouver, you could rely on Orimolade to be breathing down Rourke’s neck. He doesn’t get nearly enough credit from fans or the media.

Forgotten man

As part of the pre-game build-up, the Lions made a big show of announcing the returns of Nathan Rourke and Bryan Burnham over the PA system, before listing off all the other weapons in the Lions’ receiving corps.

That is except one, as thousand-yard receiver Keon Hatcher was completely omitted from the announcement. He was not forgotten for long.

Hatcher was Rourke’s favourite target on Sunday, hauling in eight passes for 162 yards and one touchdown. That statline included a number of key second-down conversions where he came back to the ball and the final dagger of the game, which set up a Sean Whyte field goal to ice the playoff victory.

The Arkansas product has emerged as one of the CFL’s most reliable secondary targets this season, but he’s more than capable of stealing the spotlight when needed. The Lions are incredibly fortunate to already have him under contract going forward, though he remains unconvinced that he’s done enough for the announcers to remember him next year.

“We’ll see,” Hatcher grinned. “But this game’s over, man. It’s time to get ready for next week.”

Hollins be ballin

Second to only Hatcher in terms of receiving yards, first-year CFLer Alexander Hollins deserves massive praise for what could be his final game of 2022.

Since entering the lineup late in the year due to injury, Hollins has found ways to make splash plays. He did so again on Sunday, burning Natrell Jamerson with a double move for the game’s first touchdown and weaving his way into the red zone after the catch to set up Burham’s score. His five receptions for 73 yards seemed to uniquely come when the team needed a spark.

If Lucky Whitehead is able to return next week, Hollins will be forced off the roster due to ratio requirements. That’s a sad reality, but he’s done more than enough to be a part of the Lions’ plans going forward. Indeed, there may be some tough financial decisions coming down the pipe for B.C. when it comes to their pass catchers.

French kisses

Calgary finished the West Semi with more sacks and ultimately more acclaim but I thought that B.C.’s high-effort defensive front was the more impactful unit in this game, led by the francophone tandem of Mathieu Betts and David Menard.

Betts set the tone right from the opening snap of the game, beating Julian Good-Jones inside and drilling Jake Maier as he released the ball. It wouldn’t be the last shot Maier would take and the Lions never let him find a rhythm, ultimately getting him pulled from the game.

Menard was credited with one tackle and one sack, but Maier’s ribs will show he was present around the play for more than that. Betts had three tackles and a sack of his own, while also showing great awareness with two impressive batted passes.

“A bunch of guys told me that I should have caught those balls,” Betts told the media, shaking his head. “Yeah, I’d like to see them try.”

If you are a young Canadian pass rusher out there, start taking notes about how these two Quebec talents do their jobs. It is rarely glamorous but both have made a huge impact for B.C. this year — and they are only getting more important in the postseason.

Dome-inion of Canada

While it didn’t come close to the pie-in-the-sky dreams of 40,000 that Lions’ owner Amar Doman espoused earlier this week, BC Place was filled well past its usual occupancy with an energetic crowd that numbered 30,114 according to official reports.

That is slightly lower than the mob that turned out for the season opener featuring OneRepublic, but this group was all about football. With all due respect to Steven Page, nobody bought tickets for his halftime show.

The Lions did a fantastic job all week with a get-out-the-vote-type effort that would have put most political campaigns to shame. Buses were run from the B.C. interior and Vancouver Island to get fans to the stadium, a feat that was made logistically more difficult when inclement weather caused the early ferry sailings to be cancelled. The team rolled with the punches and, by all reports, everybody made it for kickoff.

It’s hard not to wonder what type of walk-up crowd might have been possible if not for the type of wet, spotty snowfall that makes wimpy Vancouverites collectively panic. Nonetheless, it was an impressive turnout and a great atmosphere, with orange playoff towels swinging all around.

Kudos to all involved in the planning and execution of the event. They don’t hand out end-of-season awards for those on the business side of CFL front offices but if they did, the Lions would sweep them this year.

In the arms of an angel

You may think that winning a playoff game was the highlight of Rick Campbell’s weekend, but you’d be wrong.

After absorbing the obligatory questions about the team’s preparedness for next week’s pivotal clash with Winnipeg in the West Final, the Lions’ bench boss brought some levity to the press room by sharing how starstruck he was by the BC Place anthem singer.

“I was wishing one of you had asked me about how cool it was to meet Sarah McLachlan,” he smiled. “It’s almost like the win is the second-best thing that happened today. I’ve been a Sarah fan forever, so to get to meet her was pretty darn cool.”

The playoffs are a time of emotional highs and lows, but B.C. seems to be focused on living in the moment. That may well pay off for them in the long run.

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.