Lirim Hajrullahu is a CFL rookie, but he made kicking field goals in pressure-packed situations look easy Friday night.
Hajrullahu kicked five field goals — the best single-game performance of his young career — and accounted for most of his team’s scoring as the upstart Winnipeg Blue Bombers thumped the B.C. Lions 23-6 at B.C. Place Stadium.
“It was great that we won the game and the guys trusted in me,” said Hajrullahu, a 24-year-old St. Catharines, Ont., native who played the past five seasons at Western University.
Winnipeg (4-1) moved into a three-way tie for first place in the West Division with Calgary and Edmonton. The Blue Bombers have already exceeded their entire victory total from 2013.
Hajrullahu’s most important field goals were also his longest as the Blue Bombers secured the victory with 14 unanswered points in the third quarter. He connected on a 51-yarder, which was longer than any he booted while becoming Western’s all-time leading scorer, and furnished another from 49 yards while also earning a single from a 63-yard kick-off.
“I want this (pressure),” he said. “At this point in the season, I just want to be able to show that I am capable of making those types of kicks. If they do need me, I want to be there for the guys.”
Winnipeg also scored its only touchdown in the third quarter as quarterback Drew Willy threw a 37-yard pass to Clarence Denmark. The win added to the confidence that the club has built under new coach Mike O’Shea.
The Lions saw a two-game winning streak come to an end as they dropped to 2-3 while mustering only two field goals from Paul McCallum.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, made amends for a loss to Edmonton in their last outing.
“We came over this hump,” said Hajrullahu, who signed as a free agent in January. “And, this was a huge win, especially for the guys that were here last year. They made some major changes and the guys are starting to believe in themselves and believe in each other. That’s the most important thing right now.”
The rookie’s belief in himself was shaken in Winnipeg’s previous game as he put a 44-yard attempt off a goalpost against Edmonton while going a modest 1-for-2.
“I was just trying to keep my head down and stay calm,” said Hajrullahu, adding he made some minor adjustments.
The Lions could not adjust their game sufficiently after his first three field goals gave the Bombers what proved to be an insurmountable lead.
B.C. struggled to deal with a Winnipeg defence that sacked quarterback Kevin Glenn five times and intercepted two of his passes.
“We couldn’t get any sustained drives,” said Glenn. “We had some turnovers, some negative plays. When you do that, you can’t get into a groove as a group.”
The Lions only recorded two sacks on Willy, who produced decent numbers but had trouble getting his team into the end zone.
“We need to get some more touchdowns, obviously, but our defence played just lights out,” said Willy. “I was just happy for the guys.”
Willy completed 18 of 26 passes for 250 yards and one interception along with the TD. Receiver Nick Moore had a strong night against his former B.C. squad, catching seven passes for 99 yards.
“There were a couple plays I wanted back, but I thought I did some good things,” said Willy.
Glenn connected on 18 of 31 passes for 232 yards. He was replaced briefly by backup John Beck, who completed one of two passes.
The Lions threatened to get in the end zone late in the second quarter. A Tim Brown punt return and Winnipeg face masking penalty on the same play spurred a drive to the Blue Bombers’ three-yard line. But Glenn overthrew Manny Arceneaux and the Lions had to settle for an 11-yard field goal, reducing their deficit to 9-3.
B.C.’s defence came up big in the final minute of the second quarter. Thanks to three consecutive completions by Willy and a pass interference penalty on B.C., the Blue Bombers advanced to the Lions 23-yard line. However, B.C. held backup QB Rob Marve on third-and-one, forcing a turnover on downs and setting up a drive that led to an 11-yard McCallum field goal on the final play of the first half to reduce their deficit to 9-6.
But B.C. could not build any momentum in the decisive third quarter after both clubs virtually matched each other’s net yardage in the first 30 minutes, with the Blue Bombers earning only one yard more.
But penalties proved costly for the Lions as they committed eight infractions worth 62 yards in the first half and at total of 14 for 122 yards on the night. By comparison, Winnipeg was penalized only four times for 25 yards in the first half and just once more for 10 yards in the second half.
“It was an up-and-down game,” said B.C. linebacker Jamall Johnson. “Defensively, we played well, but we hurt ourselves with a lot of penalties in key situations.”
He said it was more a case of the Blue Bombers playing “better football” though.
“We’ve just got to get better at playing better team football, and we’ll turn this thing around,” said Johnson.
Notes: Attendance was 25,321. The Lions retired all-time CFL leading receiver Geroy Simon’s jersey and inducted him into the club’s Ring of Honour at half-time. Moore played against his former B.C. team for the first time since leaving as a free agent in the off-season. Hajrullahu’s experience as a former soccer player helped him boot the long single. Despite being a midfielder, he used to take his team’s goal-kicks.