Nathan Rourke loses his swag when it matters most and nine other thoughts on the B.C. Lions’ West Final loss

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

With Nathan Rourke failing to live up to his role as the ultimate concealer, the B.C. Lions’ hidden blemishes got exposed on the national stage as they fell 28-20 to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West Final.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Hold the swag

Despite the eye-popping numbers from early in the year, it’s safe to say that we have not yet seen the best of 24-year-old Nathan Rourke. He is just 14 starts into his professional career after all.

On Sunday, however, we may have seen his worst.

Whether it was West Final jitters, a vexing Bombers defence, or the mechanical aftershocks of his ailing foot, B.C.’s young phenom laid an egg in his biggest-ever CFL game. For much of the first half, his play bordered on unwatchable. The passes in question were certainly uncatchable, as he opened the contest by throwing five straight wild incompletions and entered the break with an abominable stat line of 7-of-17 for 87 yards and an interception.

Rourke rebounded somewhat in the second half and made the contest interesting late in the fourth quarter, finishing 20-of-37 for 300 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. However, a good portion of that yardage came from a handful of splash plays and routine completions still seemed to elude him. Some balls were high, others low, and many behind, but all ended up on the turf.

The sad reality is that this was a winnable game for the Lions, with M.O.P favourite Zach Collaros hardly looking like a world-beater himself. But they couldn’t do it without Rourke and on this occasion, they needed to.

I can offer no sparkling analysis to explain away a performance that flummoxed the quarterback himself; sometimes people just have bad days. Perhaps he just didn’t have enough “swag” to prevail without spatting his cleats, as he joked to 3DownNation last week. The Winnipeg defence certainly had enough to stop him.

What I do know is that regardless of this outcome, the sum of Nathan Rourke’s first year as the starter is a remarkable body of work that speaks volumes about the bright future in front of him. He left everything out on the field for this franchise, putting himself through hell to come back from a major injury and give the Lions a fighting chance. Watching his emotion at the end of the game, weeping in the arms of Bryan Burnham, there can be no doubt that he gave his entire heart and soul to this playoff push.

Whatever the future holds for Rourke — and you’ll hear about that plenty over the next few months — here’s hoping that his swag returns fully intact. This sport is better off when he has it.

Patience is a virtue

The primary storyline heading into last week’s West Semi-Final was B.C.’s questionable run defence facing off against the best running game in the league. It ended up being a non-factor in the result, as Calgary looked at the Lions’ defensive game plan and essentially abandoned the run of their own volition.

None of the concerns regarding the team’s ability to stop the ground game were washed away in the process and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had no intention of checking out of any run plays this week.

Homegrown running back Brady Oliveira was fed the ball early and often against the Lions, controlling the pace of play virtually from the start. It wasn’t a matter of B.C. trying anything different than they had against the Stampeders; this team was still gearing up to stop it from being jammed down their throat. The Bombers simply executed to perfection.

Winnipeg’s physical offensive line leaned heavily on B.C.’s crew of slanting defensive linemen and scraping linebackers, covering up every body. Most importantly, Oliveira demonstrated exceptional patience to wait for his opponent to make themselves wrong on each play and used the natural leverage of his blockers to squirt into the secondary. It was a masterclass in running back play from the 25-year-old Canadian.

The more inept B.C.’s offence showed themselves to be, the harder it became for their defence to stay alive under the rushing onslaught. Oliveira amassed 20 carries for 130 yards as the Bombers held the ball for over 34 minutes. Backup quarterback Dakota Prukop added 37 more yards and receiver Nic Demski gashed them up the middle on a few shovel passes — though he was at least kind enough to ensure that went down as receiving yardage.

B.C.’s defence did a lot of things right on Sunday, keeping Collaros bottled up, allowing Dalton Schoen to burn them just once, and holding Greg Ellingson without a catch. None of it mattered because they couldn’t answer the call when Winnipeg wanted to roll downhill, even when everyone knew it was coming.

Roost call

All season long, the people who cover this football team have pounded the table saying that the Lions’ sorry excuse for kick coverage was going to cost them big. Well, you might as well call Janarion Grant a chicken, because B.C.’s problem came home to roost when he burst 92-yards for a punt return score in the second quarter.

Embarrassingly, it was his third return touchdown against B.C. this year — he had two in Week 5.

Grant can make even the best of cover teams miss in space, but his basting of B.C. was a sorry display all around. Gunner Louchiez Purifoy was the first player to get beat outside but it was Jordan Williams who got rubbed out to give away the sideline. Then Ben Hladik missed the tackle and Grant was able to cut back inside, racing crossfield with only punter Stefan Flintoft to beat. Needless to say, he did not make the tackle.

Though it was the most memorable in a one-score game, the return wasn’t the Lions’ only error on specials. Williams and Isaiah Guzlak-Messam blew a blocking assignment on an early punt that was blocked by Tanner Gaskill-Cadwallader. The play was later overturned because the Bombers’ linebacker was so unblocked that his momentum carried him into Flintoft’s plant leg, making it roughing the kicker. Talk about failing upwards.

B.C. got a big special teams play of their own shortly after when Grant muffed a punt, setting up an Antonio Pipkin rushing touchdown. That mistake by the opponent does not alter the fact that major changes need to come to the Lions’ third phase this offseason, lest another big game slip away.

Hall-ed away

The focus for a poor offensive outing will mostly fall on Rourke and his play was hard to ignore. However, a discussion of the two duelling coordinators involved is more than merited.

