VANCOUVER - They opened the season with a whimper, but Travis Lulay and the B.C. Lions ended it with a bang.
Game MVP Travis Lulay threw two second-half touchdown passes to lead B.C. to an exciting 34-23 Grey Cup win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday. The victory, before an ear-splitting B.C. Place sellout of 54,313, capped a stunning turnaround for the Lions, who opened the season 0-5.
“This is the greatest feeling in the world,” said Lions receiver Geroy Simon. “All the hard work we put in, all the blood, sweet and tears in the off-season, starting 0-5 and then getting in the playoffs . . . then winning the Cup at home, it's the best feeling in the world.”
B.C. became the first team in CFL history to win the Grey Cup after losing its first five regular-season games. B.C. also became the first squad since the 1994 Lions to capture the league title at home.
The '72 Hamilton Tiger-Cats and '77 Montreal Alouettes are the other teams to accomplish that feat.
Lions tailback Andrew Harris, a Winnipeg native, was named the top Canadian. Harris scored the game's first touchdown, and was counted on to help eat the clock in the game's dying minutes.
“I'm just so happy that (Lions coach Wally Buono) has that faith in me, giving me the ball in crucial moments to get first downs,” Harris said. “It's a great feeling when your coach has confidence in you and trusts you.”
Lulay's 66-yard TD strike to Kierrie Johnson on the final play of the third quarter put B.C. ahead 24-9. It was the first touchdown catch of Johnson's career.
But the game's turning point came with 12:21 left to play.
Lulay tried to throw a screen pass inside the B.C. 30-yard line, but Winnipeg end Odell Willis got his hands on the ball and had a clear path to the end zone. But Willis couldn't hang on, and the Lions dodged a huge bullet.
“I just didn't make the play, that's all,” Willis said.
B.C. then marched downfield and capped an 82-yard drive at 8:10 of the fourth, as Lulay found Arland Bruce III on a six-yard TD strike to give B.C. a commanding 31-9 advantage.
Winnipeg made it interesting with two late Buck Pierce TD passes. He hit Greg Carr on a 45-yard touchdown strike at 11:22, then found Terrence Edwards on a 13-yard scoring pass with 1:37 remaining to make it 31-22. That touchdown was set up by Jovon Johnson's 47-yard punt return that was further aided by a B.C. facemask penalty called on B.C. kicker Paul McCallum.
Winnipeg's onside kickoff attempt didn't go the mandatory 10 yards, giving B.C. the ball with 1:36 remaining.
“We had too many two and outs and they had a short field and we had a long field,” Pierce said. “Our defence had to stay on the field too long. We just didn't start well enough. They came out on fire and we didn't respond.”
Winnipeg's late rally came after a stellar performance by B.C.'s defence, which had effectively shut down the Bombers' ground game and forced the East Division champions to the air. That seemed to favour the Lions, considering the Bombers had the CFL's second-worst passing attack and had to play catchup against a B.C. defence that surrendered a league-low 21.4 points per game.
But it wasn't enough to prevent the extension of Winnipeg's Grey Cup drought to 22 years, their last title coming in 1990. And the loss was a bitter pill to swallow for defensive tackle Doug Brown, who was appearing in his final game after 11 seasons with the Bombers.
“If the offence was struggling, the defence is supposed to pick them up and we didn't do a good enough job of that,” Jovon Johnson said. “We didn't do a good enough job of flipping the field. They had field position the whole first half.”
Rocker and reality TV star Gene Simmons and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who appointed Lions owner David Braley to the Senate last year, were among those in attendance.
“On behalf of Canadians, I would like to congratulate the B.C. Lions on their excellent season and unwavering drive and determination which culminated in their victory at this year's Grey Cup in Vancouver,” Harper said in a statement.
The celebrities in attendance saw the game reach a fever pitch long before the opening kickoff.
The rabid, orange-clad gathering roundly booed Winnipeg during its player introductions before rising to its feet when the Lions were introduced. After Lions' defensive back Korey Banks ran on to the field, he shoved Winnipeg's Jovon Johnson, who had been among a group of Bombers milling around.
The two teams came together and there was plenty of jawing - Willis and B.C.'s Aaron Hunt being the most animated - but the officials stepped in and order was quickly restored.
Harris scored B.C.'s other touchdown in the first quarter when the Lions' offensive line opened up a gaping hole up the middle for the Canadian running back.
“That's something we looked at. We knew it was going to be open all week,” Harris said. “It was just a great hole. I've got to credit my O-line for doing a hell of a job.”
McCallum added four field goals, three converts and single but hit the upright on a 48-yard attempt in the third to snap a streak of 31 straight playoff boots.
“This is the best group I have ever played with,” Simon said. “I know the 06 group was very good and the years before that was very good, the talent might not be as good as those past years but this a better team. ”
Justin Palardy booted three field goals and two converts for Winnipeg.
B.C. led 14-6 at halftime as both teams squandered good scoring chances.
Predictably with the crowd firmly behind them, B.C. opened quickly, storming out to an 11-0 first-quarter lead. Harris's 19-yard TD run at 8:27 capped a smart five-play, 45 drive to open the scoring.
McCallum booted a 22-yard field goal at 11:34 before adding a 57-yard single at 14:34 after Anton McKenzie's interception put B.C. at the Winnipeg 46-yard line.
But Winnipeg's defence stiffened in the second, just allowing McCallum's 16-yard field goal at 10:28 that put B.C. ahead 14-0.
After registering just one first down in the first, Winnipeg began moving the ball in the second as Pierce got the short passing game going. Still, the Bombers got lucky when Palardy banked a 30-yard field goal in off the upright at 12:24.
Winnipeg appeared poised to take a major momentum edge into the half, driving to the B.C. eight-yard line before settling for Palardy's 15-yard boot at 14:30.
NOTES: The sideline chains became entangled before the game, forcing game officials to borrow a set from a Vancouver high school. A police escort ensured the field equipment arrived well before the opening kickoff . . . Lions tailback Jamal Robertson, who will retire in the off-season, was among B.C.'s four pre-game scratches. Robertson began his CFL career on the practice roster of the Grey Cup-champion Calgary Stampeders in 2001 . . . The Grey Cup will celebrate its 100th anniversary next season in Toronto . . . B.C. appeared in its 10th Grey Cup and fourth at B.C. Place . . . Sunday's game marked the 13th time the Grey Cup was played indoors since the first one was held at B.C. Place in 1983 . . . Pierce was a member of B.C.'s 2006 Grey Cup-winning team and spent his first five CFL seasons with the Lions before being released after the '09 season and signing with Winnipeg.