Let the party begin.
The B.C. Lions ensured that the 99th Grey Cup week will be full of good tidings and championship expectations by defeating the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL's West Division final Sunday. The Lions downed the visiting Eskimos 40-23 before 41,313 at B.C. Place Stadium, and advanced to the Grey Cup where they will face the East Division champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
B.C. becomes the first team since the 2008 Montreal Alouettes to play host to the Grey Cup and play in the game, and it could become the first team since the 2004 Lions to win the title on home turf.
Then there is Wally Buono, who can tie four other head coaches with his fifth Grey Cup victory. The Lions coach and general manager is already the CFL's career leader in coaching victories, but he was awfully subdued in his post-game media conference.
Normally, Buono conducts those sessions with intensity and agitation, but he admitted that he wasn't wired Sunday and wondered whether it had to do with the death of Dylan Reichelt, the teenage son of long-time Lions trainer Bill Reichelt. The younger Reichelt passed away in an automobile accident last weekend. The team will attend his funeral Monday.
"I'm not angry today," Buono said. "Most games, win or lose, I'm angry. ... Maybe, inwardly, the game wasn't that important."
It sure was for football fans in B.C.
An Eskimos-Blue Bombers matchup would have dampened the mood in Vancouver this week, where the forecast calls for nothing but rain. Edmonton had twice deprived the Leos of playing in a home Grey Cup by winning West finals in 2005 and 1987.
In fact, Sunday's victory was the first time B.C. had beaten the Eskimos at home in the playoffs.
"They deserved what they got," Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed said. "B.C. just executed better than we did."
Quarterback Travis Lulay had the signature play of the game, a 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to cement the victory. It was the longest postseason run in Lions history, and it began a series of "M-V-P" chants from the festive crowd.
Lulay, the West Division nominee for most outstanding player, missed on just seven of 27 passing attempts, while throwing for 293 yards and two touchdowns. In his first full season as a starter, Lulay and the Lions got off to a 0-5 start, but have won 11 of their past 12 games, and will play for the franchise's sixth championship next Sunday.
"You might think I'm crazy saying this, but yeah, we thought it was possible," Lulay said of getting to the big game after such a dreadful start.
Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray was responsible for all four Eskimos turnovers: three interceptions and a fumble. He passed for 297 yards and two touchdowns because the Eskimos trailed by a large margin at halftime and played catch-up throughout the final 30 minutes.
Ray started feeling B.C.'s pass rush late in the second quarter when balls started sailing and when he anticipated being hit. The Lions defensive line has been extraordinary of late, and Edmonton is both young and beaten up across the offensive front. It was not a good matchup for the Green and Gold.
The game was effectively over at halftime after B.C. built up a 26-3 lead and dominated virtually every statistic. Edmonton helped matters by committing nine penalties for 63 yards, compared with just one foul for 10 yards against the home team.
The Lions held the ball for more than 19 minutes in the opening half, and generated 280 yards to Edmonton's 101. They had 14 first downs to Edmonton's four, and they held Ray to just four completions in 13 attempts.
Running back Andrew Harris – a Winnipeg native who grew up rooting for the Bombers – finished with touchdowns on the ground and through the air, while Geroy Simon hauled in a 53-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. Simon had six catches for 106 yards.
"One more game to go," Harris said. "It's going to be an exciting game for my friends and family, but I want to get the win."