THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER -- The team that was going nowhere fast earlier this summer is now the CFL's best.
Game MVP Travis Lulay threw two second-half touchdown passes as the B.C. Lions capped a once improbable Grey Cup run with a 34-23 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday.
The victory, before an ear-piercing B.C. Place Stadium sellout of 54,313, capped a stunning turnaround for the Lions, who opened the season 0-5. B.C. became the first CFL team to win a championship after losing its opening five regular-season games.
“I would never wish that upon myself or anybody again to go through,” Lulay said of the Lions' early-season struggles. “It's tough coming out of the gate like that but I think this team believed we were a whole lot better than that.
“Without that belief system it wouldn't have allowed us to dig ourselves out of the hole. Ultimately, I honestly believed it hardened us up and made us very mentally tough and that's probably what allowed us to push through to the finish.”
B.C. also became the first squad since the 1994 Lions to capture the league title at home. The '72 Hamilton Tiger-Cats and '77 Montreal Alouettes also accomplished that feat.
Lions tailback Andrew Harris, a Winnipeg native who watched B.C. win the '06 Grey Cup game at Canad Inns Stadium, was named the top Canadian after running for a game-high 65 yards on 10 carries and opening the scoring with a 19-yard TD run.
Lulay, the CFL's outstanding player this season, finished 21-of-37 passing for 320 yards and the two TDs. The league's top-rushing quarterback this season, Lulay only ran twice for eight yards as he aggravated a groin injury during the contest but remained under centre.
Lulay's health could also explain why the Lions' offence started the game so strong – B.C. led 11-0 after the first quarter – but struggled through the second and most of the third. Fortunately for the Lions, their defence was outstanding, holding Winnipeg to just six first downs through three quarters.
“During the week it got better but there's nothing like the speed of the game and all the things that have an effect,” said B.C. head coach/GM Wally Buono. “His reads were great, his vision was great but when you look at it, it had an effect on him but not the point where he lost his composure.”
Facing a fierce Winnipeg rush, Lulay calmly stood in the pocket and delivered a 66-yard TD strike to Kierrie Johnson on the final play of the third to put B.C. ahead 24-9. It was the first touchdown catch of Johnson's career.
But the game's turning point came with 12:21 left to play.
Lulay tried to throw a screen pass inside the B.C. 30-yard line, but Winnipeg end Odell Willis got his hands on the ball and had a clear path to the end zone. But offensive lineman Ben Archibald knocked it out of Willis's grasp and the Lions dodged a huge bullet.
“It was a screen pass and Odell sniffed it out,” Lulay said. “Ben made a huge play because (Willis) had nothing but room in front of him.”
Afterwards in a very quiet Bombers' locker-room, the usually talkative Willis, looking distant and almost in shock, was a man of few words.
“I just didn't make the play, that's all,” Willis said. “You can always say 'if,' but 'if' didn't show up.”
Willis's drop was huge. It allowed B.C. to maintain possession and the Lions marched downfield and capped an 82-yard drive at 8:10 of the fourth with Lulay's six-yard TD strike to Arland Bruce III for a commanding 31-9 advantage.
But quarterback Buck Pierce rallied the Bombers with TD passes of 45 yards to Greg Carr at 11:22 and a 13-yard scoring strike to Terrence Edwards with 1:37 remaining. Edwards' grab pulled Winnipeg to within 31-23 and set up by Jovon Johnson's 47-yard punt return and a 15-yard facemask penalty against B.C. kicker Paul McCallum.
Winnipeg's unlikely comeback bid ended when its onside kickoff attempt didn't go the mandatory 10 yards, giving B.C. the ball with 1:36 remaining.
Winnipeg head coach Paul LaPolice said his club's inability to establish the run played a big role in the loss. The Bombers ran for just 41 yards as tailback Chris Garrett, who rushed for 190 yards last weekend against Hamilton, had just 26 yards on eight carries.
