Will the real B.C. Lions please stand up?: 10 thoughts on a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback over Ottawa

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

There is no league more exciting to watch than the CFL and none more treacherous in which to be a writer.

With three minutes left in this ball game, the result seemed signed, sealed and delivered. Despite a 13-day break between contests, the Lions had come out painfully flat and dropped a winnable contest to a sub. 500 opponent. It was to be their third such upset loss in four games, devastating their chances of finishing first in the West Division. Scathing columns were finished, deadlines were met, and veteran media members were sitting on their laurels.

Then Terry Williams changed everything, and pandemonium ensued.

In no other press box, in no other country, could you witness such a mixture of childish glee and utter panic. The B.C. Lions’ 19-point fourth-quarter comeback — the largest in franchise history and second largest in league history — dented the backspace key on every computer in the room.

Never have I been more thankful for 3DownNation‘s lack of deadlines.

Here are my thoughts on the Lions’ miraculous 41-37 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks.

Scared Straight

It started out with a kick, how did it end up like this?

After the Lions came up short on an onside kick attempt following a Justin McInnis touchdown, the Redblacks were all set to ice this game with a 50-yard field goal from Lewis Ward. A two-touchdown deficit would have felt utterly insurmountable, though it’s not as if many had confidence in the ten-point comeback they already needed to make with less than two minutes left.

A push to the left from Ward changed everything. Deep in the back of the endzone, Terry Williams lay in wait to make the biggest play of the CFL season. Maligned by fans all season for his pedestrian output on punt returns, the 27-year-old speedster took off down the right sideline against the team that traded him last year and made two decisive moves to evade tacklers, racing 120 yards to paydirt.

“I always believe in myself and get ready to make a play,” a grinning Williams said post-game. “I’ve never been scared to make a play and I’ll bet on myself twice on Sunday.”

It didn’t much matter that this bet happened on a Saturday, William’s 10-point swing altered the very fabric of this game with an eternity remaining by CFL standards. Suddenly, a team that looked listless for the better part of three and a half quarters was pumped full of adrenaline and believed a comeback was possible. It was the play that head coach Rick Campbell had been waiting for.

“It bothered me at halftime, we kind of had, I don’t know what the word is, but a distant look in our eyes. It was a one-point game and these guys play everybody tough,” he recounted.

“I don’t think that we were overlooking them, there was zero of that. I just think it was like we were waiting for something to happen instead of making something happen.”

Once Williams made it happen, others followed suit. The defence stepped up big with a huge two-and-out, aided by a catchable incompletion to Justin Hardy. Then Vernon Adams Jr. trotted out on the field with renewed vigour and a chance to tie the game with a field goal. He did much more.

VA, who already has a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback under his belt from his time in Montreal, made two pivotal throws on the drive, first to Justin McInnis down the right sideline and then to Lucky Whitehead in the endzone. The diving go-ahead touchdown with 16 seconds left had one important thing in common with Williams’ play — both were the biggest moments in each player’s career.

“That’s a walk-off for our life, man. We out there fighting to come back and win,” Whitehead said. “Obviously played sloppy, played slow, but they gave us a chance, man. Terry gave us a chance.”

When the clock expired, the Lions rushed the field in a celebration similar to Ottawa’s upset win over Winnipeg earlier this season. It was pure jubilation from a team that probably didn’t deserve to win but earned full points for pulling it out of the fire.

Steer into the Skid

Vernon Adams Jr. crossed the 300-yard threshold for a fifth straight game but it was far from his best performance of the season. With three interceptions, two of which were indefensible decisions, he put his team in an extremely difficult position.

“Just silly, especially that second one going across my body,” Adams acknowledged of the mistakes. “That’s the number one rule as a quarterback, never throw across your body, and Hatch was open right now and I just started scrambling for no reason.”

The 30-year-old looked a little off for much of the night and a case of happy feet led to mistakes through the air as he attempted to push from behind. You could see him doing too much on the ground too, as a head-first dive on a long scramble at the end of the third quarter led to him being pulled by the CFL’s concussion spotter and ultimately killed a promising drive.

Yet without VA, the Lions would never have made this comeback. His poise in the final moments was as good as any quarterback this year and he did what he failed to do in his six-pick performance against Toronto — he steered into the skid and avoided letting the mistakes become an all-out collapse.

“Some quarterbacks when you get behind, they won’t throw the ball,” Campbell praised at the podium. “They’ll eat it because they don’t want the stats to look bad and they don’t want people to talk about them and talk about all the interceptions they threw, but he doesn’t play for stats. He plays to win.”

Throughout his career, inconsistency has been Adams’ calling card. Dumb plays would spiral into more errors until all hope was lost. He has changed that aspect of his game this season, finding the ability to push through adversity without losing his big play upside.

According to the quarterback, that’s a direct by-product of the Lions’ locker room.

“My team and these guys just got behind me. They still said, ‘Hey VA, we rocking with you regardless what happens tonight,'” Adams explained. “We’re brothers, and when they told me that, you don’t get that a lot. You know some guys would just sit there and just kind of stare at you from the corner of their eye and stuff like that, but they were there for me and I just appreciate it more than anything.”

Shutting Down the Pulp Mill

The Lions’ vaunted defence had a rough outing but they seemed to figure out their biggest issue after the intermission.

In the first half, the Redblacks were dominating in the trenches and getting chunks of yardage on the ground. Running back Devonte Williams rattled off 63 yards on 10 carries in the first 30 minutes, while quarterback Dustin Crum broke contain for 32 yards. All told, Ottawa had 101 rushing yards at the break and was getting 5.6 yards per carry.

