VANCOUVER -- Labour Day Weekend opens with a marquee matchup on Friday night at BC Place, as the BC Lions look to regain their dominant form in a battle with the league’s hottest team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
This cat clash highlights two teams in different mindsets, with the Ticats currently enjoying a three-game winning streak and the Lions looking to bounce back from their third loss of the season, in which the heroics of a rookie quarterback led to a stunning last-second defeat.
BC’s 39-38 loss to quarterback Tanner Marsh and the Montreal Alouettes turned heads for a number of reasons, and while fans will remember this one as a classic for a long time, it was a loss the Lions would like to quickly forget – of course, not without learning their lesson first.
“That’s a proud group and they’re not happy about it,” second-year head coach Mike Benevides told BCLions.com. “Obviously it’s been a challenging week to try and flush last week’s result. I believe the guys did a great job of dealing with it when we came back, it was a long flight.”
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“But really when we went through it and looked at it there were a lot of things we could learn from it, and as I told the guys we need to learn, adapt, and move on.”
The Lions, ahead 38-36 with the Als pinned at their own five-yard-line in the last minute of the fourth quarter, appeared well on track for their third straight win. The 23-year-old Marsh, although resilient throughout the game, had thrown four interceptions and appeared overmatched by a savvy BC defence.
Against all odds however, Marsh led the Alouettes close to midfield, then with just nine ticks left on the clock found Eric Deslauriers for a 57-yard completion down to the seven-yard-line. That set-up a 14-yard chip shot from Sean Whyte to win the game for Montreal.
The loss snapped a streak of 27 straight games for the Lions without losing after leading through three quarters, and as Benevides pointed out, the team had the whole plane ride home as well as the following week to think about what had happened.
That’s something the Lions appear poised to prevent from happening again on Friday, as they look to go a perfect 5-0 at home this season.
“The urgency is really forming from in-house, we want to be a physical, tough, smart football team, and it’s on their shirts – there are no excuses,” said Benevides. “We understand that it’s going to take a lot of hard work and they sacrifice to do that.”
“You don’t want to walk away and jump on the plane or go in the locker-room having to talk about what could have been, we have to control that ourselves and it starts with me in terms of what we have to do.”
A win on Friday would put the Lions at 6-3, matching a start last year that eventually led the team to a second straight West Division championship and a berth in the Westerm Final. Yet even though that kind of start to the season is nothing to scoff at, the Lions expect far more from themselves than they’ve displayed so far in 2013.
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“There is definitely a lot of angst for us to be successful,” said running back Andrew Harris, the league’s fourth-leading rusher with 534 yards this season. “When we lose a game it definitely bothers a lot of people from top to bottom, and we’re angry from last week.”
“There’s a lot of pressure at this point and if you look at the standings right now we’re third in the West and that’s just not good enough.”
Even though they’re back in the familiar confines of BC Place, the Lions are aware this week’s contest won’t be any easier. Instead of facing a quarterback getting his first CFL action such as Marsh, they’ll be going against a pivot that’s been through and seen quite a bit more.
Henry Burris is set to make his 177th career start on Friday, and leads the league with 2,454 passing yards through eight starts. He’s eclipsed the 300-yard mark in five of those games, leading the Ticats back from a 1-4 start to just one game out of top spot in the East Division.
Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin has only worn the headset for eight games as a Ticat, but last Saturday’s 37-14 win in Guelph over the Blue Bombers showed the rest of the league why this team needs to be taken as a serious Grey Cup contender this season.
As Burris pointed out ahead of Friday’s meeting, that’s a far cry from the start of the season when the team stumbled out of the gate.
“We were talking the other day, I was definitely having headaches and frustrating times getting this offence down, but now it’s starting to click and we’re starting to see things come together,” said the 38-year-old. “Each and every week we’re getting better, through our hard times we’re finding ways to succeed.”
Burris threw for 318 yards and a touchdown in the win over Winnipeg, but was also picked off twice. He was picked up by a two-touchdown performance by rookie running back C.J. Gable, as well as a gadget play that saw quarterback Dan LeFevour catch a touchdown pass from receiver Onrea Jones.
Of course another strong defensive effort also played a key role, as the Ticats held the Bombers to just 14 points while allowing a combined 141 yards through the air. The team has allowed just 61 points over its current three-game winning streak, limiting opponents to 235 yards per game through the air and an impressive 78.7 on the ground. ,
Veteran linebacker Jamall Johnson said the recent success has to do with better communication and more experience, particularly for a unit that underwent a number of changes over the span of one off-season.
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“Week after week we’re getting more experience playing with each other, getting to communicate with each other, and we know what each other is thinking without having to ask at times,” the fifth-year Ticat linebacker told Ticats.ca. “You want to keep building that momentum and confidence, and W’s do that.”
“We still know we have a lot of room to grow, and we can’t get complacent with the little bit of success we’ve had in the last couple games. Guys are aware of that and we’re working our tails off every day.”
Going up against one of the league’s most talented quarterbacks in Travis Lulay, who’s already earned Most Outstanding Player honours as well as a Grey Cup ring, Johnson knows this could be his defence’s stiffest test of the season – although one they’re looking forward to.
“BC’s got a good team, they play good defence, they have one of the top quarterbacks in the league, they’ve got a really good running game and they’ve got some guys who have played together for a while and feed off each other,” said Johnson.
“It’s going to be big for us to play on the road against a good team, really good team – it’s a huge test for us to see where we stand after a couple of wins.”
Defensive back Evan McCollough agreed, adding that the Ticats’ defence is ready to make a statement to the rest of the league, especially as the team turns its attention to top spot in the East Division.
“Really each week is a statement game for the East because the East is kind of tight right now, so each week we try and make statements and now that we’re bringing our defence along and coming together,” said McCollough, who returned from injury in last week’s win with a team-high eight tackles.
“We’re definitely trying to make a statement to the whole league that we’re ready. Even though we’ve got some things to tune up and improve on with the week, we’re ready.”
This Week 10 meeting marks the first time since last October that these teams have met, with the Lions claiming a 37-17 win at Ivor Wynne Stadium to sweep the season series. The Ticats however won five of the previous six games before that, and are 5-3 in their last eight games against BC.
Kickoff is at 10:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from BCLions.com/Ticats.ca