Just seven weeks ago, the B.C. Lions were a winless football team and the notion that they could play in their hometown Grey Cup game was laughable.
Today, two-thirds of the way through the 2011 season, the Lions are the hottest team in the CFL after five consecutive wins, including a 42-5 annihilation of the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium on Saturday. B.C., which has levelled its record at 6-6, is one game out of first place in the West Division, which would mean a home playoff game at the renovated B.C. Place Stadium, new digs the team will unveil Friday against the Edmonton Eskimos.
The Lions trail the Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders, both 7-5, for top placing in the West, but currently hold tiebreaker advantages over both Alberta sides. B.C. plays host to Edmonton twice more this season, and finishes the head-to-head series against Calgary two weeks from now at B.C. Place. The stadium, which has undergone a $563-million renovation since the end of the Olympic Games last February, is the site of the 99th Grey Cup game in November.
"I'm happy with our team but I also understand that the guys have worked hard to get to this level," general manager and head coach Wally Buono said. "I don't think we're at a point where you can just throw your helmet in there and expect to win."
In a CFL season that is without a superior team, B.C.'s surge has been good enough to make it a championship contender. There have been several reasons why the team has turned around its fortune, but Buono says "buy in" is chief among them.
The CFL career leader in coaching wins won't name names, but he was frustrated with some of his veterans earlier this season, particularly defensive tackle Aaron Hunt and defensive backs Dante Marsh and Korey Banks.
Today, Hunt has seven sacks and is among the league leaders. Banks's shift to short-side halfback, where he was once an all-star before moving to linebacker, has helped stifle opposing aerial attacks, while Marsh is playing "dominant" football in the words of his coach.
B.C. has allowed 47 points, and just two touchdowns, during its winning streak, and has found a couple of excellent contributors on the defensive line. Khreem Smith, a 32-year-old rookie, has stepped up at end, while huge nose tackle Khalif Mitchell (6 feet 5 inches, 315 pounds) is winning weekly CFL honours and keeping Eric Taylor, a veteran free-agent addition from the Toronto Argonauts, on the bench.
"Where I feel really good is that our line of scrimmage play is really good," Buono said, referencing his offensive and defensive lines.
Buono also credited the in-season additions of defensive back Tad Kornegay and slotback Arland Bruce III.
Kornegay was known as a locker room leader with the Roughriders, and his influence has carried into the Lions locker. Meanwhile, his position versatility has allowed Banks to move to halfback.
Bruce has livened up the passing game, providing a bookend playmaker to Geroy Simon. He had a 100-yard touchdown catch against the Riders, and has scored five touchdowns in six games with B.C. Bruce's emergence has taken pressure off young receivers Akeem Foster and Shawn Gore, who were being counted on too heavily in the early going, as well as quarterback Travis Lulay.
Buono said that Lulay's improvement this year has not just been personal, but that the passer has benefited from more consistent play around him. In his last loss, on Aug. 13, Lulay's offence was completely bamboozled by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence, a wake-up call for the entire unit.
Since then, the pass protection has been solid, the running game has shown signs with rookie Tim Brown and Canadian sophomore Andrew Harris splitting duties at tailback, and the young quarterback has racked up yards and points.
"The Winnipeg game was good," Buono said, "because it was one step backwards to take two steps forward."