The humbling began on the third play of the game. The B.C. Lions defence, the best in the CFL, crashed the Calgary Stampeders on an aggressive blitz on second and 10. But Kevin Glenn, the 33-year-old backup quarterback, held strong in the pocket and lofted a precise pass to a could-not-be-more-wide-open Marquay McDaniel, who had threaded the middle of the field undetected and waltzed the remaining 50 yards to the end zone, no defenders in sight.
It was a big-play afternoon for the Stampeders. They took the lead just 53 seconds into the West Division final on Sunday and never relinquished it as Calgary overcame the Grey Cup defending champions 34-29.
The game was never as close as the score. The Lions' offence was often anemic and B.C. didn't score an offensive touchdown until there was only one minute left in the game. The vaunted B.C. defence was tamed by the veteran Glenn – who will appear in his first Grey Cup – and star running back Jon Cornish, who galloped for 112 yards on the ground.
"We always had the potential to do it, man, and this is one of those games where we showed how good we are," said Calgary's all-star defensive end Charleston Hughes, who played much of the game as a linebacker to befuddle the Lions attack.
The victory vaults Calgary into a Grey Cup that may feel much like the West Division final for the Stampeders. On Sunday in Vancouver, Calgary was on the road with the home-crowd roaring, some 43,000 that rattled B.C. Place but did not rattle the Stamps. Calgary went 1-2 against B.C. this year – but delivered when it matters. The Lions had been 14-1 at B.C. Place since a renovation was completed in fall 2011 but the team never once seemed invincible on Sunday.
Now, next Sunday in Toronto, Calgary will again face a team with the backing of a home crowd, and the Stamps lost both matches to the Argonauts in 2012.
The hero wasn't even supposed to be on the field. While Glenn led his squad for much of the season, he was back on the bench a week ago when starter Drew Tate returned from injury to deliver a last-second win against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. But midweek Tate was down with injury again, and the 5-foot-10 Glenn had his shot.
In the locker room after the game, Glenn deflected credit to the big men in front of him, who provided ample pass protection all day. Glenn was 15 for 24 for 301 yards, three touchdowns and one interception – and three 30-yard-plus big passes. The Stamps led the league in big plays this year and did it again on Sunday.
"It was the momentum we needed," said Glenn of the instant touchdown to open the scoring.
The key drives that separated the two teams came in the third quarter. Glenn had just put Calgary ahead 24-16 on a 57-yard touchdown pass to Romby Bryant. The Lions returned to the field with a palpable sense the season was on the line. The team had generated little to that point and promptly booked a two-and-out. The first-down play seemed particularly questionable, with quarterback Travis Lulay throwing to receiver Arland Bruce near the sideline but still in the backfield – and the gain was two yards.
Calgary then took over and Cornish delivered a series of rushes before Glenn connected with Maurice Price, 42 yards to the one-yard line. The Lions defence seemed to come alive, stuffing the Stamps twice at the goal line, but on third-and-one, eschewing a field goal to extend the lead to 11, Calgary gambled and backup QB Bo Levi Mitchell got the football barely over the goal line.
"I'd rather win the game than just sit back and watch – so let's go for it," said Calgary offensive co-ordinator Dave Dickenson on the field after the game as the team celebrated.
His attention was already drifting toward the Argos, who beat Calgary 39-36 in July in Toronto, and 22-14 in August in Calgary.
"We're fast, we're young, we're an aggressive team, we want to go for it, and we've got to go beat a team we haven't beaten all year," Dickenson said.
The Lions trod off the field with morose looks on their faces. Running back Andrew Harris appeared particularly sad and sat in full equipment in his locker with his head in his hands for a long stretch. The 25-year-old led the league in yards from scrimmage this year and had 108 on Sunday – but only managed 33 on the ground.
"I don't even know what to say," Harris said. "I just feel terrible. I hate losing more than I like winning. I've just got to be better."
Nearby, Lulay – who played his first full game since Oct. 12 – didn't have much of an explanation, beyond a Stamps defence that neutered the Lions and prevented big, explosive plays.
"You just hate to come up short in the big one," Lulay said.