B.C. Lions play chicken with winless Elks, never blink in victory (& 13 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

The B.C. Lions may have beaten the Edmonton Elks for the eighth straight time on Thursday night in Vancouver but the era of utter dominance is finally over.

It took a 42-yard walk-off winner from Sean Whyte to secure a 24-21 victory this time around — bringing the cumulative score in the winning streak to 289-103. Unlike those previous games, errors put the result in jeopardy from the beginning and tested the resilience of the home side.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Team of teases

The Lions entered Week 4 of the CFL season with the number-one offence in the country, averaging more than 408 yards per contest. On their roster was the early leader in passing yardage (Vernon Adams Jr.), receiving yardage (Alexander Hollins), and rushing yardage (William Stanback). And yet, despite all that firepower, they sat seventh in offensive points per game with 24.3 — better than only the lowly Redblacks and winless Bombers.

As was frustratingly displayed last week, this team has had difficulty finishing drives with touchdowns. Against an Elks team that should have been gasping for air, that trend didn’t change at all.

B.C. was again the far superior team on paper and on the field — hitting their average exactly on the nose with 408 yards of net offence — but the endzone consistently eluded them, with just two majors scored and plenty of missed opportunities. They finished two-for-four in the red zone due to a goal-line fumble and butchered field goal snap, letting the league’s perennial basement dwellers hang around like a bad smell.

Something must be done to address these unforced errors and narrow misses but if the Lions have any inclination as to what’s causing this trend, they aren’t sharing. The best that Adams could muster post-game was pinning a slow start, which included a rare misfire from him in the red zone, on the pre-game atmosphere.

“I think our speaker was dead in the locker room so we didn’t have no energy,” he suggested. “It was quiet in there. Usually, we’ve got the music going for the guys and things like that, so we came out a little flat.”

If a lack of tunes is the root of the issue, someone better provide this team with some AA batteries stat. Otherwise, I may be forced to serenade them acapella and nobody wants that — just as nobody wants to drop winnable games for correctable mistakes.

Fallen oak

Canadian linebacker Ben Hladik had been B.C.’s best defensive player to start the 2024 season, leading the entire CFL with 25 tackles. It was therefore a cause for concern when it was revealed that he would be out of the lineup this week with a thumb injury, but the prevailing belief was that the team wouldn’t miss a beat due to their incredible depth at the position. That changed mid-way through the second quarter when his running mate, American Josh Woods, went down with a devastating injury.

Offensive tackle Martez Ivey rolled up on Woods at the end of the play and twisted his leg at a 90-degree angle in the wrong direction. He was down on the turf for a considerable amount of time and had to be carted off. Though the team confirmed that the injury was knee-related and not a break, there was no good news post-game. Rick Campbell’s diagnosis was that Woods is out for the year.

You hate to see any player go down like that but this was particularly devastating. Woods is a special talent and was poised to become a breakout star this year. At 26, an NFL opportunity may have been in the cards this offseason but now that will likely have to wait. Your heart breaks for him.

Ayinde ‘Ace’ Eley filled in admirably with three tackles but when Hladik returns next week, I would anticipate that he will move to middle linebacker and that the team will start two Canadians with him and Bo Lokombo.

They have a National position of strength unlike any other in the league, boasting one of four Canadians in CFL history to record 100 tackles, a backup just three years removed from winning Most Outstanding Canadian, and a potential future star in Ryder Varga. Let’s also not forget that role player Isaiah Guzylak-Messam started for the team for a long stretch in 2019 before becoming sequestered on special teams. The defence will adapt and survive.

Main roads only

For better or worse, I simply loved the decision to use fullback David Mackie as the team’s short-yardage quarterback for this game.

It is clear that this idea was ripped from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who have had Canadian back Ante Milanovic-Litre handling sneaks all year, but the Lions are better suited for it. Mackie is the most athletically gifted fullback in the league, as exemplified by his desire to hurdle every defender he faces in space, and he’s still grossly underutilized. Letting him take the pounding for your quarterback is brilliant.

“It gives us options. VA still can do it, Mackie can do it,” Campbell grinned post-game. “He owes me 50 bucks for putting him in there.”

That cost was nearly much steeper after Mackie broke left on a sneak near the goal line in the fourth quarter, allowing corner Kai Gray to punch the ball loose. Loucheiz Purifoy batted it out of bounds to recover and Edmonton marched the whole field to score their own sneak touchdown, which was deftly performed by Dakota Prukop — the short-yardage QB that B.C. axed in training camp. The irony was not lost on anyone present.

“Your eyes get big when you see a goal line, for sure. We practice ball security all the time, that’s 100% on me,” Mackie admitted. “We do a pretty good job on the sideline of just telling each other to flush it regardless of what negative play happens and I’m usually one of the guys that is telling people that, so it sucked to be on the receiving end.”

