If this year’s Western Semi-Final feels like deja vu, it’s because, well, it kind of is.
One year ago the BC Lions and Calgary met in the same venue, BC Place, with the same stakes on the line; win and move on to the Western Final to battle Winnipeg for a spot in the Grey Cup. It was the BC Lions that were victorious in that one, a 30-16 defeat, but what happens this Saturday is anyone’s guess.
BC and Calgary have met three times in the 2023 campaign. Twice the Lions got the W, while the Stampeders took the final, late-season meeting.
The CFL opened it’s season at McMahon Stadium as the Stampeders welcomed the Lions, the winners of the game 25-15. Vernon Adams Jr. threw for 300 yards, two touchdowns (both to Dominique Rhymes, who tallied 109 yards on the night) and an interception in his first contest of the year. Jake Maier tossed for 166 yards, a major, and a pick. Tre Odoms-Dukes was his favourite target, hauling in 10 catches for 75 yards and the Stamps’ only touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Their next meeting was a 37-9 BC victory in Week 10 at BC Place. It was a bounce back contest for the Leos, who had fallen to the Blue Bombers the week prior with Dane Evans under centre. Adams Jr. returned to the lineup and led his team to 17 points in their first three drives, finishing the contest 23 of 32 for 322, four touchdowns, and an interception. Keon Hatcher was his favourite target in that one, as the pass-catcher hauled in a whopping 170 yards and one touchdown on nine receptions. The Lions defence dug in, too, keeping Calgary from scoring any touchdowns in the contest.
So when Week 20’s contest rolled around, most thought that the Lions would sweep the season-series (just look at the CFL.ca’s writers, all but one picked BC), but Calgary had other plans.
After taking a 17-0 lead early in the game, Calgary never lost control, leaning on the emergence of the run game and key turnovers (like Cameron Judge‘s interception and his forced fumble on the goal line). Jake Maier didn’t have to pad his passing stats, he threw for 123 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, because Peyton Logan carried much of the load on the ground to the tune of 105 yards and a major on eight carries. Ka’Deem Carey also cashed in for 88 yards on 15 attempts.
With the fourth meeting of the year between these two teams on the horizon, here are three storylines to watch in the Western Semi-Final.
TIME TO RUN?
It’s always said that as the weather turns colder, teams need to put more of an emphasis on the run game. While the elements won’t be a factor at BC Place on Saturday, having a balanced attack will be crucial for both teams anyways.
Neither team really relied on their ground game in the regular season, Calgary averaged 99.5 yards per game while BC ran for 77.3 per game, the lowest in the CFL.
The Lions boasted a prolific aerial attack and didn’t really need to put too much focus on running the ball to win games. Adams Jr. finished the season top of the league in total passing yards (4,769) while Keon Hatcher and Alexander Hollins both hit the 1,000-yard mark. Plus with Dominique Rhymes, Lucky Whitehead, Jevon Cottoy and Justin McInnis also available for Adams Jr. to throw passes to, the amount of talent seems endless. Will they key in on using their running backs in addition to throwing the ball this weekend?
It will be interesting to see if Calgary can replicate the success they found on the ground in their third and final meeting against the Lions two weeks ago. They used a combo of the quick feet of Mills and the bruising running of Carey to run the rock for a combined 193 yards, 70 more than their total passing yardage. Balancing the pass and the run seemed to be the winning formula for the Stamps, along with some big plays on defence, of course. Will running the ball be part of the game plan on Saturday?
TACKLE MACHINES IN COWTOWN
Football is a team game, but sometimes a player goes above and beyond to help their team win and in Calgary’s case, there are two of those kind of players; linebackers Cameron Judge and Micah Awe.
Judge tallied a career-high 90 defensive tackles in 2023 and was a big part of the Stampeders making it into the playoffs. Two of his five interceptions on the year were against BC, one in Week 1 and the other in Week 20, and one was returned for a major against Saskatchewan. Judge also had a key forced fumble and recovery on Lions short yardage quarterback Dominique Davis on the one-yard line, preventing a score in the second quarter of the game two weeks ago. It’s those kind of game-changing plays that the weak side linebacker has done for Calgary this season.
If you can believe it, Awe has been even better than his position mate in the middle of the defence. The first-year Stampeder broke the team’s single-season tackle record set by Alex Singleton (123) with 134 defensive tackles on the season. His career-best campaign saw the 29-year-old rack up 153 total defensive plays that included two sacks, a forced fumble, three interceptions, and three knockdowns.
Both will need to be at their best to try and slow down the Lions offence on Saturday.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BATTLE IN THE TRENCHES
What can you say about BC defensive lineman Mathieu Betts that hasn’t already been said?
He was sensational in 2023, setting a single-season sack record for a Canadian with 18. He led all defensive linemen on the Lions with 42 tackles. He hit career-highs in all statistical categories. According to PFF, he led all defensive linemen with 84 total pressures generated and had the highest pass rush grade (90.2).
The Rouge et Or product (along with the rest of the defensive line) will have a tough task on Saturday if he wants to disrupt Jake Maier, facing a Stampeders offensive line that has done well at keeping their quarterback upright this season. Calgary’s O-line only allowed 34 this year, third to only Toronto (19) and Winnipeg (33).
If any team can find their way through that wall, it’s BC, as the team has tallied 55 sacks on the season, trailing just Toronto (68). Can they establish the line of scrimmage and make Maier uncomfortable in the pocket? Find out on Saturday.