November 30, 2011

Lulay earns himself a place in BC sports history

Cam Cole
National Post

If they can somehow arrange to keep only still photographs of it — preferably black-and-white — and burn the video, it might one day be remembered as a classic.

For aficianados of Canadian Football League defence, though, the BC Lions’ show of stubborn resistance and sustained brutality in the 99th Grey Cup may need no apology, anyway.

The offence sputtered. Travis Lulay’s aim was off for a half as he struggled to figure out how to throw with a groin injury. The Lions missed a plethora of chances to bury the Winnipeg Blue Bombers by halftime — but in the end, for this defence, Sunday’s 34-23 decision was all the affirmation it required.

And it must have warmed the cockles of Wally Buono’s old linebacker heart, when the defence that has been the hallmark of the Lions’ second-half turnaround out-swaggered the crew from Swaggerville.

“I’ll say it again: we won the line of scrimmage, and that’s why we won the game,” Buono said a full hour and more after his team gave up a couple of late scores and donated some heart palpitations to the 54,313 fans at BC Place.

“No disrespect to Winnipeg, but we were better. We gave our quarterback time to throw, ran the ball well enough and our defensive front four was, I thought, tremendous.”

Not perfect. Nothing about Sunday’s win was.

But that wasn’t air they were playing against. The Blue Bombers gave as good as they took in a gloriously uncompromising first half of defensive football that started with ill feeling before the anthem was even sung — Lions DB Korey Banks beaking off and almost starting a melee alongside the giant Canadian flag held by members of the military at centre field — and kept things interesting until the home side finally broke the game open in the third quarter.

The Bombers managed just 41 yards rushing, and the bulk of their passing yards came, as BC defensive end Brent Johnson put it, “a day late and a dollar short.”

“Man, it’s the way you got to play those guys,” said Banks. “They had our number the last few times we’ve played them.

“We knew what kind of animal we were facing in their defence. But the only negative thing I would say is, you guys called them the best defence in the league, but they’re still our little brothers.

“But if we hadn’t won it, I’d wish they did. Because they play defence the way we do. They smash-mouth.”

The Lions, who were already the only team since 1977 to have won a Grey Cup on home turf, have now followed their 1994 triumph with a new chapter for the annals, and the franchise’s sixth Cup.

“The ebb and flow of this game was no different than the season,” said Buono. “Travis Lulay played hurt. Did it affect him? Yes. Did it affect his composure? No. Did the players around him and coaches understand what was going on? Yes.

“Yeah, there were throws there, there were opportunities, but in the end, the character that got us through the season got us through this game.”

Lulay, true to form, never even mentioned the injury as the confetti flew around the post-game platform truck at centre field.

“You know, honestly? I felt great,” said the 28-year-old quarterback who was voted the game’s most valuable player to go with the season’s MOP award he won Thursday. He completed 21 of 37 passes for 320 yards with two touchdowns — to Kierrie Johnson and Arland Bruce — and no interceptions.

“I was way more calm than I thought I’d be,” he said. “My eyes were great, I thought the game was relatively slow, I just missed a couple of throws. I didn’t get my feet under me — I think I just got bug-eyed when I saw a guy get open, and missed four or five throws I haven’t missed in a long time, but … you know, championship game. Doesn’t matter how it gets done.”

Buono said Lulay aggravated an old groin injury and couldn’t stride properly into his throws.

“Winnipeg’s got an outstanding defence, and it’s not like you’re just standing out there playing skelly [skeleton practice]. Those guys are comin’ after you and they don’t have good thoughts in mind,” said the coach.

“The guy’s a beast, man,” said centre Angus Reid. “He’s a leader, and he’s a great quarterback because he’ll take what the defence gives him. He knows how to play the position outstanding…ly.” He laughed. “That’s not even a real word.”

The offence, of course, produced all the points, including a 19-yard touchdown run by the game’s outstanding Canadian, running back Andrew Harris, and set up four field goals by kicker Paul McCallum, who also missed his first-ever playoff attempt as a Lion, a 48-yarder that hit the right goalpost square-on.

But if the offences — even Winnipeg’s, with a couple of late Buck Pierce touchdown throws to Terrence Edwards and Greg Carr, followed by an onside-kick attempt that nearly succeeded — came alive in the second half, it was the defences that set the tone for the day.

Lulay and defence. They got the Lions here, after a 0-5 and 1-6 start, and they finished the job.

“Wally made us still believe, and we worked our butts off, nobody threw in the towe,l nobody turned on each other,” said Reid. “He told us we’re a good team, keep working. We did what he said, we fought for the man beside us.”

Case in point:

Lulay tossed an outlet pass right into the arms of Bombers rusher Odell Willis early in the fourth quarter. Instead Willis bobbled it for a fatal second.

“It takes some breaks along the way to win a championship, and that was certainly one of them,” said Lulay. “I didn’t see him falling off of the tackle, and he just stepped right in the throwing lane. Incredible play by [BC tackle] Ben Archibald to knock the ball away or he was walking in [to the endzone].”

There were moments like that for almost everyone. What could have happened, but didn’t. Lulay was a few errant throws away from an historic Grey Cup passing day. McCallum was a couple of inches away from going five-for-five.

“We were hoping to get together and take a big team picture like in hockey — good lu
ck,” McCallum said, surveying the confetti-strewn carpet, with hundreds of reporters, fans and family crowding around.

Buono lingered on and on around his players and his family, on the field. He was subdued, and a little hoarse, later.

Asked if he had a feeling about Buono — meaning his future as coach — Reid smiled.

“I’ve got a feeling. Yeah,” he said. And walked away.