Rick Campbell was proud of the perseverance his B.C. Lions showed on Saturday.
Up against the league-leading Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Lions faltered late but held on for a crucial 40-32 victory.
"I'm proud that we kept with it. It got down to six points, but our guys, we didn't start pointing fingers or people weren't hanging their heads and that's the biggest thing for me," said Campbell, B.C.'s head coach and co-general manager.
"It's easy when things are going well. It's when things aren't going well and how you respond to it. And I think we were able to stick with it tonight and grind out a win.”
The win moved the Lions (11-5) into sole possession of second spot in the West Division. Holding on to the position through the final two games of the regular season would secure B.C. a home playoff game.
Winnipeg (14-3) has already clinched first place in the league and opted to rest several of its usual starters, including quarterback Zach Collaros.
He was replaced by Dru Brown who threw 325 passing yards in his first CFL start, connecting on 28-of-39 attempts with three touchdowns and two interceptions. The second-year QB was sacked three times.
"I thought that we battled pretty hard. I don't think anybody gave up," Brown said. "I think everybody believed that we were going to win till the end, despite what happened during the game and that's pretty promising."
"All things considered, if I don't make two mistakes, if I'm a little more detailed on two of those plays, then I think that if you asked anybody in the locker room that we pull it out."
Both Winnipeg interceptions were returned by B.C. halfbacks for touchdowns, with T.J. Lee streaking 102 yards and Marcus Sayles dashing 45 yards into the end zone.
The Lions defensive backs simply came together to make more big plays than the Bombers, Lee said.
“We don't care who Winnipeg brings across, we're ready for it," he said. "And it's their fault that they didn't play their players and they weren't ready. We won, we'll see them again. And maybe they're ready. They're gonna have to turn it on because we’re turning it on.”
It was a mixed night for Lions quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who threw for 138 yards and completed 13-of-22 attempts with one touchdown. He was sacked three times.
"There's always room to get better. Nobody's perfect," Adams said. "And I think what I really need to get better at is getting off my first read and just getting to a check down or something like that. Stop taking these sacks. Everyone's looking at my (offensive line) but it's really me. I just got to just be better in that aspect."
Winnipeg kicker Marc Liegghio struggled Saturday, missing three long field-goal attempts. He was successful on a 38-yard kick.
Sean Whyte made all four of his attempts for B.C., including a 41-yard strike.
Down 13 points to start the final frame, Winnipeg refused to relent.
Brown found Rasheed Bailey deep in B.C. territory early in the quarter with a 15-yard catch and the American receiver dashed two yards in for a touchdown to cap a seven-play, 85-yard scoring drive.
The Lions responded with a 25-yard field goal by Whyte.
Lee sealed the victory with just over two minutes left on the game clock, picking off Brown's pass to Nic Demski and returning it for a touchdown.
The Blue Bombers continued to push and added one more TD to the scoreboard before the game was done.
Brown delivered a crisp 11-yard pass to Bailey in the end zone with less than 70 seconds to go, then connected with Demski for a two-point conversion that cut the Lions' lead to 40-32.
"We came here prepared to win a football game and it didn't work out," O'Shea said. "There are things we can fix. It stinks."
The Bombers bit into B.C.'s lead earlier in the frame when the CFL's leading receiver made his first catch of the night.
Brown sent an arching 22-yard toss to Dalton Schoen, who made a tough catch on the edge of the end zone. The touchdown, Schoen's 14th of the season, cut Winnipeg's deficit to 27-17.
The Lions took a 27-10 advantage into the half, thanks in part to a successful coach's challenge.
With time ticking down in the second quarter, Adams sent a long ball sailing to Alexander Hollins, only to see the ball call incomplete. Campbell challenged the play for defensive pass interference and, after a review, officials agreed, handing Winnipeg a 38-yard penalty.
The Lions took advantage and Adams completed the scoring drive with a 23-yard toss to Dominique Rhymes in the end zone.
A missed field goal helped B.C. boost its advantage to 20-10 earlier in the frame.
Leigghio's 52-yard attempt fell shot and Williams collected the ball, returning it for 90 yards. Adams couldn't find a teammate in the end zone but Whyte put three points on the board with a 16-yard field goal.
B.C. got a big play from its defensive unit midway through the second with Sayles' pick six.
"As defensive backs, we harped on the details and making more plays than them," Lee said. "And that's what it equalled — two pick sixes. I took Marcus's energy and turned into my own pick six.”
Winnipeg temporarily tied the game at 10-10 early in the quarter when returner Janarion Grant streaked 94 yards down the sideline and into the end zone on a punt return.
Big runs were an early theme for the Lions on Saturday.
Terry Williams opened the game with a 40-yard kick return and Adams scrambled out of the pocket for a 16-yard rush minutes later.
The QB handed off the ball to running back James Butler on the next play and he weaved nine yards through traffic into the end zone to cap the five-play, 50-yard scoring drive.
Winnipeg responded with a drive of its own.
Brown showed his ground game with a solid 12-yard rush on second down to get the Bombers into Lions' territory. But Winnipeg's offence struggled and ultimately settled for a 39-yard field goal on their first possession of the game.
Saturday's loss could be an opportunity for the Bombers to grow, Bailey said.
"The energy was there, we were just missing a couple of plays. We were so close," he said. "We had a younger QB in there, we got a couple of new guys in there that were getting their feet wet for the first time. "
The Lions will take on the Elks in Edmonton on Friday while the Blue Bombers are on their final bye of the season. B.C. will close out the regular-season campaign in Winnipeg on Oct. 28.
NOTES: Both sides got big performances from their returners with Grant amassing 226 yards and a TD for the Blue Bombers and Williams tallying 341 yards. … Saturday marked the first time this season that Winnipeg has lost to a West Division opponent (9-1). … An announced crowd of 24,280 took in the game.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2022.