Just as he did against B.C. earlier this season, I thought Winnipeg’s defensive coordinator Richie Hall called a masterful game. The long-time coach dialled up a variety of looks without ever getting overcomplicated and found ways to force the issue on Rourke’s weaknesses. Knowing the Lions’ quarterback would rather be subjected to military interrogation than run on his injured foot, the Bombers dropped back and blanketed his receivers in coverage. Yes, Rourke was off-target but Winnipeg left no room for error — an open man couldn’t be found.

By contrast, I felt that B.C. offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic failed to do much of anything to kick-start his team. The play calls were predictable and the Lions never really stretched the defence laterally to open up more room inside. Without Lucky Whitehead in the lineup, jet sweeps and wide receiver screens were mostly abandoned. They took plenty of shots but never seemed to set up a game-breaking play. It was a game plan that still might have worked had his players been playing at their highest level but it certainly wasn’t going to outcoach the Bombers.

Maksymic is finishing just his second season as a coordinator and he has done a fantastic job for the most part. There is still a long way to go before he can be considered in the same tier as someone like Hall.

Tone deaf

Despite not being able to run due to his injured foot, Rourke led the Lions with 20 yards rushing. That should tell you everything you need to know about B.C.’s attempt to establish a running game and take the pressure off their quarterback.

James Butler finished with six carries for just four yards on the ground and added 24 yards receiving. It was pretty clear from the start that the ankle injury he suffered in the West Semi-Final had robbed him of his usual explosiveness and B.C. had no alternatives — they dressed no other running backs. However, there wasn’t much in the way of running lanes available had someone actually had the burst to go through them.

The Lions’ offensive line had a very solid day in pass protection against a tough Winnipeg front that seemed awfully content to pin Rourke in the pocket. That isn’t enough to ignore their failure to execute assignments in the run game or approach the contest with any real aggression.

The Bombers’ defensive line physically held them in check and refused to budge from their gaps, swallowing up any hope of a balanced attack. They even lost on short yardage — an unforgivable offence in the CFL — when Cam Lawson shot through inside to tie up Pipkin’s leg for a turnover on downs.

For all the talk of B.C. being warm weather wimps, the Lions’ problems on both sides of the ball were far more fundamental and had nothing to do with temperature. Across the board, they failed to match the Bombers’ physicality and struggled to play real playoff football. They were all too content to body surf on players already on the ground rather than put them there forcefully.

The Lions’ brand of fast, high-flying football makes for tremendous entertainment but they lacked the edge needed to win on several occasions this year. That was true again on Sunday.

Ceiling fans

To be entirely frank, I don’t much care for Bombers fans. Like any other fanbase, they have plenty of delightful members but the collective has turned rather sour since their rise to the top of the food chain.

Winnipeg has replaced Saskatchewan as the home of the CFL’s most relentless fanbase and they tend to let you hear it online. At least with Rider Nation, the most radical fringes could always be ignored as incoherent. Bombers fans at least own a dictionary and they will bludgeon the non-believers with it if given a chance.

Nevertheless, there is no ignoring how unbelievably impactful the crowd at IG Field was in the West Final. Even through the TV, the sound was utterly deafening. In the building, it resulted in one time-count violation by Rourke, a time-out to stop a second, and single-handedly killed the Lions’ hopes of tying the game on their final drive.

Sure, you would have liked to see more preparedness from Rourke and Maksymic in that scenario, but I believe the Lions when they blame the bleeding time clock on being unable to hear each other. It was a scenario they had not yet experienced because no other CFL stadium can pull that off right now.

Kudos, Bomber fans. I might like to see you knocked down a few pegs but there are eight franchises in the league right now that would love to have you as their own.

Atmosfear

This column would be incomplete without a mention of Terry Williams’ extraordinary individual effort on his 126-yard missed extra point return. I’ve therefore decided to title it after a Playland ride because it was the biggest three-point swing I’ve ever seen.

Had the Lions come back in this game, much of the credit would have gone to Williams for doing something never before done in the CFL playoffs and giving his all on a play others might have taken for granted. It spoke volumes about him as a player and I hope to see him back next year, particularly after he was forced to leave the game after being knocked unconscious on the ensuing kickoff.

Where do we go from here?

The Lions’ season is now over but their journey toward next year’s Grey Cup has only just begun.

Rick Campbell, Neil McEvoy, and the rest of the Lions’ staff did exceptional work to take this leap forward as a franchise, but there are some big questions on the horizon. Namely, who will be the team’s quarterback next year?

Rourke may be sentimental about the idea of returning to the Lions right now but fans must be realistic. A reasonable NFL opportunity is likely coming to him this offseason and he should absolutely take it. No matter what, B.C. will face a downgrade at that position but will it be to Vernon Adams Jr. or someone else? Do they venture into the Bo Levi Mitchell sweepstakes after what they saw last week?

Elsewhere, the Lions will need to retain their stars and add some pieces while their price tag under centre goes up. This team needs to get bigger and more physical, particularly when it comes to their depth. No more wasted roster spots, the Lions need guys who are major special teams contributors at every position.

With positive momentum finally behind this franchise, I’m excited to see where they go from here. I’ll be with it every step of the way.

Row the boat

While the Lions are done for 2022, I am not and I’ll be headed to Regina first thing Monday morning to get started on our Grey Cup coverage.

Because of this loss, my prose will now pivot to covering the East Division champion Toronto Argonauts but given that you are probably cheering against the Bombers, I invite Lions fans to keep tuning in anyway. Don’t let my investment in long underwear be in vain.

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.