The Lions had already been humbled twice this season but this one stings a little differently than losing to the two best teams in the league.
Favoured by 9.5 points against the depleted Saskatchewan Roughriders and their giraffe-like third-stringer, B.C. walked into Regina unprepared for a fight. Fourth-quarter smelling salts weren’t enough to complete a comeback, as they fell 34-29.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Charley Bit My Quarterback
Regardless of the result on Sunday, Vernon Adams Jr. put together the gutsiest quarterbacking performance of the season — perhaps even of the last several years.
Going up against the team that nearly ripped his knee off four weeks ago and receiving questionable protection, I thought B.C.’s franchise pivot looked uncomfortable early in the game. His timing seemed off and a few balls sailed as a result, including an endzone throw to Lucky Whitehead that had way too much air underneath it. He found his touch on a wide-open touchdown to Alexander Hollins, but it was far from his best start.
Then disaster struck. Already sporting a brace on his left knee, Adams came up lame after a second-quarter scramble ended with Derrick Moncrief’s elbow driving into his right thigh. He was forced to exit the game for several plays and probably returned too early — more on that in a moment — with a noticeable limp persisting for the rest of the contest.
While Adams led a nice drive for a field goal at the end of the first half, his 200 yards passing felt inflated. Then the third quarter turned out to be a wash, with a stagnant Lions’ offence generating just eight yards through the air. Trailing 31-13 at the start of the fourth quarter, it felt like time to chalk this up as a classic “Bad VA” outing. And then the magic started to happen…
Hobbling around like me after a rare trip to the gym, Adams adjusted his sights and delivered three absolute bullets on a momentum-shifting touchdown drive, twice to Hollins and once to Keon Hatcher in the endzone. He followed that up with a 78-yard strike to Whitehead for another major while getting mugged in the backfield, putting the game within spitting distance.
Yes, there were a couple of mistakes in the final frame as well, with two questionable throws that could have and probably should have been picked off. But Hatcher also dropped a catchable pass that should have been the go-ahead score, so VA’s statline could have been even more impressive. What is clear is that he willed his team to within a whisker of a miraculous comeback despite a painful injury. The blame for failing to get it done falls elsewhere.
All told, the man with the limp completed 26-of-41 passes for a whopping 455 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception in an incredible effort. Unfortunately for him, he played with all the guts and will still get none of the glory.
Enter Through The Gift Shop
This was a well-earned Riders’ victory, courtesy of an unexpectedly strong performance from third-string quarterback Jake Dolegala, but the Lions spent much of the first half handing out gift bags to their prairie opponent.
The giveaway began on the second play from scrimmage, as Adams attempted to step up in the pocket under heavy pressure and got drilled by spying defensive end Pete Robertson. The ball popped loose and Saskatchewan was in the endzone two plays later with Kian Schaffer-Baker.
That set the tone for the rest of the gamer, as penalties and turnovers would give the Riders every opportunity to build a healthy lead. Sometimes these even occurred on the same play, as they did after the Lions went down 13-10 in the second quarter. Terry Willams was mobbed and stripped on the ensuing kickoff but it was linebacker Ryder Varga who will get ripped in the team meeting, committing an unnecessary roughness penalty to give Saskatchewan the ball at the B.C. 21-yard line. Two plays later, Jerreth Sterns beat Emmanuel Rugamba for the score.
Of course, no examination of turnovers would be complete without discussing Adams’ lone interception. After he was forced to the medical tent, the Lions committed three straight penalties to make it second-and-27. Rather than eat the lost series and live to fight another day, the team hurriedly reinserted VA and he was given oodles of time to toss the ball into heavy coverage for Jeremy Clark to pick off.
It was an egregious decision from the quarterback with no defensible explanation, but I blame the coaches more for the result. If you throw a guy into that situation, the implicit understanding is he needs to press. You can’t be shocked that Adams did just that and made a terrible read as a result.
Those three turnovers put the Riders in exceptional field position and their offence did not miss, generating 17 points. Despite their best efforts, that proved to be insurmountable for the Lions.
All Holds Barred
With stalwart left tackle Jarell Broxton ruled out for this game with a hamstring injury, all eyes were on backup Chris Schleuger to see how he would fare holding down the Lions’ blindside. It wasn’t a particularly strong performance and two of Saskatchewan’s five sacks came because of miscommunications on his side, once on a poor exchange with Andrew Peirson and another time with Jevon Cottoy.
