Ten seconds into the game, in Travis Lulay’s return to action since hurting his throwing shoulder three weeks ago, the B.C. Lions quarterback was immediately driven into the turf by Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Eddie Rush.
Lulay’s pass floated incomplete. His throwing shoulder took the brunt of the crash to the ground.
But Lulay was unshaken - and his shoulder looked fine. On a weekend when the likes of Anthony Calvillo in Montreal, Toronto’s Ricky Ray, and Darian Durrant for Saskatchewan didn’t play, Lulay started as planned and took snaps for a little more than a quarter, playing well and throwing 9 for 14 for 88 yards.
Lulay also put his CFL-best squad in the lead against Saskatchewan in a game that meant nothing on paper, to either side, with the playoff picture set earlier in the weekend.
But while the final game of the CFL regular season was devoid of tangible meaning in the standings, the Lions were never tested and easily overcame the Riders. It was a mostly subdued affair and even though the final score was 17-6, it never felt especially close as the Lions finished the year 13-5.
The defending Grey Cup champions now look ahead to Nov. 18, when they host the West Division final.
The Lions, even with some key injuries, appear formidable, especially given that Lulay seems to be back in game shape. The Lions have the league’s best offence and defence - and a 14-1 record at BC Place in the 13 months since the stadium was renovated for $500-million.
Saskatchewan, losing their fourth straight game, finish 8-10 and will limp to Calgary next weekend to face the Stampeders. The Saturday night Lions-Riders contest was scrubbed of its shard of meaning when the Edmonton Eskimos lost to Calgary on Friday, sending the Esks to Toronto next week.
Among individuals, it was Andrew Harris who made his mark, the culmination of a remarkable season. Harris, 25, in his first full year as a starter in the CFL, clinched the No. 1 spot in the league for yards from scrimmage, 1,830, 1,112 yards rushing and 718 receiving. It is only the second time ever that a Canadian has achieved the feat.
Kory Sheets, the Riders back who was just seven yards behind of Harris to start the game, spent most of the game on the sidelines, resting ahead of Calgary and gained 34 yards to reach 1,794 on the year. Sheets is a 27-year-old in his first CFL season, after setting records at Purdue University and time with the Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers in the NFL.
Harris’s pedigree pales in comparison, connecting with the Lions after starring in junior Canadian football with the Vancouver Island Raiders.
The Lions also sealed another significant feat on Saturday, the all-time record for fewest turnovers.
B.C. finished with an amazing 23, barely one a game, 12 interceptions, 9 fumbles and twice on down (There was one turnover Saturday, when Harris fumbled early in the game).
The mark bests the previous record by five, a large gulf - the old Ottawa Rough Riders set the record at 28 in 1967, a number tied by B.C. in 2006 (the team’s previous Grey Cup winning season before 2011).
The Lions opened the night with fearsome dominance on defence, as the CFL’s-best defenders mauled a Riders squad quarterbacked by backup Drew Willy. At the end of the first quarter, the Riders had managed six yards of offence, one yard receiving and five rushing.
The crowd o f 36,357 at B.C. Place, the largest of the season, was a factor, drumming up a significant racket all through the first quarter when the Riders had the ball. In one instance, late in the first with Saskatchewan on their own eight, the roaring crowd appeared to rattle the Riders, with tackle Patrick Neufeld taking a penalty for illegal procedure. The Riders soon after punted.
The Lions now take two weeks off, which will help the various big-name players in convalescence. Geroy Simon, who has missed games because of a problem hamstring, was back last week against Calgary, catching his 100th touchdown of his career, but he was scratched from the lineup Saturday night as a precaution. Arland Bruce III, recovering from a concussion, didn’t play, as expected.
Defensive end Eric Taylor returned from injury on Saturday, though at the end of the first half, he was slow to get off the field after a block. He did play in the second half. Defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell played in his second game back from injury. Possibly worrisome was the injury to Keron Williams, the defensive end who led the CFL in sacks with 12 this year. He left in the first half with a charley horse in his quad.
One question is the loss of Dean Valli, right guard who was injured in first half. The Lions are already dealing with a somewhat depleted offensive line, though the main pillars remain in place, Ben Archibald at left tackle, Jovan Olafioye at right tackle, and Angus Reid at centre (who played his 200th CFL game on Saturday).
The Lions O-line has been strong this year. The team leads the league in rushing and tied Montreal for the fewest sacks ceded with 30.