No pun intended: in order to save this season, Jeremiah Johnson and company must be running on all cylinders from here on in. And the running game will certainly be a big component to that approach. Sitting at 6-6-0 and fighting for their playoff lives with one-third of the regular season to play, the feeling in the den is that the real season is already here. The charismatic running back is ready to block that challenge head on and it begins Friday with a visit from the new-look Hamilton Tiger-Cats (2-9-0) at BC Place.
“They’ve gotten better and they’re flying around and looking very comfortable out there,” Johnson said of this week’s opponent.
“It’s just another challenge for our offence. They get paid just like we do, so we know they’re going to come out and play hard; especially with their new coach. They want to play for him and we have to come out here, do our job and do it the right way.”
The Ticats have indeed had somewhat of a turnaround since head coach June Jones took over for Kent Austin and Jeremiah Masoli replaced Zach Collaros as starting QB.
Victories over Toronto and Ottawa followed. Last week they came up just short against Saskatchewan, losing 27-19 at Tim Hortons Field and having a potential game-tying drive stall at the one-yard line.
Masoli will also have new target Shamawd Chambers to throw to after the receiver was acquired in a trade with Edmonton last weekend.
Add it all up and Wally Buono says his troops need to be ready against the rejuvenated squad from Steeltown, especially after the Lions prevailed 41-26 there just over two months ago.
“I can’t remember July, so I don’t want to even go there,” Buono quipped on Thursday following practice.
“We watched the tape and they have improved. The thing that impressed me is they are playing very physical, very hard football.”
Hamilton will be without running back CJ Gable, who suffered a shoulder injury against the Riders. Alex Green, who played under Jones at the University of Hawaii, will start as the featured back. Green attended training camp with the Cats and was brought back this week.
That 41-26 victory in Hamilton was very much a microcosm of the Lions’ season to date. Jonathon Jennings suffered his shoulder injury on the first play from scrimmage. The offence then started slow before Travis Lulay appeared to hop in a time machine and revert to the form that won him the 2011 Most Outstanding Player form. Peaks and valleys all in the same game.
Now Jennings is back in control and Johnson is confident the young quarterback can prove last week’s performance in Calgary can be erased.
“It’s always tough to see major pieces of your offence go down, especially when it’s a 1A and 1B. It’s our job as a whole offence to rally behind those guys and get their minds right. We know Lulay won’t be coming back (this season), but we’re just focused on keeping JJ upright and healthy so he can get that ball outta there,” Johnson added.
After splitting duties with Anthony Allen in 2016, Johnson has enjoyed life as the featured running back and also taken on a new role as one of the club’s offensive captains.
“It’s been a bit different; a little more pressure, but I like it,” an enthusiastic Johnson said.
Johnson has proved to be dominant when given the opportunity to lead the offence. Two weeks ago he ran the ball 19 times for 91 yards and two touchdowns in a convincing win over the Montreal Alouettes.
And make no mistake: they will be pounding the rock a lot more, especially with the weather becoming a factor. The Lions make two October trips to Winnipeg and, should they qualify, will more than likely be forced to play on the road come playoff time.
“It is playoff football for us right now! Because if we don’t play our butts off, there will be no playoffs for us. Every game counts at this point,” Johnson explained.
“It’s been a roller coaster. The week before (last) against Montreal they were lights out. In Calgary we weren’t very good,” Buono added.
“We were tentative and indecisive. Offensively, at this point, we can say we’ve struggled. It starts at the quarterback. Offensive line has been consistent. Even last week our receivers made no plays.”
Hamilton Tiger-Cats (2-9-0) at BC Lions (6-6-0)
Friday, September 22nd
BC Place Stadium
Game day forecast: Sunny with a high of 19 degrees Celsius/low of 9 degrees Celsius
Vegas line: The Lions are favoured by 11 and a half points
Bazzie Returns To Open Arms
An improved pass rush is at or near the top of this team’s priority list and the return of Alex Bazzie could be just what they need. Looking fit and focused after an intense training camp and five preseason appearances with the Arizona Cardinals; the Lions’ sack leader in 2016 felt right at home during preparations for his first CFL action in nearly ten months.
“I think I have gotten better with my craft,” said Bazzie.
“Being over there in the NFL, I had a longer time to continue to work and have offseason training. I just can’t wait to put it to test in these games and see how that is going to help me out.”
Defensive line coach Robin Ross has been around this game for decades and has seen star players come and go on a regular basis. You couldn’t stop him from smiling at the return of one of his top weapons from the last two seasons.
“He did a lot for us last year and we’re looking for a lot of big things this year,” said Ross.
“He was an (Western Division) all-star (last season), led the team in sacks, rushes and pressures on the quarterback, so he did a great job in what we asked him to do. It’s not like you’re bringing in someone who hasn’t run our system. He’s familiar with it and I think he will add a lot back to the defence.”
Now that the NFL experiment is done for this season, the University of Marshall product is focused on helping his new/old squad turning its season around and making some noise in time for the playoffs.
