Two minutes left in the first quarter, B.C. Lions quarterback Travis Lulay spotted receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux blitzing down the sideline, clear of his defender, and lofted the football in a long, high arc. As it was coming down, direct on target, Arceneaux made a quick look back to eye the ball. He was free for what would have been a near 100-yard touchdown. But his eyes caught the glare of the stadium lights at BC Place and the ball hit his outstretched hands, in stride – and Arceneaux bobbled it, the ball in a blink slipping beyond his grasp.
Midway through the second, Lulay sent another one up high and arcing to Arceneaux. This time, wide open as the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats brought a heavy blitz, Arceneaux turned, corralled the football, pivoted and took off, out-sprinting a diving linebacker and booked an 80-yard touchdown – the team's longest of the season.
One out of two ain't bad – but it's not particularly great, either. On Friday night in Vancouver, as the erratic Lions hosted the so-so Ticats, not-bad-but-not-particularly-great was good enough for the home team to scratch out a victory. The tally on the scoreboard was 29-26 at evening's end. It wasn't quite as close as the score indicates but it was far closer than it might have been.
The B.C. Lions, now 21 months removed from their Grey Cup victory in 2011, think highly of their potential potency, even as they acknowledge they have yet to play their best football. It's not clear when that might emerge in full thrall – and, so far, the Lions do not seem to be in the same class as the West Division powers, CFL-leading Saskatchewan Roughriders or the Calgary Stampeders.
Arceneaux, on the field after the win, described the struggle as "B.C. versus B.C." – the team unable to overcome its own missteps that have peppered games this year. "Those plays have to be made," he said of the would-have-been touchdown at the end of the first quarter, one that would have put the Lions ahead 14-0. "People look to me to make those plays."
Dominance, from the start, was within the Lions's grasp – like the ball in Arceneaux's hands – but on numerous occasions the team's uncertain offence failed to deliver. And it wasn't just the receivers who were to blame. Lulay overthrew a wide-open Courtney Taylor in the second half, a missed connection that would have opened up the game 21-7 – rather than leaving Hamilton within striking distance through the evening.
A win is a win, sure, but this win definitely did not have the type of gleam the Lions had imagined for themselves. With all the talk of "urgency" during the week and, in the words of Lulay on Thursday, "shoo the demons away" from last week's ugly loss last-second loss against a severely depleted Montreal Alouettes.
The Ticats, while they held in, on the shoulders and veteran prowess of quarterback Henry Burris, were hardly a titan of an opponent, the team's wins this year coming against the league's weakest squads. Hamilton did not manage a first down until almost a third of the game had rolled by and through three quarters, had gained just 10 yards on the ground. It was Burris that kept the Ticats in it, aided and abetted by the Lions offence allowing their opponent to stay close.
The Lions reach the halfway mark of the Canadian Football League season at 6-3 – precisely the record the team had a year ago, when they went on to finish a CFL-best 13-5, before folding in the West Division final against Calgary.
Still, even if the Lions are, on paper, where they were a year ago, it doesn't feel like they are the power they once were, especially relative to rivals. Last year, the Lions led; this year, the Lions chase – and likely look like they will remain behind the top teams after a Labour Day long weekend of three-down football. The Roughriders, dominant at 7-1, host the woeful Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday, and the strong Stampeders, 6-2, welcome the struggling Edmonton Eskimos on Monday.
With the offence in a staccato rhythm, the key moment for B.C. on Friday night came on defence, which perhaps is no surprise given that the Lions D has ceded the fewest first downs this year in the league and the fewest offensive yards.
Early in the fourth, down by six, Burris stormed Hamilton down the field and had receiver Greg Ellingson in the end zone on a 20-yard slant route but a tremendous and perfectly timed dive for the ball by cornerback Cord Parks knocked the ball away. Keron Williams delivered a sack on the next play, to limit the damage to a field goal.
Then the B.C. offence finally clicked. Lulay carried the Lions down the field, surpassing the 300-yard mark for the first time in 10 outings in the process. At the end Lulay punched in it, two yards, for the score and the game. Lulay finished with 359 yards, completing 26 of 36 passes for three touchdowns. It was his first 300-plus yard game since Oct. 12 last year against, by coincidence, Hamilton.
The win was obviously more important but Lulay was happy to finally again crack 300.
"It doesn't hurt my feelings we're not going to talk about that anymore," said a smiling Lulay on the field after the game.
Hamilton coach Kent Austin was in a tense, terse mood after the contest. Asked if the loss was frustrating, Austin said, "Yeah, yeah. I'm frustrated by every loss. Wouldn't you be?"
Across the hall, B.C. coach Mike Benevides could enjoy the win. A defensive co-ordinator by training, he is known for his penchant to gamble on offence. He did so several times on third down Friday night – with a particularly aggressive move 10 minutes in, the Lions up 7-0, Benevides confident in his defence and looking to spark his squad. The team gained nine yards on first down but got stuffed on second. So, at the Lions own 28-yard line – a not-ideal spot to turn over the ball on downs – Benevides gambled and backup quarterback Thomas DeMarco got the yards.
The drive ended in a punt but it was an example of the type of play-big-and-win football B.C. believes it can manage on a full-time basis. Midway through the season, however, it has yet to happen wire-to-wire.