It was a Steeltown spectacle worthy of game-of-the-year consideration, as the B.C. Lions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats didn’t record a punt after the first quarter on Friday night and combined for 751 yards of offence.
In the end, it was the visiting Leos who fired the final shot, securing a 33-30 victory on the last play to keep their first-place hopes alive.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
After last week’s unfortunate finish against Winnipeg, it was difficult not to chuckle when that particular coaching point got picked up by the TSN broadcast microphones at the end of the first half. Even the sellout crowd at Tim Hortons Field must have heard the exclamation over their own cheering, as Lucky Whitehead smartly fell to the turf with plenty of time to spare for a Sean Whyte field goal.
If that had been the only application of a lesson learned the hard way, it still would have felt too on the nose. Little did we know at the time just how salient the Lions’ new attention to clock management would end up being.
With four seconds left in the game, the Lions found themselves in an eerily similar situation to last week — score tied and outside of field goal range. This time, it was Keon Hatcher who caught the ball in the deciding moment and there was no second move or turn upfield. He quickly gave himself up and after a tense review, was ruled to have afforded his kicker a single second to hit the 48-yard walkoff winner.
Whyte did not miss.
Twice B.C. needed to answer the bell for their past errors and they delivered both times in spectacular fashion. Even Dominique Rhymes, the guilty party last week, found his redemption in an early touchdown catch. It was his only reception of the night and he later added an offensive pass interference penalty in the endzone, but that moment had to be particularly sweet.
There were huge questions about how this team would handle playing after an emotionally gutting loss. They passed that test with flying colours.
If you needed evidence that the Hollywood writers’ strike was finally over, look no further than this game. Clearly, some professional cinematic scribes were contracted to script the finish.
In his return to Hamilton, the city that he led to two Grey Cup appearances before a messy and painful exit this offseason, backup quarterback Dane Evans was expected to ride the pine and simply soak up the applause from his pre-game ovation. Instead, he was handed the controls to the offence with just a minute left in the game after a knee injury to Vernon Adams Jr. and rose to the occasion to deliver his new squad the win.
It was only four passes on a single drive but Evans was absolutely perfect in one of the toughest situations in pro sports. Coming in cold off the bench, he connected three times with Keon Hatcher and once with Alexander Hollins for 42 total yards — exactly enough to set up Whyte’s winner.
Evans has been the Lions’ best offseason addition, buying into his backup role and rising to the occasion whenever called upon. This team would be several wins lighter without his services and Friday night was a textbook example, delivered in the most satisfying environment possible.
The injury to Adams, which occurred during Dexter Lawson Jr.’s spectacular interception, thankfully does not appear to be serious. He was no slouch either, shaking off some early double-clutching to go 21-of-30 for 296 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the success of Bo Levi Mitchell and Matthew Shiltz last night, it is safe to say that the Lions have the best QB tandem in the league.
When Hamilton pulled off their upset win over B.C. in Week 12, it was former Lions’ running back James Butler who received top billing. He finished with 24 touches for 154 total yards and two touchdowns in that contest, but Friday was a different story.
Butler was hardly rendered ineffective in this game but the Lions’ defence did an admirable job of stopping the run. He carried 15 times for 67 yards, averaging just 4.5 yards per carry and never breaking a run of more than eight yards. While the versatile back added five catches for 47 yards, it never felt like he was influencing the game in a meaningful way.
Instead, the Ticats eschewed their previous downstairs ground-and-pound success for the upstairs passing game, where they found plenty of success. Mitchell and Shiltz combined for 315 yards and three touchdowns, with an early pick-six from Josh Woods on an ill-advised dump-off serving as their only real blemish.
In particular, it was receiver Tim White who punished the B.C. secondary, easily exploiting soft zone coverage with seven receptions for 112 yards and two majors. White’s speed on crossers makes him a unique threat but it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the pure volume of yardage through the air that this team has surrendered in the last few weeks. with far too few interceptions to show for it.
You can point to a couple of timely pass breakups — Marcus Sayles on Derel Walker in the endzone and T.J. Lee on Kiondre Smith deep late — as impact plays in this game, but this defence is getting in the habit of forcing shootouts for the offence. The last time they held a team under 25 points was Week 10 and that isn’t a recipe for success in the postseason.
A glance at the box score and his 3.3 yards per carry might have you believe that running back JaQuan Hardy’s first CFL game was a bust, but I thought there was actually a lot to like about his debut.
The Tiffin University product looked dangerous out of the backfield with 40 receiving yards and showed flashes of power inside thanks to his 225-pound frame. He probably should have earned more than 26 yards on the ground, but any play call to the outside got blown up in the backfield despite his best efforts.
