SURREY, B.C. – The B.C. Lions know the odds of making a Grey Cup appearance this season are not in their favor.
Though the team earned a decisive victory over the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division semifinal last week, this week’s task is even tougher – taking out the league-leading, two-time defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West final on Sunday.
The winner will battle either the Toronto Argonauts or Montreal Alouettes for the Grey Cup in Regina on Nov. 20.
B.C. quarterback Nathan Rourke believes his “very special group” is up to the task.
“I think it’s great that people aren’t picking us to win because all the pressure isn’t on us, it’s on (Winnipeg),” he said Thursday. “They’re supposed to win and they’re supposed to three-peat. It’s all about us. We’ve got nothing to lose and that’s a good place to be.”
Winnipeg was a dominant force in regular-season play this year, going 15-3 with a league-best 8-1 home record and earning a first-round bye with as the top team in the west.
B.C. finished the campaign with a 12-6 record, including two losses and a win against Winnipeg.
Some hostile conditions could also help the home side on Sunday, including a forecast high of -5 C and a boisterous crowd at IG Field.
“We’re going to have to be doing everything we can to make sure that we’re best prepared for this game so we show up and those other things – the noise, the fans, the weather – don’t affect us,” Rourke said.
Rourke will be key to the Lions’ fortunes.
Last week, the 24-year-old Victoria native threw for 321 yards and two touchdowns in his first CFL playoff appearance. The performance also marked his first full game since sustaining a foot injury that required surgery in mid-August.
B.C. should get some other key pieces back into the lineup for Sunday’s game, including veteran offensive lineman Joel Figueroa, who was held out of the semifinal with a shoulder injury. Running back James Butler also returned to the field Thursday after hurting an ankle in Sunday’s game.
“He actually got more reps than I thought he would,” Lions head coach Rick Campbell said after practice. “We wanted to be smart with him. He’s banged up from the previous game, but he really gets better every day and he actually did even more than we thought he’d do today, which is good and I fully anticipate that he plays.”
Winnipeg is sure to counter Butler with a strong run game of its own, led by Brady Oliveira, a Winnipeg native who chalked up 1,001 rushing yards and four touchdowns in regular season play.
B.C. will have to deploy the same defense that stymied Calgary and the league’s top rusher, Ka’Deem Carey, last week, Campbell said.
“(The Bombers) run the ball really well. I know they take pride in their o-line and their tailback and all those things. But we’re going to have to play all-around defense,” he said.
“Yes, we have to stop the run completely. But they’ve got a good quarterback and really good receivers, too, so we’re going to have to play good defense all-around.”
As a team, the Lions have yet to play their best football of the year, Rourke said.
Offensively, B.C. is at its best when it’s taking care of the ball, stringing together long drives and putting up points, the QB added.
“I think when all facets of our football team – special teams, defense – when we’re all clicking, I think good things happen,” Rourke said. “I think we’ve shown glimpses of that through the season but we’re due for that to all click. Hopefully that comes Sunday.”