Though the numbers were wildly different, this game reminded me of a Week 3 matchup with Toronto back in 2022. In it, Mackie was pressed into duty as the emergency tailback and promptly fumbled the ball. The Lions stuck with him and he finished that game with 90 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

In this one, Mackie made a couple of huge conversions in the dying minutes and easily scored a touchdown to answer back. Given the alternatives, it is clear that the Lions should continue to drive their Mack truck into traffic — so long as they don’t allow him to go off-roading.

Snap-fu

When a high snap caught holder Stefan Flintoft off-guard in the first quarter, it took three critical points off the board for the Lions. It also may have been the first time that many fans recognized that Riley Pickett was still handling the team’s long snapping duties on the field goal team, despite B.C. seemingly replacing him before the season with NFL veteran Kyle Nelson.

Nelson apparently won the job in training camp but despite being listed on the stat sheet for Week 1, actually hasn’t trotted out for a field goal or extra point since. Pickett, who is also serving as a backup fullback, has cycled in instead, flying entirely under the radar until tonight.

I have never seen a team rotate their long snappers before, but head coach Rick Campbell seems to view this as a logical decision. He credits Nelson for having “the best operation time” in the league on punts but claims that Pickett beat him out with better short snaps in practice. With the Saskatchewan product’s future being on special teams, why not keep his skillset fresh?

That would be all well and good if you weren’t paying a 37-year-old man $84,000 in hard money to stand around and take the field for five plays a game. Pickett at least contributes elsewhere but carrying two primary snappers is ludicrous on a tiny CFL roster, where that money and playtime needs to be maximized. This feels like a move motivated by personal relationships and not common sense, which could prove costly if depth starts to dwindle.

Paying for the laundromat

This was far from the most heavily penalized contest of the year, but the Elks and Lions still combined for 167 yards worth of infractions. The Lions got the better side of that equation and benefitted from Edmonton’s mistakes, including on a facemask penalty during their final drive, but the turning point was nearly the reverse.

Following Mackie’s goal-line fumble, Edmonton went 106 yards to score a pivotal touchdown and go up by five. 30 of those yards came free of charge, as Garry Peters was called for a facemask after Kurleigh Gittens Jr. came open to get the Elks out from beneath their goalpost. On the very next play, Emmanuel Rugamba made matters worse by hip-tossing Arkell Smith out of bounds late. Bing, bang, boom, the Elks had all the momentum.

Those are a couple of boneheaded mistakes from two of B.C.’s best defensive backs and they could have hardly come at a worse time. Peters at least stepped up to intercept the two-point attempt after the touchdown, but the defence was fortunate that the offence was quick to provide damage control.

I.O.Us

Vernon Adams Jr. missed practice on Tuesday with what the team dubbed an abdominal strain. Though his status was listed as questionable ahead of the depth chart release, you got the sense that this was mostly rhetorical. The Lions QB, who also appeared to tweak his knee in Week 3, was never really in jeopardy of not playing — even though he could barely get out of bed by his own admission.

The injury did not appear to affect VA in the slightest, as he shook off a slow start to throw for 331 yards and a touchdown. He has now gone 133 straight passes without an interception and is playing at a higher level than any QB in the league. That would have been even more apparent if two of his receivers had made the most of their opportunities.

Alexander Hollins followed up his 215-yard breakout last week with a relatively quiet evening, making four catches for 55 yards while drawing double coverage. His numbers would have been dramatically different had he hauled in a deep ball early in the game down the right sideline, which went right between his hands despite having a step on Kai Gray. It likely wouldn’t have been a touchdown, but it would have put the team in scoring position.

The same was true for Stanley Berryhill in the third quarter, when a deep shot behind Marcus Lewis fell just out of reach. The rookie, who caught two passes for 21 yards in his second start, appeared to lose track of the ball and hesitate for a half second, resulting in the missed opportunity.

VA credited his entire receiving corps for their toughness in this one, as several players pushed through bumps and bruises. While they deserve recognition for that, these two plays could have changed the game and everyone in that locker room knows it.

Addition by subtraction

The Lions cut ties with one of their day-one starters early this week, showing NFL journeyman Travis Fulgham the door after a disappointing run with the team. It was rather fitting then that his departure carved out a greater role for the other player once advertised as a difference-maker in training camp, Ayden Eberhardt.

While his total of 78 yards won’t make him a player of the week candidate, it did serve as a coming-out party for the Wyoming product. Eberhardt caught six passes and seemed to fulfill the role of VA’s safety blanket, converting several key second-downs. The lone target he didn’t haul in would have been a circus catch in tight coverage and he also drew the pass interference call that set up the team’s final major.

Also pleasantly stepping up to the plate for a larger helping was Jevon Cottoy, who caught five passes for 68 yards after missing last week with injury. The hulking Canadian was a chain mover and consistently fell forward with his big frame.

I felt the unit as a whole was better thanks to the larger target share for these two oft-forgotten receivers. Offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic must continue to find ways to keep both involved.