“That was the first time in a couple of weeks we were unable to run the ball and create first downs,” he said. “We had to get more rhythm offensively.”
Pierce's return to Vancouver was one of the top storylines this week. He spent his first five seasons with B.C. before being released because of his penchant for getting hurt.
Pierce was 19-of-37 passing for 250 yards and two TDs with an interception. But B.C.'s defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage and effectively took away Winnipeg's running threat, forcing the Bombers to try and win doing something it wasn't very good at: throwing the ball.
The Bombers had the CFL's second-worst passing attack this year. Winnipeg's formula for success was to run effectively, dominate up front and implement a ball-control approach to not only eat up the clock but keep Lulay and the Lions on the sidelines.
Instead, Winnipeg fell behind by a huge margin and was forced to try and open things up against an athletic, aggressive Lions defence.
“We had too many two and outs,” Pierce said. “We just didn't start well enough.
“They came out on fire and we didn't respond.”
The Grey Cup win was Buono's seventh and fifth as a head coach. During the Lions' early-season struggles there were calls for Buono's ouster, but he said he was pleased to reward owner David Braley's patience with a championship.
“You have to have faith in the people you hire, I think Mr. Braley showed that over and over again,” Buono said. “It gives me tremendous pride and joy to share a championship with him.”
Buono, the CFL's all-time leader in regular-season coaching wins (254) said he will decide shortly whether he'll continue doing both jobs or relinquish his coaching duties.
“It wouldn't be fair to hold the players and organization hostage,” he said. “It's a decision that's got to be made soon.
Winnipeg's late rally came after a stellar performance by B.C.'s defence, which had effectively shut down the Bombers' ground game and forced the East Division champions to the air. That seemed to favour the Lions, considering the Bombers had the CFL's second-worst passing attack and had to play catchup against a B.C. defence that surrendered a league-low 21.4 points per game.
But it wasn't enough to prevent Winnipeg from extending its Grey Cup drought to 22 years. And the loss was a bitter pill to swallow for defensive tackle Doug Brown, who was appearing in his final game after 11 seasons with the Bombers.
Rocker and reality TV star Gene Simmons and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who appointed Lions owner David Braley to the Senate last year, were among those in attendance.
“On behalf of Canadians, I would like to congratulate the B.C. Lions on their excellent season and unwavering drive and determination which culminated in their victory at this year's Grey Cup in Vancouver,” Harper said in a statement.
The celebrities in attendance saw the game reach a fever pitch long before the opening kickoff.
The rabid, orange-clad gathering roundly booed Winnipeg during its player introductions before rising to its feet when the Lions were introduced. After Lions' defensive back Korey Banks ran on to the field, he shoved Winnipeg's Jovon Johnson, who had been among a group of Bombers milling around.
The two teams came together and there was plenty of jawing – Willis and B.C.'s Aaron Hunt being the most animated – but the officials stepped in and order was quickly restored.
McCallum added four field goals, three converts and single but hit the upright on a 48-yard attempt in the third to snap a streak of 31 straight playoff boots.
Justin Palardy booted three field goals and two converts for Winnipeg.
NOTES: The sideline chains became entangled before the game, forcing game officials to borrow a set from a Vancouver high school. A police escort ensured the field equipment arrived well before the opening kickoff… Lion’s tailback Jamal Robertson, who will retire in the off-season, was among B.C.'s four pre-game scratches. Robertson began his CFL career on the practice roster of the Grey Cup-champion Calgary Stampeders in 2001… The Grey Cup will celebrate its 100th anniversary next season in Toronto… B.C. appeared in its 10th Grey Cup and fourth at B.C. Place… Sunday's game marked the 13th time the Grey Cup was played indoors since the first one was held at B.C. Place in 1983… Pierce was a member of B.C.'s 2006 Grey Cup-winning team and spent his first five CFL seasons with the Lions before being released after the '09 season and signing with Winnipeg.