After 37 days without a game at BC Place, B.C. Lions fans got their money’s worth out of Saturday night’s contest against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The Lions dominated the first two quarters, and appeared to have put the game out of reach by halftime. Some key mistakes by the Lions, along with some strong play by Hamilton quarterback Zach Collaros allowed the Ti-Cats to roar back in the second half and eventually tie the game. Some late-game heroics by Jonathon Jennings and Manny Arceneaux put the Lions back in front, and one final defensive stop sealed the game. The Lions squeaked out with a 45-38 win to move to 5-2 on the season.
Saturday night’s game was Collaros’s first CFL action since he tore his ACL in September of last year. Early on, the Lions defensive unit gave him a rough welcome. On just the second play from scrimmage, Lions linebacker Loucheiz Purifoy put a big hit on Collaros that forced him to fumble the ball, which the Lions recovered. On the following play, Jonathon Jennings connected with Bryan Burnham for a 38-yard touchdown to give the Lions an early lead. The Lions defensive front continued to bring strong pressure, which resulted in five sacks by the end of the first half.
Jennings and the Lions offence capitalized on their defense’s strong effort in the first half. An Arceneaux touchdown reception, and two Jeremiah Johnson scores on the ground drove the lead to 32-12 by halftime. Ti-Cats head coach Kent Austin said the result of the first half was simply a matter of the Lions outplaying his team. “We didn’t make any plays,” said Austin. “B.C. made all the plays. Period.”
The second half was a different story. A big turning point came five minutes into the third, when Hamilton defensive back Emmanuel Davis picked off Jennings and returned it deep into Lions territory. This set up a Luke Tasker touchdown reception, which made it a two-score game once again.
The Lions offence continued to struggle in the second half, failing to sustain drives as they had done in the first. Lions head coach Wally Buono noted that this was a result of Hamilton making the right adjustments, as well as a lack of execution by his offence. “I think it’s a little bit of both,” said Buono. “I think (Hamilton) executed. We couldn’t run the football early in the game. When you can’t run the football, and when you’re not productive on first down against a team like Hamilton, it’s going to hurt you.”
A big play came at the start of the fourth quarter, when Adam Bighill picked off Collaros in Hamilton territory. The Lions offence failed to capitalize on the momentum swing, and they were forced to settle for a Richie Leone field goal to make it 38-22. Collaros and the Ti-Cats offence responded immediately with a clinical drive that resulted in a Terrence Toliver touchdown reception and a successful two-point conversion to make it a one-score game.
With just over four minutes to play, the Lions found themselves in a good position to put the game out of reach on a 37-yard field goal attempt. Instead of going up by eleven, however, the play resulted in a tie game. Leone’s kick sailed wide right, and Brandon Banks returned it 126 yards for a touchdown. After another successful two-point conversion, the game was tied at 38.
After having no success in the second half up to that point, it was up to Jennings and the Lions offence to put together a drive to win the game. After starting at the B.C. 29-yard line, two throws and a run by Jennings set up the Lions in Hamilton territory. On second and 15 from the 30-yard line, Jennings found Arceneaux, who scampered into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game. After a successful extra point kick by Leone, the Lions had a seven-point lead with just 1:23 to play.
In just two plays from scrimmage, Collaros immediately drove Hamilton to the Lions 41-yard line. After another short completion and an incomplete pass, the game came down to a third and five situation. Collaros tried to find Chad Owens in the end zone, but Lions defensive back Mike Edem broke up the play. Hamilton’s miracle comeback attempt was put to rest as Jennings took a knee to end the game.
Overall, Buono felt that while his team made too many costly mistakes, the win showed growth. “At the end of it, we’re five and two,” said Buono. “The great drive that the offence was able to do, and the fact that the defense was able to stop them on third down; this was something that two weeks ago we couldn’t do in Calgary. So if there was growth in that respect, so be it.” Next week, the Stampeders will be in town with first place on the line, which will give the Lions a chance at revenge for the heartbreaking overtime loss that they suffered two weeks ago. Buono thinks that his team will have to be sharper in that contest. “I think we’re a much better football team than we played in the second half,” said Buono. “We’re going to have to correct that, because next week we’ve got, right now, the best football team coming here.”
While the big win certainly helped the team in the standings, Saturday night’s game may have been more important for the B.C. Lions as an organization. The announced attendance of 21, 213 got exactly what they wanted: an exciting game that resulted in a Lions win. If the Lions can continue to be exciting and successful, that attendance number should only increase.