While Crum ultimately finished with three rushing touchdowns, Williams was entirely erased in the second half. He added just three yards on eight carries as B.C. finally started to penetrate their gaps and stop plays behind the line of scrimmage. No play exemplified that more than Sione Teuhema setting the edge on Ottawa’s second-to-last series and bringing down the back for a loss as he tried to bounce outside, laying the foundation for the team’s winning score.

Putting the In in McInnis

Canadian receiver Justin McInnis has made some big plays since joining the team as a free agent steal in the offseason, but never in his career has he been a focal point like he was on Saturday.

The six-foot-five mismatch was targeted a team-high 12 times and hauled in eight catches for 118 yards. He also added two impressive touchdowns on 50/50 balls, the first while being interfered with. However, McInnis’s finest moment was a 20-yard catch down the right sideline on the deciding touchdown drive, getting one toe so narrowly in bounds that it was impossible to overturn on review.

“We ran that play earlier in the game and McInnis was open. I saw it on film and I said ‘If they give us that same look, I’m gonna hit him,'” Adams said with a chuckle. “They gave us that same look and I hit him. Thankfully he caught it.”

After he was essentially cast off by the Riders for nothing, the Lions and Adams have placed incredible trust in the native of Pierrefonds, Que. Despite a loaded receiving corps, they continued to look his way with the game on the line.

“That’s why he’s playing Dominique Rhymes’ spot,” Campbell said. “We were playing an American in that spot and so obviously you can tell what we think. We don’t care that he’s Canadian, we think he’s our best option.”

Can’t See the Forest for the Woods

The injury to stalwart Canadian weakside linebacker Bo Lokombo opened the door for American Josh Woods to make his first start of the season. The second-year pro made an instant impact, picking off a pass deflected up in the air by a blitzing Emmanuel Rugamba in the first quarter. He would go on to add five tackles.

Woods has played a significant rotational role this year, entering the game with 21 defensive tackles and eight more on special teams. The Lions love his versatility but they will face a crossroads this offseason. The UCLA product is ready to move into a full-time role and someone will give him the payday to do it if the Lions don’t. That would require changes to the team’s current ratio and the departure of a player like Lokombo.

The 32-year-old Lokombo may well be eyeing retirement anyway, though he was on pace for new career highs before hurting his ribs. In theory, the local kid could take a hometown discount to stay with the team that drafted him, though I wonder if he may try to link up with his brother and current Saskatchewan DB Nelson Lokombo for one last ride elsewhere if B.C. moves on.

The (Bow)Man of the Hour 

After Woody Baron clinched the game with a sack of Crum, it was defensive line coach John Bowman who led the charge off the bench and leapt onto the defensive tackle’s back. The 41-year-old former pass rusher was coaching instead of watching his Hall of Fame bust get unveiled in Hamilton and received the game ball in the locker room.

“There are no words in that moment. It’s just everybody so happy, mutually, for the team, for him,” Baron said of his coach. “So glad we won that same weekend that he got inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was just a great moment for the family of the team that didn’t require anything verbal.”

“He’s an irreplaceable resource. His knowledge allows you to see above the game. He’s got advice that you’re not going to read in a football textbook.”

Do You Count the Two?

Rick Campbell is rarely a gambling man, but his decision to go for it on third-and-eight from the Ottawa 18-yard line with ten minutes left in the game was an uncharacteristic risk. The decision also sparked some heated discussion in the press box.

The Lions were down by 16 points at that stage and a chip shot field goal would have cut the lead to 13. Both are two-touchdown games, though the former requires a pair of converted two-point attempts. The question is, how much should those conversions factor into the equation of your decision to go for it? So often those points are verbally lumped in with the touchdown, but really they are scores in their own right and far less reliable than a PAT.

Either way, this gamble felt foolhardy from Campbell. It was far too early in a CFL game to be chasing points based on mental arithmetic and Adams was ultimately forced out of bounds for a turnover on downs.

Still in Shell

Receiver Keon Hatcher was virtually a non-factor on Saturday, as he was targeted just twice and recorded a single catch for 20 yards on B.C.’s very first throw of the game. It was highly unusual to see him almost entirely absent throughout the evening.

The spiritual leader of the Lions’ pass catchers was on the end of one big play that wasn’t recorded on the stat sheet. Adams hit him perfectly at the goal line early in the second quarter with his best pass of the night, but Sherrod Baltimore prevented a completion with some blatant pass interference. The ensuing penalty set up a one-yard Dominique Davis touchdown plunge.

Strike the Flint

Terry Williams’ return will rightfully earn most of the special teams attention this week, but two other players deserve a special mention for their performance.

Punter Stefan Flintoft was booming the ball all night, averaging 55.3 yards per kick and adding a single. However, his night will be best remembered for a hellacious tackle on the sideline that should make kicker highlight reels everywhere.

Meanwhile, defensive back Adrian Greene was an absolute animal in kick coverage, making four special teams tackles. The second-year man from Saint Mary’s nearly blocked Ottawa’s first punt of the game, but made good in the fourth quarter by getting his hand on the ball to give B.C. great field position on an ultimately fruitless drive.

Riding the Gift Horse

The Lions very nearly stuck their whole head in the gift horse’s mouth and got bitten, but their stunning escape has huge playoff ramifications. With Winnipeg dropping the early game on Saturday to Hamilton, B.C. is now just one game behind them for first place in the West Division.

The two teams will face each other in three weeks to decide the season series and if Campbell’s squad can steal that game and otherwise match the Bombers’ record down the stretch, they’ll earn a first-round bye.

You couldn’t ask for a better finish to the 2023 regular season.

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.