It wasn’t the fireworks display that many have come to expect in Vancouver, but the B.C. Lions took care of business on Sunday against the Montreal Alouettes with a bounceback 35-19 victory.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Get the Plunger
Speaking after practice this week, an irritated Vernon Adams Jr. pushed back against the media interest in his six-pick performance last week, saying it had already been “flushed” and chastising reporters for bringing up “old stuff.” As someone who has spent my fair share of time earning the ire of a disgruntled VA, the exchange felt concerningly familiar and not at all like the more mature player we’d been sold.
In the end, Adams did succeed in flushing his troubles from a week ago, it just took a couple wiggles of the handle and a little external help.
Fears of a repeat performance against his former team were made flesh on the second play from scrimmage when Adams’ pass across the middle was picked off by Marc-Antoine Dequoy and returned for a touchdown. Fortunately, that play was nullified by a borderline illegal contact penalty against the safety, providing a second chance at redemption for B.C.’s quarterback.
Even if the call on the field was a blessing from the men in stripes, the early mistake didn’t shake VA’s belief in his ability to bounce back.
“No doubt. I did tell myself, ‘Hey, come on, you can’t start like that,’ but no doubt, I knew we were going to come back and do our thing,” he told the media.
Still, the 30-year-old signal-caller did not look at home for much of the first half, and was late and behind on several early throws. That first series ended with a Dominique Davis touchdown in part due to a decisive 22-yard scramble by the starter, but he openly admitted post-game that he did not feel like himself until after the break.
“That’s a tough one, because I felt like I missed a few things there in the first half. In the second half, the defence did a great job of putting us in good field position and we got a couple scores,” Adams explained. “I want to be clear though, I want to be better for this team and left a lot of yards out there.”
It was far from a fairy-tale redemption arc, but the final 30 minutes at least featured a little magic. It seemed like VA found himself on a rare 35-yard strike to Dominique Rhymes and then dazzled with a beautiful touchdown throw to Jevon Cottoy on a corner route while rolling the wrong way. There were still too many short drives after that point, but his confidence was back at full strength.
In the end, the league’s leading passer finished 20-of-25 passing for 283 yards and one touchdown. Most importantly, he never turned the football over and rarely put it in any jeopardy.
“Personally for me, I thought he took a disproportionate amount of flack last week for a guy that’s done so good here and was on a 3-1 football team, so good on him,” head coach Rick Campbell said of his quarterback’s performance. “Not surprised but proud of him.”
In classic CFL fashion, the Lions’ biggest play on Sunday came on special teams, though it seemed for a moment like the game’s third phase was going to tilt decisively in favour of Montreal.
Late in the second quarter, rookie first-round pick Lwal Uguak ran through the Lions’ line untouched on a punt and caught up-back Ryder Varga flat-footed, generating a momentum-shifting block. The Alouettes would only get a long David Cote field goal attempt to show for it and the Lions seized the game as a result, as Israel Antwine whiffed on his block and allowed defensive tackle Woody Baron to come through untouched for his own block.
The six-year CFL veteran said he couldn’t recall blocking a kick at any stage of his career before tonight but it was a pivotal first for B.C., as the ball floated into the arms of a waiting Jalon Edwards-Cooper. The defensive back raced all the way back for a touchdown, making it 21-10 as part of a 10-point swing.
It wasn’t the only difference-making play on special teams that quarter either, as Chandler Worthy got handcuffed by a punt up high a few plays later and fumbled it for the oncoming Amir Siddiq. The Lions kicked a field goal as a result.
Those two fortuitous bounces came on a night where the Lions generally weren’t very good in kick coverage, though you wouldn’t know it from the boxscore. Time and again, Worthy seemed to generate a dangerous, field-flipping return for Montreal, only to have it called back by a hold or illegal block. B.C. won the field position battle decidedly because of those flags.
“The return game penalties were six to two in our favour, which I thought was a huge part of the game,” Campbell acknowledged. “There’s too many return penalties going on in this league right now and I think it’s more on the coaches than on the refs.”
In this case, Mike Benevides’ unit played the cleaner game and won as a result. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
Timing is Everything
Another week has come and gone without a takeaway generated by the B.C. defence — credit to Marcus Sayles for dropping a sure pick-six — but they came up with timely plays to get off the field.