“We’re not doing as good statistically in the passing game, as far as getting to the quarterback and making him feel uncomfortable. I know that the same group of guys are here from last year and that attitude is there, regardless if it’s not showing on film,” explained the Lions’ sack leader from 2016.
“The things you can expect me to bring back are passion, attitude and just love for the game. A lot of times you don’t have to talk much. They always say the film speaks for itself. We have to show what our true identity is.”
“I felt BC was the best fit,” added Bazzie.
“It just feels great to come back and just catch up with the guys and get back to work.”
Only Montreal has committed fewer sacks than the Lions this season. Bazzie’s return will no doubt be a step in the right direction and it should provide some matchup problems for Hamilton’s offensive scheme up front.
Three Keys To Victory
Win the first quarter- that strategy seems like the polar opposite of what this league is all about, but consider the fact Buono’s squad is 3-0 this season when leading after the opening quarter and 1-6 when they are trailing.
Field position– the Stampeders started drives in Lions’ territory on seven occasions last week. With Hamilton also boasting a special teams game changer in Brandon Banks, look for the unit to make those necessary adjustments.
Stop the run– Bazzie’s new/old teammates have been good at that this year. If they keep Green in check and force Masoli to air it out, advantage home team. Masoli is also capable of making plays with his feet (see below).
Diamond and Diamond Injury Report
Defensive back Keynan Parker was activated from the club’s six-game injured list. He hasn’t played since hurting his wrist in a victory over Winnipeg on July 21st. Both Jennings and Chris Rainey are good to go after getting nicked up in Calgary. Charles Vaillancourt’s recurring hand injury will keep him out of this one.
3-0 – Jennings’ career record against the Tiger-Cats, excluding that July game where he was knocked out of action. Two of those victories have come at BC Place.
781/7– total passing yards and touchdowns for the third-year QB in those meetings.
9– the number of defensive tackles Solomon Elimimian needs to reach 100 for the third time in his illustrious career.
6-6– overall career record for Masoli coming into this one. His lone start against the Lions was a 28-3 loss on July 1st, 2016 at Tim Hortons Field.
208– the number of rushing yards Masoli has recorded in his three starts, good enough for the lead amongst CFL QBs.
38.1– the CFL-worst second down conversion rate for Hamilton this season.
“I thought that we were really focused in what we were doing and we’re just excited for that next opportunity. It’s been a tough stretch; so we’re just looking forward to getting out there and getting another win. A win cures a lot of things.”- Jennings on the mindset going into this contest.
“They have some confidence. They’re running an offence that’s a little different than what Kent Austin ran. I have played under June Jones and one thing I understand is he gets guys ready to play the game. They’re going to come out firing. It’s going to be good seeing him (Jones) and chatting a little bit. He’s a great person and a great coach. It should be fun.”- Elimimian on the new-look Ticats and facing his old coach from the University of Hawaii.
“Guess what guys? In the west the whole season has been crucial. Every game has been (played) under a lot of pressure for a lot of people, not just ourselves right? You have to win a bunch of games in a row. We did that early in the season, we haven’t done that since.”- Buono on needing wins and some help with seven weeks to play.
Stats overtime: the Lions remain second overall in total rushing yards with 1,151, just three shy of the Winnipeg, and tops in the CFL with 16 rushing touchdowns. The breakdown of those majors: eight for Johnson, five for Lulay and one each for Jennings, Chris Rainey and Shaquille Murray-Lawrence. Stopping the run has also been a successful journey in 2017 as the squad has allowed an average of 74.8 yards per game on the ground, trailing only Toronto in that category.
Prior to the eventful matchup in Steeltown this season, the Lions also took both meetings from Hamilton in 2016. The win at BC Place was a 45-38 thriller with Emmanuel Arceneaux hauling in a winning score from Jennings with 1:38 left. That came less than three minutes after the Ticats had tied it on a 125-yard missed field goal return by Brandon Banks.
The most recent Tiger-Cats victory in Vancouver was on July 22, 2011 at Empire Field that dropped the eventual Grey Cup champions to 0-4 before the remarkable turnaround. Current Lions’ wide receivers coach Marcel Bellefueille was Hamilton’s head coach that season. The Ticats’ losing streak in this city is officially six games when you include their 2014 Grey Cup loss to Calgary at BC Place.
Along with being 2-9 overall this season, the Ticats have also won just two of their last 11 road games overall. They have also lost seven straight games in the Western Division.
We know more proof doesn’t need to be provided that Elimimian is possibly better than he was prior to the Achilles injury suffered in 2015, but consider this: since returning at the start of last season, he has recorded ten or more defensive tackles eight times. You may recall he also set the single-game franchise record by recording 15 defensive stops in a victory in Montreal on July 6th.
Speaking of good defence: Chandler Fenner is the only player league-wide to have recorded over 30 defensive tackles and ten special teams tackles to date.
TSN 1040 has you covered, beginning with the pre-game show at 6:00PM. Bob Marjanovich and Giulio Caravatta have the call at 8:00PM. Viewers can watch on TSN 1, while Lions fans south of the border can catch the action on ESPN 3.
Matt Baker: email@example.com