The CFL's West Division semi-final began badly for B.C Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings but the 24-year-old helmed an impressive comeback to carry his team to victory on Sunday afternoon.
The Lions trailed almost the entire game at B.C. Place, as the Blue Bombers capitalized on Jennings's early mistakes, an interception on the game's second play, and a lost fumble later in the first quarter. Turnovers were billed as what would make the difference because the Bombers won games all season with their prowess in taking the ball from opponents.
Jennings and the Lions, however, ground out a long comeback. Down by 13 points at halftime, and still down 11 going into the final quarter, Jennings was pretty much perfect over the last 15 minutes. He twice led the Lions down the field, completing all 11 passes he threw, and, with a minute left on the clock, broke three tackles to scamper for the game-winning touchdown to seal the 32-31 win.
The comeback victory vaults B.C. to the West Division final in Calgary, where the powerhouse Stampeders await. And it has been a long wait for Calgary. The team, by far the CFL's best this year, hasn't played since the end of October. The West final pits the Lions, a hot-yet-erratic team on a four-game winning streak, against the Stampeders, who will not have played for three weeks by next Sunday's kickoff.
Sunday's game went from awful to ecstatic for Jennings, who is in his first full season as a starting CFL quarterback. Last year, when he was a late-season surprise as a rookie starter, Jennings played poorly in the West semi-final as the Stampeders rolled over the Lions.
This year, it looked like a reprise when Jennings was picked off almost immediately on a poorly underthrown pass. "It was tough," Jennings said afterward, adding that he was thinking, "'Not again.'"
The interception led to the game's first touchdown several minutes later and the Bombers held steady through the third quarter. It was the fourth quarter when all of Jennings's potential coalesced.
Jennings threw for 5,000-plus yards in the regular season but only completed two-thirds of his passes. He led the CFL in interceptions with 15.
When it counted most on Sunday, Jennings left all the missteps behind. The culmination came near the end with the Lions second and nine from the end zone. On a passing play, the Bombers once again draped the Lions receivers. Jennings had nothing. Hanging on in the pocket until he was nearly sacked, Jennings squirted out to his right. He saw a defender set to lunge for a tackle and Jennings hopped from his grasp.
"Whatever it takes to get in, I'm going to get in," Jennings said of his thinking during the rush.
He powered for the goal line, plowing through a third would-be tackler for the score.
"It felt crazy. Crazy," Jennings said.
Jennings led the comeback without his best receiver, Emmanuel Arceneaux, who was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the third quarter. The injury led to a switching of positions for the remaining receivers, said slotback Terrell Sinkfield, who caught the six-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that got the Lions within one TD of a win.
"We knew our offence could capitalize," Sinkfield said. "We respond to every situation."
Winnipeg had one last gasp, trying for a last-second 61-yard field goal. But the kick from Justin Medlock – who made a CFL record 60 field goals this season and hit from as long as 58 yards – fell way short.
The loss ended the Bombers' first winning season in five years. "We didn't do enough to finish," said Winnipeg quarterback Matt Nichols, who added that he had figured his team would need 38 points to win. It fell one touchdown short.