Despite three early sacks, two of which can be partially pinned on VA, I thought B.C.’s offensive line had a real bounce-back game in pass protection. But when run blocking, they failed to seal the edge and looked slow on their pulls while allowing far too much upfield penetration.
It’s high time that the Lions faced a reckoning about their run game. With Butler last year, this team seemed to have a distinct schematic identity and a shortened playbook that fit their personnel. They abandoned their downhill principles in search of a scatback like the injured Taquan Mizzell and expanded the concepts they’ve run accordingly, but it hasn’t succeeded in scaring anyone outside of Edmonton.
Until the players can be found to execute that vision, it’s probably best to go back to basics.
It took him longer than expected but Mathieu Betts finally notched his 17th sack of the season on Friday, tying Brent Johnson’s single-season record by a Canadian. It may not quite be the torrid pace he was on to start the year — notching 10 sacks in the first six games — but it is quite the accomplishment nonetheless.
Betts’ historic sack could not have come at a better time, as he hauled down an escaping Matthew Shiltz on second-and-14 in the red zone with time ticking down in the fourth quarter to force a field goal. It also served as redemption for two costly penalties earlier in the game.
The Laval product extended a Hamilton drive with a boneheaded contacting the kicker penalty, then followed it up with an unnecessary roughness call for ripping off Tyreik McAllister’s helmet on the next play. The second life and free yardage set up Tim White’s second touchdown and could have made Betts the goat of the week — and not in the positive sense. Instead, everyone will remember this game for how he etched his name in the record books.
The Fastest Whistle in the East
As regular readers know, I loathe discussions about the officials. However, the quick whistle on Bo Lokombo’s second-quarter forced fumble was an egregious error that nearly had serious ramifications on the outcome.
Receiver Terry Godwin was in the grasp of Mike Jones when the whistle blew but he was clearly being taken to the ground, not driven back on his feet. There was no reason for the sideline referee to blow the play dead for forward progress as quickly as he did and even so, it still appeared that Lokombo had dislodged the football milliseconds before the soundwaves hit everyone’s ears. The fumble was obvious, there was a clear and immediate recovery, but none of that mattered after Rick Campbell tossed the challenge flag. Despite the whistle being in error, this play was impossible to overturn.
Tim White went on to score a touchdown on a drive that should have ended with the Tibo Debaillie recovery, but the ripple effect from the call didn’t end there. There was clear pass interference from Hamilton’s Kenneth George Jr. on an endzone shot to Alexander Hollins early in the fourth quarter but the officials never drew their flags and Campbell had lost his only challenge. Fortunately, Hollins scored on the very next play but one errant whistle nearly resulted in a 14-point swing.
The Lions did get one lucky break from the referees, as Lokombo was not flagged for a hit on a sliding Shiltz on Hamilton’s final drive. That held the quarterback short of a first down and forced a tying field goal instead of allowing an endzone shot.
Ticats fans rained down boos for the non-call but I think the stripes were correct here. Shiltz was late declaring his slide and Lokombo had no other option but to hit him, still managing to make clean shoulder-to-shoulder contact rather than a blow to the head. I was surprised no laundry was tossed given the way those plays are usually handled but it was the right decision.
As an aside, plays like these are the reason why I hate feet-first slides from quarterbacks. Few do it well and more often than not, it is the passer who puts himself in a vulnerable position.
Take a Knee
It is heartening to hear that Vernon Adams Jr.’s late-game knee injury isn’t viewed as serious by the team but that should have no effect on their decision to play him next week.
With first place in the West still technically up for grabs, there will be tremendous pressure for VA to suit up against Calgary. The reality is that the slim hope that Winnipeg will fumble the bag is not worth endangering your star passer if he is anything less than 100 percent. The playoff ramifications would be dire if he were to re-aggravate the injury and Evans has more than proven he can beat a team like the Stampeders.
Whether he wants to or not, Adams needs to sit this next one out and give himself at least two weeks to heal for the games that matter.
Off the Bus
As I informed fans on Twitter, my viewing of this game and subsequent column were supposed to be delayed by coaching a high school football game. At least that was the plan until our team bus drove headlong into the back of a semi-truck on the way to Abbotsford, putting football into perspective for a moment.
Fortunately, we escaped the crash with only minor injuries and all of the kids got home safe. I want to give a huge shoutout to the administration at Earl Marriott Secondary for mobilizing at incredible speeds to assist at the scene, as well as all the first responders who took care of my players and staff. I also want to thank all the amazing people around B.C. High School Football and my media colleagues who reached out when they heard the news. Your support and kindness were greatly appreciated amidst the chaos of last night.