Cracking the safe

The Lions have yet to roll with the same combination in the secondary twice to start this season, as they try to figure out how to fit the new pieces together. This week’s changes had rookie Jordan Perryman demoted following a difficult game against Winnipeg and veteran Ciante Evans bumping over to field corner, with Ronald Kent Jr. drawing back in at half.

Evans had the biggest defensive play of the game when he picked off McLeod Bethel-Thompson in the red zone — B.C.’s only meaningful turnover. Still, the field side appeared to have a couple of busts, with Dillon Mitchell getting behind coverage on Edmonton’s first scoring drive and sitting all alone at the sticks when they marched to tie the game late.

After each ball thrown their way, Evans appeared to discuss the result animatedly with his young teammate. From a distance, it was hard to tell whether that was instructive or combative, but Kent set the record straight in the locker room.

“Those conversations are just reassurance, just making sure we both know what we’re doing,” he said. “Obviously, he’s a vet so he’s a little bit more experienced and he sees stuff a little bit better than me.”

The rookie, who describes himself as “a chihuahua with a pitbull mindset,” led B.C. with seven total tackles on Thursday. It’s still unclear if Ryan Phillips has found a field-side pairing he is comfortable with.

Throw-back Thursday

William Stanback was relatively quiet on the ground against the Elks, going for 42 yards rushing on 11 carries. However, the big back still scored his first touchdown as a Lion on a short catch and added four total receptions for another 41 yards.

Back in 2022, the best part of the B.C. running game with James Butler was his ability to provide an outlet in the passing game too, turning dump-offs into chunk yardage. That has typically been a much smaller part of Stanback’s skillset but scheming him into space will be a key part of maximizing his presence. No corner in the league wants to be the one to wrangle that particular bull when he has a head of steam.

Get your chequebook out

Being a professional quarterback never looked less fun than when McLeod Bethel-Thompson was obliterated by Patrice Rene on a free blitz early in this game. The Canadian strong-side linebacker was the man unaccounted for in the blocking scheme and hit Edmonton’s veteran QB like he was on a tee.

Rene has been great this season and had a brilliant knockdown on another blitz, but I suspect this hit will hurt him in a different way from MBT. I was surprised it wasn’t flagged for spearing live as he clearly led with the crown of the helmet and buried it into his vulnerable opponent’s chest. Expect the CFL to come calling with a fine at this time next week.

Feed the hogs

There were some shaky moments late despite Edmonton bringing less pressure but B.C.’s offensive line has now gone three games without allowing a sack — with the two initially surrendered last week since downgraded to zero-yard rushes. That is quite the accomplishment given how the year started, though Adams can’t quite put his finger on the difference.

“I don’t know, but I know my wallet is getting (hit),” he joked post-game. “I’ve got to take them out again but I don’t mind as long as I’m not getting hit.”

The rewards for a clean slate have included dinner at Cactus Club and breakfast at Triple O’s, though apparently a trip to The Keg could be in store this week. A well-fed lineman is a happy lineman and a happy lineman is an effective one, so look out for this group to be cleaning out the kitchen at a restaurant near you.

Easy street

Elks’ quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson made headlines this week when he lambasted the CFL for a “lack of leadership” and accused the league of blatantly disregarding player safety by forcing his team to travel cross-country to play back-to-back road games on just four days’ rest.

As much as they suck, short weeks are a reality in pro sports and we don’t know all the scheduling elements that were at play in creating this particular situation. Certainly, Edmonton couldn’t play at home this week, as Commonwealth Stadium has been commandeered for the IFAF U20 World Junior Championships, where Team Canada will face Team Japan for the gold medal on Sunday. Nevertheless, even if my sympathy for the Elks’ plight is minimal, you can’t deny they’ve been given the short end of the stick with three short weeks this year — the most of any team in the league.

Meanwhile, the Lions are the only franchise that doesn’t face a five-day turnaround. Add in some evenly spaced bye weeks and that unquestionably means they have the easiest regular-season schedule of any team, even considering the added travel that comes with West Coast living. It’s one of the major X-factors working in B.C.’s favour as they strive towards a home Grey Cup berth.

The line for the guillotine

The Edmonton Elks have their pre-game routine precisely organized, setting up like tin soldiers in a perfectly straight line for the national anthem while their opponents generally mill about. It is the only thing this team has managed to perfect in the Chris Jones era and you can’t help but wonder if their upcoming 17-day break between games will mark the end of his tenure with the organization.

There may be no starker contrast than one coach flying home to face a firing squad, while the other sneaks into the back of press conferences to jokingly ask questions of his players — as Rick Campbell did to Vernon Adams Jr. on Thursday night. B.C. has plenty of room for growth despite sitting near the top of the West Division but their mood is as light as it is focused.

They will have 10 days to keep the good vibes flowing before they visit the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday, July 7 at 4:00 p.m. PDT.

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.