B.C. Lions' win over Edmonton Eskimos pivotal to first-place finish in CFL West Division

Although there is much that is difficult to explain about a B.C. Lions season that started with five straight losses and ended with a first-place finish in the Canadian Football League’s West Division, determining where things turned around for the Lions is not one of them.

Facing the reality of going into a bye week with a 1-7 record and the possibility that significant changes would be coming had the team rolled over yet again, the Lions surprised themselves and the entire CFL by jumping all over the Edmonton Eskimos—at that time in top spot in the West—36-1 at Commonwealth Stadium on August 19. Instead of having to stew for two weeks over another loss, the Lions were able to scatter for a few days feeling better about themselves and returned to work with a hunger to build on what they’d done in the Alberta capital.

And all they’ve done since that summer night is rattle off wins in 10 of their final 11 games, clinch the division title, and assume the role of favourites to win the Grey Cup later this month.

“It was major gut-check time,” quarterback Travis Lulay tells the Straight in an interview at the Lions’ Surrey training facility the morning after a 43-1 dismantling of the Montreal Alouettes in the team’s November 5 regular-season finale. “If I had to point to one spot or one week, that would probably be it. It was kind of do-or-die for us. To go into Edmonton and do what we did and win it convincingly… Wins are wins, and it shouldn’t matter if you win by one or win by lots, but in that case I think it was important for us because it validated the work we had been doing. To be able to carry that momentum over the bye was a big thing, because sometimes you just want to ride that momentum. But we took a week off and were able to carry that on, and from that point on we were a different football team.”

The win in Edmonton served a dual purpose for the Lions. Not only did it give them something to feed off following the bye, but, as it turned out, it was also pivotal to the Lions winning the division title. At the end of the season, the Lions and Edmonton finished with identical 11-7 records but the Leos got the nod for the division crown by virtue of holding a 3-1 edge in the season series with the Eskimos (they beat them twice subsequently at B.C. Place Stadium after dropping the first meeting of the year in the second week).

Without that victory on August 19, it’s almost a certainty that the Lions—no matter how well they played—would not have been able to reel Edmonton in over the second half of the season.

“That was really big too,” says slotback Geroy Simon of the implications of the victory. “It got us some traction and got us going in the right direction. That just showed us we can go on the road and win—and win big. And it also showed us that if we executed the game plan the way we were supposed to, things would start turning around. That’s what we’ve been living on ever since: is just executing the game plan and not worrying about anything else around us. When we’re on the field, we know we just have to do what we’re supposed to do.”

The one win in Edmonton was followed by a two-game sweep of the Toronto Argonauts. Suddenly the Lions’ horrific start had been offset by the team’s first win streak of the season. It’s a streak that ultimately reached eight straight before a loss in Hamilton late last month. But the Lions closed with two more impressive wins and locked down the division title on the final night of the season.

Now if the team completes its improbable comeback from such a dismal start and reaches its goal of the club’s first Grey Cup title since 2006, general manager and head coach Wally Buono will trace the turning point back to August 19, when, for the first time that season, he saw the team he thought he had coming out of training camp.

“The guys showed their character, and we believe we have a locker room full of good character, and the guys didn’t give up on themselves or each other,” Buono explains. “The bye is a usual time of the year when you can reflect on what you’ve done. The guys went away feeling good about themselves and, obviously, they came back with a different attitude. And the attitude has been tremendous ever since, and it’s been a great ride so far.”

That ride will continue in the western final on November 20 against the winner of the Calgary Stampeders–Edmonton Eskimos west semifinal. So it’s quite possible the Lions will need to post yet another victory this season over the Eskimos to reach the Grey Cup.

There are big challenges ahead for the B.C. Lions—and they’re hoping big victories, too—but it’s hard to imagine any victory this season being any larger than the one they posted in Edmonton three months ago. Because without that one, it’s equally hard to imagine any of what has followed.

Usually in sports, all regular-season games have the same importance. But there has been nothing usual about the 2011 B.C. Lions, and it’s clear for all to see now that this year one game stood out above all the others.