It is very, very early in the Canadian Football League season to begin talking about games that truly matter but the B.C. Lions think highly of themselves and certainly were chagrined by their showing in the opening game of the season against the Calgary Stampeders.
So the Lions erected the theme of “urgency” ahead of their Thursday night tilt against the visiting Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts, pinning much more meaning on an evening than the second game of the year otherwise might merit.
The Lions delivered, redeeming and reasserting themselves, controlling play from the beginning, though never quite dominating. But even if the Lions did not beat up the Argos, everything that went wrong for the team last week – a weak offensive line and no running game; a porous defensive line and a sloppy defence – was corrected and massively improved, which left the home team buoyed and the visitors frustrated.
It remains very early in the season. The two teams are 1-1. Still, coming out of this Fourth of July game, it will be the Argos – who could not manage a touchdown until the final minute, swamped by the Lions defence – stewing and figuring out how to recalibrate, and B.C. charging into next week, an important 24-16 win on the night of the team’s 1000th game in the CFL – and home-opener of their 60th season.
“It was an emotional loss for us last week,” said running back Andrew Harris. “You know, we had high expectations, and we got embarrassed.”
Harris was a microcosm, last week and on Thursday, of what went wrong and what then went right. The 26-year-old running back was looking to put up big numbers this year after his vault to the big time in 2012 but managed just 20 yards on the ground against the Stamps. Facing the Argos, he delivered 103 rushing and another 49 receiving.
“We came back, we bounced back,” said Harris on the field after the win. “It just shows our character as a team.”
Outside the Argos locker room, coach Scott Milanovich could do little more than rue his team’s penalties in the first and their stalled attack. After the many big plays of last week, quarterback Ricky Ray went from CFL offensive player of the week to unable to mount sustained pushes against the revived Lions defence.
“We couldn’t make plays when we had to,” said Milanovich. “We just didn’t play well.”
The decisive moment did not arrive until there was five minutes left in the game, the Lions up only 17-9. Ray had been stripped of the ball when he was in the throes of a sack by Eric Taylor and the Lions pushed towards the Argos endzone. But it was an Argos miscue – the star-crossed Lion-turned-Argo Khalif Mitchell – rather than Lions heroics that clinched the thing, which itself indicates that even though the Lions were victors on Thursday night, the balance between a win and a loss between two marquee teams is not great.
Deep in the Argos end, Lions quarterback Travis Lulay, on second and 12, couldn’t find a receiver and dumped it into the flats for Harris, who gained five. It would have forced yet-another field goal attempt – a problem all night long for the home team – but then Mitchell made the dumb mistake, running down Lulay with a slightly-too-late hit, flagged for roughing the passer. It was, as Milanovich said, an arguable call but it went against the Argos and Harris, on the next play, drove it straight up the middle, four yards, touchdown, game over.
Mitchell, who was traded from B.C. under a black cloud of controversy, was warmly received by some teammates after the game and received a hearty handshake from Lions defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler. Mitchell, save for one sack earlier in the game, and the penalty, was largely a non-factor, often double-teamed by the Lions offensive line. He had two tackles. Any hype of his return to Vancouver fizzled. On his game-turning penalty, Mitchell basically just shrugged. “I mean, it is what it is,” he said on the field after the loss.
Where Mitchell failed to ignite, the B.C. Lions defence did fire up – especially linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who played his first game after missing last week due to a bit of a wonky groin. Elimimian was a force throughout the evening and led Lions with nine tackles, more than double any other defender. His pairing with fellow middle linebacker Adam Bighill proved to be a fearsome combination but that, too, was interrupted again, in the third quarter, when Bighill’s lower left leg was injured, a possible fracture, the player taken from the field grimacing on a golf cart.
So while the Lions classified their showing in Calgary an embarrassment, Thursday night was a continuation of the momentum they began to conjure against the Stamps in the second half, 26-13, compared with the final score, 44-32, in the loss. All-in, it bodes well early on for a team that led the league in wins last year only to fail in the West Division final against Calgary.
Among increasingly odd streaks, the Argos loss extends a decade-plus losing streak in Vancouver. The last time Toronto won on the road against B.C. was July, 2002, and since has lost 11 straight – and, in total, the Argos have been the losers of a hard-to-believe 19 of the past 22 regular-season games the teams have played.
It was a win the Lions were ready to relish. Before the game, receiver Shawn Gore, who suffered a possible concussion against the Argos, said: “We need to win. We need to come out and prove we are who we want to be.”