Nathan Rourke’s foot sprain and subsequent pending surgery is devastating news for the BC Lions. Considered by many as the Most Outstanding Player frontrunner, Rourke has been a revelation in 2022 and leads the league by more than 700 passing yards. It’s brutal news for the 8-1 Lions, but we know how it works in pro sports: next man up.
While there’s a chance Rourke returns late this season, for the foreseeable future the door is wide open for Michael O’Connor. And let’s not sleep on O’Connor, because it wasn’t that long ago he was in a similar situation as Rourke.
The conversation around Canadian quarterbacks has gradually picked up steam over the last number of years, and O’Connor is a big part of that. Before Rourke popped onto most radars a year later, it was O’Connor’s time at the University of British Columbia that had people buzzing going into the 2019 CFL Draft.
In four years with the Thunderbirds, O’Connor caught the eye of scouts with his prolific passing numbers and, especially in his final two seasons, his accuracy and ability to limit mistakes and turnovers. Eventually a third round selection (20th overall) of the Toronto Argonauts, O’Connor has had to wait a little longer than Rourke to get his starting chance. It’s here now.
We didn’t get a ton of O’Connor after Rourke left Friday’s 28-10 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the fourth quarter, and anything we did see was tough to evaluate knowing the game was mostly in hand for BC. What we know, though, is how highly thought of O’Connor has been for the last number of years.
Let’s not forget the Lions signed O’Connor knowing full well he could/would factor into their success in a large way. Instead of signing a veteran, bigger name quarterback to pair with Rourke for 2022, BC was deliberate with their approach. The Lions had confidence in a pair of young, Canadian pivots to bring them back to the playoffs. So why wouldn’t they be feeling optimistic about giving the ball to O’Connor for his first CFL start Friday?
It’s a cool story. Despite being an Ontario product, O’Connor spent four years in Vancouver at UBC under head coach Blake Nill. O’Connor helped his team win the 51st Vanier Cup as a freshman and was the driving force behind a Thunderbirds resurgence. Prior to O’Connor and Nill arriving in 2015, the program hadn’t finished above .500 in more than a decade.
Let’s be honest: there’s no positive way to spin Rourke’s injury. 2022 was shaping up to be a season for the ages and Rourke had a chance to finish over 6,000 passing yards for just the sixth time in CFL history. It’s a huge blow for the Lions and the league. But BC is 8-1 and has a huge home game against the Riders on Friday.
It’s O’Connor time…not time to fold the tent.
There for the taking
Speaking of doors opening, how about the East Division and how up for grabs it is. And, coming out of Week 11’s results, it’s the Montreal Alouettes who have bettered their position in an emphatic way.
First off, let’s give full credit to the Als. The way they responded late in Friday’s comeback win over Hamilton was impressive. Instead of letting a late Tiger-Cats field decide a crucial game, Montreal shook it off and put on a clinic on how to finish a game.
Starting with an important 27-yard Chandler Worthy kick return, the Alouettes moved from their own 34 to the Hamilton 40 in the span of two plays and 19 seconds. That setup a David Côté no-doubt field goal from 48 yards to win it for Montreal and give head coach Danny Maciocia his first win at Molson Stadium.
Beyond their Week 11 win, though, the Als have been trending in a positive direction for a little while here. Montreal’s last two games were against Winnipeg, which saw them push the Grey Cup champs in a big way in Week 9 before handing the Bombers their first loss of the season in Week 10.
Despite starting the season number two on the depth chart, Trevor Harris has steadied things at quarterback. Eugene Lewis, who was instrumental in Saturday’s final drive, now leads the league in receiving at 849 yards. And things really seem to be coming along defensively, especially for the team’s front four.
This all has the chance to setup nicely for Montreal. With Week 11 losses for Hamilton and Toronto, the Als are just a half game back of the East Division lead. And, as the Argos and Ticats go head-to-head the next two weeks, Montreal enters a bye before getting Ottawa over OK Tire Labour Day Weekend.
Now more than halfway through their season, the stretch drive looks favourable for the Alouettes. Four of their final eight games come against either the REDBLACKS or Elks, including three with the former. Montreal has one more head-to-head with Hamilton before finishing with what could be a crucial back-to-back with Toronto to close the season.
There’s still a lot of football to be played, but opportunity is knocking for the Als as they head into their second bye.
All eyes on Calgary
The Calgary Stampeders have one of the decisions of the season upon them. While it was their defence that truly keyed Calgary’s comeback win over the Argos on Saturday, quarterback Jake Maier played a pretty important role, too.
In to start the third quarter, Maier helped keep the offence on the field by sustaining a few longer drives. Noticeably out of sorts, Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stamps offence struggled to do that in the first half. He managed just one drive of longer than four plays to go along with a pair of interceptions. It just wasn’t working and Maier helped turn the tide.
Now, on a short week and heading into the CFL’s toughest stadium in Winnipeg, everyone in Calgary is going to be asking one question: who’s starting Week 12?
“I just felt we needed the spark,” said head coach Dave Dickenson when asked by Post Media’s Danny Austin on Saturday night. “I did think (Jake) provided that, he did, and there’s lots of things obviously both guys could do better. I know I could have called a better game as well. I have to look in the mirror, I think we all have to.”
Dickenson hasn’t faced a dilemma quite like this since taking over as head coach. Mitchell has never been relegated for performance reasons, so starting Maier would be a first. Knowing how things went in Toronto, and at different times this season, you can understand why the head coach is going to be debating this one.
If it’s me, though, I’m sticking with Mitchell for one more week. Now in his eighth season as Calgary’s starter, he’s earned the shot to cement himself in a high-leverage matchup. But it’s also a short week; the Stampeders will only hold one full practice before Thursday’s game against the Bombers. Then they get an extended period to prepare for Labour Day, which, if necessary, would give Maier plenty of time to prepare and be far better situated for success.
Decisions, decisions, Mr. Dickenson. Wednesday’s depth chart should be quite interesting.