The rematch was close, for a while, but then it wasn't, at all.
At stake was sole possession of first place in the Canadian Football League. With the roof open at BC Place on a sunny, warm afternoon in Vancouver, the rematch of the B.C. Lions and Montreal Alouettes started as a shootout, quieted to a defensive struggle, was peppered by penalties, and spiced with trickery. It was topsy-turvy, as much a battle between the men on field as a chess match between generals, Montreal coach Marc Trestman and B.C. rookie head coach Mike Benevides.
But it was B.C. that outmatched, and outplayed, Montreal, and pulled away in the third quarter to deliver a decisive 43-10 win.
The victory vaults B.C. to 7-3, a game up on the 6-4 Calgary Stampeders in the West Division, the Stamps squeezing by Edmonton Eskimos 20-18 Friday night. The loss -- Montreal's first since July 27 -- pushes the Als down to 6-4 and into a tie for the lead in the East, as the Toronto Argonauts improved to 6-4 earlier Saturday with a 45-31 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
It was a hotly anticipated rematch, after Montreal defeated B.C. 30-25 on Aug. 31 in a great game that wasn't decided until the last second. Saturday afternoon was also tremendous and although Montreal had it tied at 10-10 at the end of the first, the home team left no doubt of the superior squad, at least on this day. The game is the final meeting of the two sides until, possibly, late November, for the Grey Cup centenary in Toronto.
"Just before the game there was a good vibe, everyone was feeling good, everyone was excited to get back on the field," said Lions running back Andrew Harris in the locker room after the game. "We were pissed off after that game in Montreal. We rebounded well and we've just got to carry the momentum."
The Lions began to pull away in the third quarter. Midway through the quarter, the Als had the Lions pinned on their own nine-yard-line, on second-and-23, but Harris caught a Lulay pass to gain 11 and give the Lions some more room to punt. Then, the turning point: the brickwall pass protection the Als have put in front of Anthony Calvillo for weeks finally cracked a little bit.
On first down, a pack of Lions attacked -- leading the league in sacks -- and defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell booked his first sack of the season. The Als went two-and-out and then Lulay marched his team down the field, nine plays, 81 yards, 4:51 seconds, touchdown.
The last thrust came from Nick Moore. Late in the second quarter, Moore had made a twisting, jumping leap, was cranked by a body-shaking tackle -- leaving him gasping for air -- but held on to the ball. In the third quarter Moore made a 21-yard catch to help carry B.C. down the field, and Moore was the man at the goal line. He caught a short pass from Lulay and was essentially stopped short by the Als D but made a second push, jumping, his arm and the ball extended, in the air and over the line and touchdown -- his first in the CFL.
The game was effectively sealed not long after. After the B.C. D -- the league's best -- held Montreal to another two-and-out, Lions running back Harris cracked a weaving powerful 23-yard run to end the third. To start the fourth, Lulay lofted a 43-yard bomb to Ernest Jackson's open arms in the endzone. Game over.
BC Place does not often received Montreal warmly. The Als last visit, at the end of last year's regular season, was a 43-1 Lions thrashing.
The Als, in fact, have not won in BC Place since 2000 -- a dozen years ago. And on Saturday, the team that had taken the second-fewest penalties this year came unglued. Until Saturday, the Als had been flagged 69 times for 630 yards -- an average of 70 yards a game. On Saturday, the Als had the worst penalties game of any time in the league all year, 20 flags, for 151 yards.
Calvillo, in an interview in the locker room, said, "That's mindboggling. That's mindboggling."
As for the long, long, long losing streak at BC Place, Calvillo was blunt.
"It comes down to a psychological thing, because you're already mentally fighting," he told globeandmail.com. "Okay, we've struggled here, and it's time to turn it around. There's always that doubt, it's always hard to play here. But B.C.'s no slouch. They're a very good team. We're not coming out here losing to this average team. But to explain why we keep losing out here, I've really run out of excuses. You just have got to give them the credit, because they play very well at home."
Slotback Jamel Richardson was tagged in the third quarter for unnecessary roughness, 15 yards, after a play was completed and he shoved linebacker Anthony Reddick to the ground.
"Acting, I don't know," said Richardson of his outburst of frustration. "I don't know. He flopped." Richardson laughed, half-joking and half-ruefully. "I don't know." Then the receiver turned to his fault: "That's me. I was undisciplined right there, and I let my teammates down. You can't have that on the road."
The Als were already down 20-10 and the penalty put the Als at second-and-23. Calvillo's next pass was incomplete and Montreal punted.