But Schleuger’s questionable debut will be almost entirely forgotten because of what happened on the other side of the line. Right tackle Kent Perkins had a night so bad that his film should be burnt in a special ceremony. Then the ashes should be buried and the land they reside on shouldn’t be inhabited for a thousand years.
It wasn’t just that Anthony Lanier beat the Texas product like a drum every time they lined up across from each other, causing a multitude of hits on his quarterback and hurried throws. It’s that he didn’t even give his offence a chance to make something out of the nothing he was giving them, committing not one, not two, but four costly holding penalties.
The worst came on the Lions’ second-to-last series when it still looked as if Adams could pull off a miracle. Perkins’ fourth hold put the team in first-and-20 and after two incompletions, Lanier finally got a sack and effectively ended the game. He beat the tackle so cleanly on the play that he washed his jersey in the process.
The rest of the offensive line won’t enjoy their next film session either, with far too much pressure surrendered and a negligible 17 yards generated for running back Taquan Mizzell. Still, Perkins will rightfully be the face of this upset loss in the eyes of most fans.
No Body, Home
B.C.’s defence had a strange outing, given that they were playing with one hand tied behind their back. Much like in their early season loss to Toronto, turnovers put them in bad field position that resulted in easy opponent touchdowns, though the team didn’t do themselves any favours.
Schaffer-Baker found a soft spot in coverage for his opening score way too easily and the usually underrated Emmanuel Rugamba has no excuse for getting beaten as badly as he did by Sterns. Meanwhile, Tibo Debaillie got too stuck in on Jamal Morrow’s rushing score, leaving a gaping cutback lane through his gap.
On a night like this, I’d usually harp on the defence’s failure to generate any turnovers, but I’ll have to bite my tongue on this occasion. That’s because the one play where a defender clearly went for the takeaway ended up being the worst mistake of the night.
Marcus Sayles must have thought he had a certain interception when Dolegala heaved a deep ball in the third quarter and he found himself underneath it. But Canadian receiver Samuel Emilus came out of nowhere for the high-point catch — his second spectacular play of the game after out-jumping Garry Peters earlier.
Because Sayles went for the ball and not the body, the result of the play was a 37-yard touchdown. It was yet another example of undisciplined defence on a rare night when Ryan Phillips’ unit could have been better, even if they weren’t the main problem.
Taking the Brunt-son
Collosal collisions aren’t celebrated in football the way they once were, but Sunday’s game contained several of the hits of the year. Unfortunately for Lions’ returner Terry Williams, he was on the receiving end of all of them.
Williams was used and abused by Jaxon Ford and Kosi Onyeka on his first two returns of the game, but the contact he’ll be feeling all next week came on his third touch. American linebacker T.J. Brunson, who was making his first appearance of the season, came downhill hard in punt coverage and exploded through his target, rattling the teeth of everyone in the stadium and blowing out TV speakers across the country.
The five-foot-nine, 170-pound speedster took the blow from the six-foot-one, 230-pound former NFL draft pick like a champ, but there was more in store for him. Later in the half, Williams found himself twisted up like a pretzel and pulled down backwards, only for Brunson to come in hot again and pop the football loose.
The hits on special teams set the physical tone in favour of the Riders right from the beginning and B.C. struggled to even that playing field all night.
Rick Campbell has never been particularly adept at throwing the red flag, but his decision to challenge for roughing the passer after Adams’ interception should go down as one of the worst ever.
The quarterback did get hit on the play but he certainly wasn’t a passer when it happened, instead getting knocked down while running down the field to try and make a tackle. The block itself was not even forceful and Pete Robertson even kindly picked VA up after the play.
It was a head-scratching call from the head coach that reeked of emotionality and desperation. It was made all the worse by the fact that he probably should have used his challenge earlier in the game, on a deep shot to Hatcher on the first play from scrimmage that had clear interference. Instead, he burned a timeout on a fishing expedition with rocks for bait.
Luckily for him, the Riders’ extra timeout didn’t prove to be the difference, as Craig Dickenson failed to burn it before Dolegala committed a time count violation that nearly cost his team the victory.
Short Not Sweet
Short-yardage plays are never sexy, but two of them were downright ugly for the Lions at Mosaic.
The first came early in the third quarter when Jordan Maksymic dialled up the old fake sneak play in an attempt to create a spark. I understand the desire to be aggressive with the team trailing but B.C. needed to consistently move the ball at that stage, not gamble wildly. It was a poor call that was executed worse, as Dominique Davis made an atrocious throw that was out of reach for the well-covered Jevon Cottoy.
Davis again came up empty-handed on the two-point conversion following Whitehead’s touchdown, this time with his legs. The call took him around the edge but he was too late pushing upfield and was tackled short by Larry Dean.
