The onside kick came early. Midway through the first quarter, last Saturday night in a game at home against the Calgary Stampeders, the B.C. Lions had just scored a touchdown to go up 7-3. Lions coach Mike Benevides called an onside kick. The Lions caught the Stamps by surprise but the ball didn't travel the requisite 10 yards and the Stamps got the ball.
It was a bold call. The Lions held a narrow lead in the game, and a Stamps win would tie the two teams for first place in the CFL's West Division.
The early gamble mostly backfired, as Stampeders running back Jon Cornish moved Calgary down the field and the team notched a field goal. But the injury-depleted Lions never relinquished the lead, won 27-22 and vaulted themselves to 10-4, atop the CFL with four games in the regular season to go.
"We're going to stay aggressive," Benevides said after the game. "I believe in that, that's who I am, and that's what I want our football team to be. As you saw [on the onside kick], there was nobody within a time zone of Ryan Phillips [a Lions defensive back who was closest to the ball]. It just needed to go a little longer. It's one of those things where it didn't happen. You have to play to win, you have to play aggressively."
The victory was an impressive performance from the defending Grey Cup champions, who were missing their star receivers, Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce III, and had a gaping hole in their defensive line, with Khalif Mitchell hurt and Eric Taylor injuring his ankle in the first quarter.
The Lions win against the hot Stamps – who had won six of eight before Saturday – puts the Thanksgiving games Monday into sharper perspective. The Montreal Alouettes (8-5) play host to the woeful Winnipeg Blue Bombers (3-10), which gives the Alouettes a strong shot to at least hold their one-game lead in the East Division, if not extend it.
The Toronto Argonauts are second in the East. They will likely be led at quarterback by backup Jarious Jackson, as Ricky Ray convalesces. The 7-6 Argos welcome the 7-6 Saskatchewan Roughriders. The Argos come off a week of thumping the Blue Bombers and before that getting thumped by the Als. The Riders booked close wins against the Lions and the Stampeders, and a third consecutive green win would match Saskatchewan with Calgary for second in the West.
Calgary watched a realistic shot at first place in the West slip away on Saturday. The team, with the Roughriders threatening to tie, now has home-field advantage in the first playoff game on its mind.
"Coming into the [B.C.] game, we were sort of in control of our own destiny," Cornish said in the locker room after the game. "Now, you know, we need some different things to happen to get that first place. So, that's how it goes. If they lose a few, or we win a few, it could work out."
As potential bye weeks for B.C., and possibly Montreal, come into clearer sight, key injuries percolate as an issue. The Lions' second-tier receivers fared well but the return of Simon and Bruce, as well as Mitchell and Taylor on the defensive line, will be important. And while Jackson won for Toronto last week against Winnipeg, the Argos need Ray back if they want to make a run at the hometown Grey Cup.
Meanwhile, Montreal obviously misses Brandon Whitaker, the star running back out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. (The Als had 41 yards on the ground on 12 carries last week in a 41-28 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (The Ticats are stuck in third in the East at 5-9 after losing to the Edmonton Eskimos last Friday).
With the win against Calgary, B.C. was the first team to clinch a playoff spot.
The onside kick on Saturday was the third time – the most in the CFL – this season Benevides has tried the move at an unorthodox moment. It likely won't be the last.
"We still haven't peaked yet," Lions running back Andrew Harris said. "And that's the biggest thing, we're still getting stronger, and stronger. It's so huge for us to be moving up gradually."