Head coach Rick Campbell admits standing on the B.C. Lions’ sideline was nerve wracking Thursday night.
With just minutes left on the game clock, his side held a five-point lead, but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats repeatedly battled their way into scoring position.
Holding on for the 17-12 victory was big for the Lions (4-1), Campbell said.
“I think we’re in a growth mode as a football team. You find ways to win these different styles of games, different types of games,” he said. “It’s definitely more productive to get better while you’re winning than while you’re losing.”
B.C.’s defence was key to the win.
With Hamilton on third down, quarterback Dane Evans sailed a pass to Tim White deep in the end zone, only to see it knocked down by Lions defensive back Marcus Sayles. The Ticats turned the ball over on downs.
An interception with 93 seconds left on the clock breathed new life into the visiting side.
B.C. quarterback Nathan Rourke sent a ball flying to Lucky Whitehead along the sideline, but Hamilton’s Tunde Adeleke stepped in, gobbled it up and returned it for three yards.
The Lions’ defence got back to work and once again forced the Ticats to turnover the ball on downs.
The win was “huge” for a B.C. defensive group that felt it had something to prove after the Lions suffered a lopsided loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Sayles said.
“We know that we’re one of the best teams in the league, we know that we’re one of the best defences in the league,” he said. “And for us to come out and win this game, regardless of who our opponent was, we just show the world that, we’re here, we’re ready.”
Despite throwing for 250 yards with two touchdowns, Rourke was disappointed in his personal performance Thursday.
“I think that the defence won us the game,” said the young quarterback, who connected on 22 of 30 attempts, had two interceptions and was sacked once.
“I don’t feel like I played well enough to win this game. Not in a professional football game against that team, that’s been in the Grey Cup the last two seasons. I don’t think I played well enough. Can’t make those types of mistakes. Can’t miss those type of throws.”
Hamilton’s Dane Evans was sacked early but recovered and connected on 26 of 38 attempts for 297 passing yards. He threw one touchdown and went without an interception for a second straight game.
The result moves the Lions into a tie with the idle Calgary Stampeders for second spot in the CFL’s competitive West Division.
Thursday’s game began as a defensive battle, with both sides struggling to generate offence.
James Butler sparked the Lions midway through the first quarter, taking a handoff from Rourke deep in B.C. territory, and weaving 37-yards through traffic and attempted tackles. The run gave the home side a first down on their own 54-yard line.
Rourke followed the play with a 33-yard bullet to Dominique Rhymes and kicker Sean Whyte capped the scoring drive with a 37-yard field goal.
The kicker has made all seven of his field goal attempts this season.
The Ticats started the second in scoring position but had to settle for a field goal after a pass knock down by Lions defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy. Seth Small’s 14-yard kick temporarily tied the game at 3-3.
A nine-play, 76-yard scoring drive put B.C. up once again. Rourke sent a blistering 14-yard toss to Jevon Cottoy in the end zone for the QB’s league-leading 13 touchdown pass of the season.
Hamilton steadily worked its way up the field only to be thwarted a second time by a pass knock down, this time by linebacker Ben Hladik.
Small ensured the Ticats’ work didn’t go unrewarded, putting a 23-yard kick through the uprights and whittling B.C.’s lead to 10-6.
The visitors got another scoring chance late in the half after Lions defensive lineman was called for a high hit on Evans. The 15-yard penalty gave Hamilton a first down at the B.C. 33-yard line with seconds left on the clock. Small went for a 41-yard field goal attempt, but the ball sailed wide to the left.
The Lions boosted their advantage midway through the third frame on a scoring drive that included a trick play.
Needing three yards on a third down, B.C. called Whyte out onto the field, seemingly for a long field goal attempt. Instead, the Rourke muscled the ball through a scrum for a first down that kept the drive alive.
The QB capped the series with an arcing 33-yard touchdown pass to Whitehead in the end zone.
It was the vibrant receiver’s first major of the season.
“They’re going to come in bunches now,” Whitehead said with a smile.
Hamilton got its lone TD of the night before the end of the quarter, when Evans hit Steven Dunbar Jr. with a 32-yard toss as he sprinted in for his fourth touchdown of the season.
The Ticats went for the two-point conversion but Evans failed to connect with White in the end zone.
“ (Hamilton’s play) isn’t indicative of their record, and they have a lot of experienced coaches and quarterback and players,” Campbell said. “I’m not surprised, but I’m proud that we found a way to get it done. Because it’s a big win.”
Hamilton will be back in action on July 28 when they host the Montreal Alouettes. The Lions will take on the Roughriders in Regina on July 29.
NOTES: Lions star Bryan Burnham helped coach from the sidelines. The receiver remains on the injured list after suffering broken ribs in B.C.’s second game of the season on June 25. … The matchup marked the 99th meeting between the Lions and Ticats. Game 100 will have to wait until next season as the two sides only play once in 2022.
—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press