- Free Agency
It’s an incredibly insignificant amount of time. It comes and goes 327 times per game from kickoff to final whistle and 2,618 times per day, but in Week 15 between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and BC Lions, a pair of young Lions made a lasting memory in just 33 seconds.
The scene was BC Place, Hamilton had taken the five hour plane ride West to face the Lions for the first of back-to-back games between the cross country foes who had little to no reason to dislike each other outside of the odd player stolen in free agency or ex-coach in new colours.
The Ticats punted for a single with 33 seconds remaining giving Hamilton an eight-point lead.
Then all hell broke lose for QB Jonathan Jennings, at that point still the starter in Vancouver, as Travis Lulay was nursing a shoulder injury from the previous week.
The drive started from their own 35-yard line slowly with a quick check down to veteran receiver Cory Watson. Not the start that Jennings or Offensive Coordinator Jarious Jackson wanted.
“Honestly, we were trying to attack deeper than that but they played deep. At that point in the game there isn’t much hope but we needed something to get us rolling,” Jennings told me after practice in Surrey on Wednesday.
The next play was an incomplete deep ball to the wide side intended for Shaq Johnson. The next a well timed – but ineffective in the grand scheme – short throw to DeVier Posey.
There Jennings and the Lions stood with nine seconds left in the game down by eight points at their own 50-yard line. Not exactly ideal.
Jennings took the same shot to Shaq Johnson he had two plays prior. This time he hit the jackpot. A 39-yard gain stopping the clock with just two seconds remaining, an opportunity Jennings wasn’t sure he’d ever get.
“It was crazy because you never know if you’ll be able to get in range. Jarious was yelling into my helmet ‘get on the ball! get on the ball!’ The clock hits zero we called a play we hit DeVier on earlier but I knew I had a guy in Burnham who would set those defenders up and be ready for the ball.”
The Ticats secondary suddenly scrambling set themselves for the final play of the ball game. Out went defensive tackle Ted Laurent in favour of an extra defensive back in Josh Johnson. Several Hamilton defensive backs patrolled the goal line knowing the only thing that mattered was to keep BC from scoring in the five seconds following the next and last snap of the game.
As for Lions receiver Bryan Burnham, he was strangely focused on playing slow, not fast. “Before the play started I closed my eyes, took a breath and relaxed because I knew I needed to run it like any other play. Don’t force, don’t rush, be patient.”
The snap came up, Jennings took a quick drop back in the pocket and shimmied slightly to his left before uncorking a ball which appeared either headed for the front row of BC place or into the waiting arms of several Ticats defenders.
“It came out of my hands nice, I felt good about it.”
Ahh to have the irrational confidence of a strong armed quarterback playing in an ideal peak mental state.
Burnham ran vertically then put his foot in the ground breaking towards the middle. “When I snapped my head around I knew the ball would be coming and that’s all I saw was the ball,” he said.
The Lions had somehow driven the length of the field in 33 seconds on a jump ball down the sideline and a miraculous throw into traffic. What makes it even crazier is the extra Ticats defensive back brought in for Ted Laurent was standing exactly where the throw went, and both BC Lions players involved never knew he was there, as revealed by a candid post-practice Burnham.
“To be honest neither of us saw him or knew he was there until we watched film,” said Burnham. “That’s when I saw he jumped for the ball. If Josh Johnson were two inches taller he probably would’ve came down with the ball. He was still in the air when I landed, he got up but it was the perfect ball.”
The touchdown was one of the best highlights of the year but there was still work to do. An extra point was useless as BC trailed by two. So back to the line went Jennings and Burnham, this time facing a much different Ticats defence. No more taking Ted Laurent out. No more picket fence defensive backs along the goal line.
An all out blitz, leaving man coverage on every Lions receiver.
“When I saw the blitz I just told myself don’t rush it or I’ll run out of real estate and you saw it, I just got it in by a toe,” remembered Burnham. “I was just patient and I knew the ball was coming to me.”
Why did the ball go to Burnham again? I asked Jennings at the Lions practice facility why Burnham over every other receiver on the field when he knew there was man coverage on everyone?
“Why not? Why not go to a guy that I’ve depended on my whole career that I knew would make the play for me.”
Burnham caught the touchdown and two point conversion as chosen by his quarterback against the odds of coverage and scoreboard based purely on belief. At least that’s what we learned after review by the command centre. A review which unlike many determined a win and a loss with one decision. The wait was agonizing for Burnham.
“It felt like it was 30 minutes,” Burnham said. “Once I saw the replay I knew I was in but the longer it took the more I started doubting the result because you just never want to leave a game like that in the hands of the officials like that.”
The catch was reviewed and called good by lead official Al Bradbury in communication with the command centre, sending BC Place into a Friday night frenzy. A special night for Jennings in a season which could be his last with the Lions. “I just felt like too much had happened for us to lose like that,” said Jennings. “It was our time to shine that night and we were a part of something special.”
The game-tying drive took 33 seconds on the clock but 7:50 in real time. Overtime didn’t last much longer as BC finished the job and sent the Ticats back to Hamilton stunned on the quietest red eye flight of 2018.
The following week Hamilton would blast BC at Tim Hortons field to equal the season series at 1-1. This Sunday we get the deciding game between Hamilton and BC in a matchup that will see Jennings holding a clipboard while Travis Lulay and a host of other Lions return to Hamilton for the first time this season.
It’s hard to imagine the playoff finish topping those 33 seconds in Week 15, but then again who could have seen that finish, this matchup, or the sudden intrigue between these two teams coming.