On this occasion, it was a whopping seven sacks that got the job done and each seemed to come at full value in a moment where the team needed a stop. Mathieu Betts was a machine again with two takedowns; David Menard took Landon Rice to the woodshed to set up the blocked field goal; and Baron, Sione Teuhema, Quincy Mauger, and Ben Hladik all made timely stops.
Montreal was able to put together some long drives with relative efficiency but mostly settled for field goals because of the fearsome front seven. Attempts to stretch the Lions laterally mostly failed and Jason Maas never even attempted to get the run game going.
It all could have come apart at the seams late, as the Lions allowed an inexcusably long drive with less than three minutes remaining. That included Betts losing contain and letting Cody Fajardo scramble for a first down on third-and-10 from the Alouettes’ own one-yard line. Fortunately, they stopped their opponent on the opposite end of the field thanks to a heroic pass break-up from T.J. Lee and questionable third-down play-calling from Maas.
The Lions have pound-for-pound the best defence in the league but bushels of sacks and pretty breakups won’t be good enough every game. On this occasion, they made the right plays at the right times to forget about the turnovers.
Shivers Down Your Spine
With burgeoning star Taquan Mizzell nursing a knee injury, the Lions turned to Shaun Shivers in the backfield, who replaced Antonio Williams as the team’s practice roster back just 13 days ago.
Despite standing a full six inches shorter than Smoke at just five-foot-five, Shivers has a more physical style with all the same explosiveness. He takes a pounding — as evidenced by a hellacious second-quarter hit from Wes Sutton that made the concussion spotter step in — but his burst and speed are next level.
A gleeful Shivers admitted at the podium that he was still learning the CFL rulebook as the game was going on and knows nothing of his new home city. He looked like an expert in every way on the field, rushing for 63 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. His best play, a 68-yard reception in the flat that made him look like a track star, was also his worst, as the back was caught hot-dogging and had the ball punched out by Dionte Ruffin at the goal line.
“I’m thinking like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going, nobody going to catch me,’ so I started to relax. I never do that, I don’t know why I did that,” he said, shaking his head. “Now I gotta hear from my mom, because I know she’s waiting to call me to talk about that play. Oh, that’s bad, bad ball.”
Hopefully, mom can square the youngster away and the next big play we see from Shivers will be finished.
The Three Musketeers
For the first time in 2023, the Lions had all three of their thousand-yard receivers from a year ago in the lineup. Even when short-handed, B.C. has the best receiving corps in the league. When healthy, there is no dispute.
Much like the fictional three Musketeers, Lucky Whitehead, Keon Hatcher, and Dominique Rhymes are each impressively talented and bring a unique skill set to the offence. Hatcher is Athos, the precise and reliable spiritual leader of the group. Whitehead is Aramis, a wild, romantic character whose flashy swordplay can take the top off the defence. Rhymes is Porthos, whose physical frame allows him to win the confrontation for every 50/50 ball.
Unfortunately, none of the three had their best outing in this one. Hatcher topped the group with six catches for 68 yards. Whitehead had five for 38, while Rhymes was targeted just twice for 37 yards — a bizarre lack of action that VA couldn’t fully explain post-game.
Much like the novel by Alexandre Dumas, the hero of the Lions’ story was actually the young D’Artagnan, in this case played by Jevon Cottoy. The hulking Canadian caught four passes for 55 yards, often appearing when B.C. was struggling, and added a touchdown.
“It’s good that we don’t have to rely on just one guy and they’re a very selfless group on that,” Campbell said of his receivers. “They like playing together as a group and I don’t think they’re concerned about the stats. I think they’re worried about winning.”
It was odd to see the lack of action for Alexander Hollins given his tremendous play so far this year, and Justin McInnis hardly saw the field despite his mismatch frame. I suspect the Lions’ casting choice for the Musketeers’ protege will change week to week going forward, and every soldier in France will get their chance to shine.
Money in the Banks
A lot of attention is rightfully being placed on Mathieu Betts’ torrid early season sack pace, which would shatter the existing CFL record of 26.5 if sustained. However, the strength of the Lions’ defensive line is in its committee, and some of its most effective elements are also the most unheralded.
Many people were shocked when defensive tackle Josh Banks was voted the Lions’ defensive MVP by his teammates last season. After all, the hulking gap-plugger had just 15 tackles in 16 games and never recorded a sack. His true value has since been revealed to the general public thanks to the CFL’s recent partnership with analytics firm Pro Football Focus.