Given that at the time of the deciding offensive series, the Lions trailed by just two points, that proved to be a critical play. Its importance is accentuated by the fact that Campbell elected to apply the roughing the passer penalty from the touchdown throw on the conversion instead of the kickoff, trading potentially 15 yards of field position to move the two-point attempt into sneaking distance.
Given how Adams was playing at that point and how critical field position was late in the game, you wonder if the Lions came out on the wrong end of that trade-off.
There are plenty of reasons for the Lions’ success to this stage in the season, but arguably the most important can be found on the injury report.
My colleague John Hodge did the math this week and B.C. has been the healthiest team in the CFL this year by a wide margin. Sure, they’ve endured Adams’ knee scare and the seemingly weekly bumps and bruises in the receiving corps, but have lost only 45 man games in the process. The next closest team, Winnipeg, had lost 79 while league-leading Ottawa has suffered through 127.
31 of those man games were credited to healthy scratches, meaning the gross majority of players spending time on the one-game injured list were actually able to play if desired. Remarkably, that is more than twice as many as any other franchise.
At some point, the Lions’ incredible luck will run out and their depth will have to be tested. That time may be coming sooner rather than later, as the team has already had more roster changes the past two weeks than typical and could be without Canadian defensive tackle Nathan Cherry long-term after he suffered what looked like a serious knee injury on Sunday.
The Lions had several strong receiving performances in Regina, including a 161-yard career day for Alexander Hollins. But the best part of the game was seeing Lucky Whitehead finally break out.
After I questioned his effort level and role in the offence last week, Whitehead posted five catches for 122 yards and his 78-yard major. It was his first catch of over 30 yards this season and he legitimately looked fast once again.
I still think Lucky is on the downward side of his career at this stage, but it was good to see a spark of light from him. B.C. will need that going forward.
Defensive end Mathieu Betts was devastated in the locker room last week when he learned that his highlight reel special teams play against Calgary was ruled a forced fumble, rather than a blocked punt. Well, it appears that the CFL heard his cries, as the league announced earlier this week that the stats had been amended to reflect the true nature of the play.
As punter Cody Grace was deemed to be in the act of kicking the ball, it didn’t matter that it never actually touched his foot. He was saved from a negative rushing statline and Betts was retroactively awarded his much-desired block. He celebrated by getting back to his pass-rushing ways, stapling Jake Dolegala to the turf for a strip sack early in the second quarter.
There are just two weeks remaining until kids in British Columbia return to school and that means only one thing: high school football.
Teams across the province are set to begin training camp and there is no better time to highlight the incredible depth of talent that comes through the B.C. High School Football ranks.
By my count, there are 18 BCSSFA alumni currently playing professionally — 16 in the CFL and 2 in the NFL — representing 13 different programs. Nowhere is this on display better than the Lions, where four local high school products are impactful starters: right guard Sukh Chungh (Terry Fox), centre Michael Couture (Centennial), middle linebacker Ben Hladik (Vernon), and weakside linebacker Bo Lokombo (W.J. Mouat).
Other former B.C. stars cutting their teeth as pros include Gavin Cobb (Mount Douglas), Phil Grohovac (Mount Douglas), Adam Konar (Vancouver College), Charlie Moore (South Delta), Jalen Philpot (Seaquam), Rysen John (Vancouver College), Nelson Lokombo (W.J. Mouat), Brayden Lenius (Carson Graham), Jesse Briggs (Kelowna), Dontae Bull (Belmont), Ante Milanovic-Litre (Notre Dame), Tyson Philpot (Seaquam), Chase Claypool (Abbotsford), and Christian Covington (Vancouver College).
But while you can see a tremendous amount of elite athletes by simply wandering down to your local high school field on Fridays this fall, this level of sport is about so much more than that. There is nothing quite like the camaraderie and inclusion provided by high school football. It provides a life-saving outlet — literally — to thousands of kids each year and teaches valuable lessons that they will carry with them into wider society.
If you have a son or daughter entering high school this year, I highly recommend that they get involved. Even if you don’t, I guarantee that there is a team in your area that could use your support, either through valuable volunteer hours or financial sponsorship. Every little bit helps and these programs have never been more important.
On a personal note, 2023 will be my fifth season involved in coaching at the high school level and my first since taking over as head coach of my alma mater, Earl Marriott Secondary in South Surrey. The brave new era officially begins on Monday and will occasionally cause my weekly thoughts to be slightly delayed. I hope my patience on the sidelines will be as good as that of my readers.