In what was possibly the biggest game of his young career, Jonathon Jennings proved his status as an elite CFL quarterback. In his first home playoff game, Jennings came through for his team in spectacular fashion. After a sloppy first half that saw the Winnipeg Blue Bombers take a 25-12 lead, the Lions significantly improved in the second half. With four minutes to play and down by five, Jennings led a drive deep into Winnipeg territory. On second and six from the Winnipeg nine-yard line, Jennings escaped danger from the pass rush, and used his legs for an incredible touchdown run to put the Lions ahead by one point with a minute left. The Bombers would make their way to midfield and attempt a 61-yard field goal that was well short, which completed the comeback for the Lions. The Lions will play in Calgary next week for a chance to play for the Grey Cup.
The game did not begin the way that the Lions had planned. On their first two drives, Jennings threw an interception and then fumbled the ball. Winnipeg capitalized on both turnovers, and took an 11-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Lions head coach Wally Buono admitted that his team was not sharp to start the game. “You look at the first half, and it almost looks like the stage was too big,” he said. The Lions offence eventually began to gain traction in the second quarter. Jennings found Bryan Burnham for a 13-yard touchdown, and two drives later, Jeremiah Johnson broke free on a 40-yard run for a touchdown. But as the Lions began to find their offensive success, the Bombers continued to shred through the Lions defence. “We did not play with composure in the first half,” said Lions linebacker Solomon Elimimian. “We played like a team that is young. Taking young penalties, young mistakes.”
The game’s turning point happened halfway through the third quarter when Manny Arceneaux was knocked out of the game after a hard hit from Taylor Loffler in the end zone. This play served as rallying cry for the Lions, and Jennings ran in a touchdown just two plays later. “He’s our teammate; he is our brother, and to see him get hit like that that to see him go down like that is never, never a good thing,” said Jennings. “It was hard to watch, but guys stepped up and responded, and it was an emotional shock that kicked us into gear.”
After Winnipeg hit another field goal to start the fourth quarter, Jennings led another clinical drive that was capped off by a touchdown pass to Terrell Sinkfield, which made it a one-score, 31-26 game. With 4:21 left in the fourth quarter, the Lions defence came up with another big stop and forced the Bomber to punt giving the young pivot a chance to win the game in front of the home crowd. As the drive began, it seemed inevitable would happen. Four quick passes put BC into Winnipeg territory, and then Jennings found Marco Ianuzzi for a 21-yard gain. After two more pass completions, the Lions were set up and second and six from the Winnipeg nine-yard line. Jennings dropped back, but could not immediately find a receiver. As he continued to scan the field, the Bombers’ pass rush began to close in, so he took it himself. Dodging a couple Winnipeg defenders, Jennings eyed the goal line pylon and made a tremendous dive for it. BC Place erupted as the official signaled the touchdown; the Lions had their first lead of the game with less than a minute to play.
As Jennings was making the biggest plays of his young career, it was not easy for his backup and mentor, Travis Lulay, to watch his teammates in such a battle. “It’s a lot harder to watch than it is to play,” said Lulay. “It was emotional for me. I’m hoping, I’m praying…and it was exciting as hell when he got in the end zone.” For Jennings himself, the final drive was a situation that any kid would dream about being able to perform at the biggest stage. “That’s the dream moment right there,” said Jennings. “That’s something that you always dream of. You don’t always want to win like that. But if it had to be a cool way to win…that was a pretty cool way to do it.”
The touchdown run had BC Place buzzing, but there was still work to do. A failed two-point conversion gave Winnipeg the ball down by one point with a minute of clock to work with. Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols drove the ball down field, and they entered BC territory. At third and four from the BC 53-yard line, Bombers coach Mike O’Shea opted to give kicker Justin Medlock a shot at a 61-yard kick for the win. It fell way short, and Chris Rainey fell on the ball to effectively end the game.
BC will play in the West Division Final in Calgary next Sunday. The Lions went 1-2 against the Stampeders this season, including a blowout loss at home in August. The Lions also suffered 35-9 playoff loss to Calgary last season, a game in which Jennings was knocked out of with a shoulder injury. Lulay believes that the Lions are a much different than the team that was blown out in Calgary last November. “We’re a much different football team than we were a year ago,” said Lulay. “We’ve been a better football team all year…The challenge is going to be to settle back in and go into Calgary with the intent to win and not just feel good about winning this football game.”
Playing the dominant Stampeders at home will not be an easy task. If the Lions want to pull off the upset, it will likely be on the shoulders of their impressive young quarterback. If this playoff run turns into something special, this game can be remembered as the one that started it off.