When PFF announced their honour roll for the best players through the first month of the season, Banks was named the third-highest-graded defensive player in the league with a mark of 83.8. He trailed only Argonauts’ defensive back Robertson Daniel and Saskatchewan defensive lineman Anthony Lanier II, which is a testament to his exceptional down-to-down consistency at one of the nastiest positions on the field.
Of course, Banks had no idea he had been singled out by the data gatherers until he was informed of it in the locker room.
“It means everything. I mean my teammates keep my head up but getting a little recognition from the league, I’m very appreciative of it. But my teammates give me all the love I need, really.”
You won’t find Banks on the highlight reel most nights — he still has just one tackle on the year — but his impact is felt in the success of others when he is on the field.
Baptism By Fire
Beyond his pivotal touchdown, cornerback Jalon Edwards-Cooper played an exceptional game until his physical play caught up to him. After delivering a violent blow across the middle in the third quarter, he was down for some time and never return.
With the inexperienced Adrian Greene already starting at safety due to Emmanuel Rugamba’s injury, rookie Canadian second-round pick Siriman Harrison Bagayogo was thrust into action at cornerback in his first career CFL game.
The highly-touted prospect was a lockdown specialist in college but remains raw after picking up the game at 18 years old. The Alouettes were not kind in his debut, attacking him early and often.
His first defensive snap put him one-on-one with Quartney Davis down the right sideline. Bagayogo was in an excellent position but got out-muscled on the 50/50 ball for a 41-yard gain. Fajardo threw in his direction on each of the next two plays as well, forcing tackles for shorter gains.
The baptism by fire continued in the fourth quarter on the Alouettes’ longest drive, as they threw up a jump ball to Austin Mack. Bagayogo broke up the pass but Jason Maas threw the challenge flag, gaining a big pass interference penalty upon review.
It seemed a cheap call from my angle in-house, with the contact between defender and receiver never interfering with the route. The rookie from Guelph wholeheartedly agreed.
“That was a clean play, but hey, it’s the CFL and there’s nothing I can do, nothing I can say,” he told me post-game. “I’m grateful we won the game and it’s a team sport.”
Montreal went back at Bagayogo in the end zone, but veteran T.J. Lee was there to help his young teammate. Overall, it was a rough debut in a tough situation, but not necessarily a bad one for the Quebecer. He was largely in position and just needs to refine the details of his game, which he seems eager to do.
“I think what I lacked today was the finish. I think if I finished properly, I would’ve had two picks.”
Don’t Give Up The High Ground
The most fascinating player currently on the Lions’ roster didn’t see any action in this one, but that won’t stop people around the league from talking about him ad nauseam in the coming weeks.
With the embarrassing state of quarterback play for several franchises and the tragedy that struck Ottawa on Saturday night, backup pivot Dane Evans is worth his weight in gold. The trade speculation has already begun but let’s think critically for a second. Why would the Lions’ give up their biggest advantage in the Grey Cup race?
This team nearly lost their season to a starting quarterback injury last year and their current pivot is only a game removed from a six-pick whoopsie-daisy. They know how essential Evans could be to their success, which is why they actively went out to acquire him. Nobody would be comfortable rolling with Dominique Davis, no matter how experienced he is.
Any reasonable person should realize the price tag for Evans would likely include a firstborn son and a pair of treasured body parts. Expect him to be on the B.C. sideline for the foreseeable future.
I Got You, Fam
It was an absolute delight to see so many kids in attendance on Sunday as part of the crowd of 20,106 at Lions’ Famfest. I practically had to wade through toddlers to get into the stadium, a real challenge for anyone who has been taught to keep high knees through contact.
The best move by Amar Doman’s team was to invite all the children down on the field post-game for a run-around, with plenty of players still milling about. There were hundreds of them frolicking for 30 minutes after the final whistle, each receiving a core memory that will make them a lifelong CFL fan.
The biggest cheer of the night came not from the action on the field, but from a player sitting in the stands. Former quarterback Nathan Rourke and his family were in attendance and drew a rousing ovation when shown on the jumbotron in the third quarter. More than a few fans rose from their seats amidst the applause.
It’s clear this city misses Rourke dearly, but they are right behind him as he tries to make a name for himself with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Sunday was a historic night at BC Place, as Delta native Bobby Dubeau officially set a Guinness World Record by attending a game in all nine CFL stadiums in just 15 days.
I caught up with the CFL’s favourite everyman between his flight from Hamilton and his arrival at the stadium. You can read that conversation here, but I also promised my new hero a fitting pun in this article.
Only the best for the man who lived out all our dreams.