‘The pressure isn’t on us, it’s on them’: Lions’ Nathan Rourke content with underdog status ahead of West Final tilt with Bombers

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke has done the impossible with impressive regularity in his first season as the B.C. Lions’ starter but there is one obstacle that he has failed to conquer: beating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The two-time defending Grey Cup champions stand alone as the only team to defeat B.C. this year while Rourke was listed as the starting quarterback, having accomplished the feat convincingly on two separate occasions.

As a result, the Lions find themselves in the unusual position of being the underdog heading into their West Final clash against the Bombers on Sunday. That’s a label that Rourke doesn’t seem to mind.

“It’s not a bad deal. It’s a good movie,” Rourke joked to the Vancouver media on Thursday, before second-guessing himself. “Or is that something else? Nevermind.”

Indeed, Underdog was a popular animated cartoon featuring a heroic Beagle that later became a 2007 movie, though critics hardly agreed with Rourke’s review. Perhaps it was one of many films the quarterback was forced to watch from his couch while recovering from Lisfranc surgery because at least part of its message of self-belief seems to have landed.

“I think it’s less about being spoiler and more about doing this team justice,” Rourke said about the chance to upset the Bombers. “I think we’ve got a very special group and we’ve got a great opportunity to go off and play what’s been the best team the last two seasons in the CFL in their place.”

“I think it’s great that people aren’t picking us because I think that all the pressure isn’t on us, it’s on them. They’re supposed to win, they’re supposed to three-peat. It’s all about us, we got nothing to lose and it’s a good place to be.”

Despite the bravado, it could be said that Rourke himself has the most to lose. With lucrative NFL interest likely awaiting him in the offseason, his decision to return to the field just two and a half months removed from major surgery was a selfless one. In his first full game of action in the West Semi-Final, the discomfort was apparent as he willed the Lions to victory over Calgary. The lingering effects of that were still clear in the Lions’ first walk-through of the week.

“It was definitely a little bit sore after,” Rourke admitted on Wednesday. “That’s the most I’ve asked it to do in 10 weeks and so it’s expected to be a little bit sore.”

However, Rourke has been able to put more strain on the foot as the week has progressed and now has the added confidence of a game under his belt. While the return was far from perfect, a statline of 22-of-30 for 321 yards and two touchdowns through the air show that he still has the ability to perform regardless of the injury.

“You get confidence from knowing that you can go out and produce and stuff like that, kind of know where the limitations are and what you would have done differently,” Rourke explained.

“It’s good to be out there. I got the advice from someone to think about that game as part of the rehab program, trying to get back to one hundred percent, and that was good advice. It’s definitely the way I looked at it.”

What remains to be seen is if that level of play will be enough to upset the champs, particularly in a frigid and hostile environment such as Winnipeg. While B.C. did manage a narrow 40-32 victory over a crew of Bombers’ backups in Week 19, the two games in which Rourke played have not been close.

The 24-year-old phenom appeared for just three series in a meaningless regular-season finale two weeks ago, finishing 7-of-11 for 68 yards and losing one fumble in his return from injury. Winnipeg offered no sympathy for his plight, sending a clear message with heavy pressure and already owning a 14-3 lead by the time Rourke exited the game.

While that loss could be excused given the situation, the Lions’ first defeat of the year back in Week 5 can’t be so easily ignored. The Bombers’ defence left Rourke dazed and confused early, en route to a commanding 43-22 victory. He finished 16-of-25 for 278 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions while failing to add a single yard on the ground — arguably his worst outing all year.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best football yet and especially not against Winnipeg. When we played them in the summer, I don’t think I played my best game,” Rourke acknowledged. “Turning the ball over too much against a team like that, you’re not going to win any games.”

The Bombers could bring heavy pressure on Sunday and attempt to pound the injured passer into submission or they could drop deep and force him to stir in the pocket with Willie Jefferson breathing down his neck; they’ve shown the ability to do both. Either way, turnovers — or the lack thereof — will be the deciding factor for a quarterback still lacking any of his normal mobility.

“That offence is too explosive to give them multiple opportunities, multiple possessions, extra possessions, and so we’ve got to do a good job as an offence of keeping their offence off the field, put some drives together and put points up,” Rourke stressed.

“That’s going to be the key and I think with the crowd and everything, we’re going to have to do that early. I felt like the last couple of times that we played there at their place, we’ve gotten in a hole and we can’t do that.”

Alas, it was digging a hole that almost killed the fictional Underdog in that critically-panned film more than a decade. Equally risen from the dead, Rourke would like to avoid the same fate.

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.