On Saturday, a day when the Lions were without, for the second straight game, receiver and legend Geroy Simon, the team ably demonstrated the arsenal of weapons they have on offence. Four different receivers scored touchdowns. And, on defence, even as the Lions struggled at the start, it was another dominant performance by a group that has given up an average of just 18.1 points a game this year. They contained the likes of Brandon Whitaker, the CFL's best back, who by late in the fourth had booked just 75 yards from scrimmage, 68 rushing and seven receiving.
Harris, meanwhile, didn't have an amazing game, though he did score an exclamation point of a touchdown, a 1-yard run with less than two minutes to go.
On the Lions game-opening drive - in a season during which the offence has never really displayed its seeming full potential - the team popped three first downs in four plays, as receiver Arland Bruce III again stepped up in the absence of injured Simon, who turns 37 this coming Tuesday and is dealing with a cranky hamstring. But as the Lions pressed, on a second-and-7 on the Als 43-yard-line, a Travis Lulay pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage by the raised arm of star linebacker Rod Davis. So the Lions settled for three, as clockwork kicker Paul McCallum notched his 600th career field goal.
Trestman, Calvillo and receiver S.J. Green immediately attacked in response, as the 40-year-old pivot lifted a long pass over B.C. defenders into Green's arms, 38 yards to add to his lead-leading receiving total. The drive ended shortly after as Calvillo-- protected well by an offensive line and blocking schemes that held off the Lions sack-attack -- whipped a ball 19 yards into the waiting arms of Richardson in the end zone for a touchdown, snatching back the lead. Five plays, 78 yards, 2:40.
The game was on.
The football party kept rolling on the third drive. Montreal kicker Sean Whyte on the kickoff again booted it straight to the dangerous Tim Brown, who last week burned Montreal's so-so kick defence for two 50-plus yard returns. Brown caught the kick on the right side of the field, took it hard across to the left, and was off, 54 yards. The Lions didn't take long to covert, five plays and 1:48, capped by a two-yard TD pass from Lulay to Shawn Gore, as the quarterback rolled from his pocket and found the endzone. It was Lulay's 21st consecutive game with a TD pass, tying him for second on the all-time CFL list on this metric, with legends Doug Flutie and some guy named Calvillo.
The Als, with a possible shootout underway, opened the fourth drive of the game, their second, with a handoff to the league's best running back, Whitaker, who pushed up a hole through the middle, looked like he hit a morass but then spun like his boyhood hero Barry Sanders to find room for a 24-yard dash. It looked, however, the Als were going to stall on two-and-out, but Trestman pulled a particularly clever trick play, an attempted-field-goal kick-pass to Kyries Hebert (normally a defensive back), a move technically counted as a missed field goal recovered by Hebert. It notched an unusual first down. But the Lions defence thereafter held the Als to a field goal, 10-10, four drives, with 2:28 still to go in the first quarter.
Then, on the fifth drive of the game, the defence finally won a series. The Als strong pressure on Lulay through the first quarter paid off with a second-down sack by a local boy, the Montreal middle linebacker Shea Emry who grew up in the Vancouver region and attended UBC. The sack forced a punt and was just the 13th allowed by B.C., still the lowest in the CFL, one better than Montreal.
The Lions D responded. The Als went two and out, though Whitaker did his most on second-and-11 to overcome. He's a hard man to tackle, as he juked, straight armed, overcame a near tackle/fall to manage six yards -- but it wasn't enough. A punt ended the first, 10-10, a fun 15 minutes of football.
In the second, the defences further asserted themselves but it was the Lions who put 10 points on the board, starting with a McCallum field goal to start the quarter. Immediately thereafter, Benevides tried his own trickery, a gamble to extend the Lions' momentum. McCallum kicked an onside kick but failed to get it the requisite 10 yards as it skidded out of bounds, giving Montreal possession at the B.C. 46. On second down, it looked, for a second, bad for B.C. as Calvillo launched a pass to Brian Bratton, who had beaten Ryan Phillips, and Calvillo put the ball right in Bratton's hands.... but he dropped it.
Late in the half, B.C. made it 20-10 as Lulay found a wide open Marco Iannuzzi for a 5-yard touchdown in the endzone on a busted Montreal play.
Thereafter, it became a little strange. Montreal went two-and-out and then Brown made a good nab of a punt and blasted up field, 33 yards, the clock nearing zero. Montreal was hit with a 15-yard penalty for a horse-collar tackle, and then another 10 for delay of game, after Trestman issued a challenge, questioning a mystery flag thrown by one of the officials, but challenges are not allowed in the last minute of a half. So B.C. had great field position at the Montreal 38, with 39 seconds to go, but went two-and-out, and McCallum couldn't make it field goal No. 602, flubbing the 42-yard kick wide left, as he fell to two for three in the half and 22 for 27 for the season.
Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story gave an incorrect spelling of Anthony Calvillo's name. This online version has been corrected.