RAIN MAN: RAINEY’S PUNT RETURN LEADS LIONS FROM BEHIND OVER STAMPS
Chris Rainey scored two touchdowns and made a clutch second-down catch late in the game, helping the Lions grind out a 20-18 home-opening win against the Calgary Stampeders.
Rainey scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 73-yard punt return with 13:35 left in the fourth quarter while Rene Paredes missed two field goals and a convert for the Stampeders, helping the Lions come from behind to surprise the Stampeders and kick off their season with a 1-0 record.
The return by Rainey was a fitting turning point in a game dominated by defence and special teams, as both Jonathon Jennings and Bo Levi Mitchell looked ordinary while the other facets made all of the game’s biggest plays.
The Stampeders blocked three punts but failed to take advantages of some golden opportunities, including a first and goal at the one that resulted in a turnover on downs after four straight plays of failing to find the end zone, along with an early fumble by Mitchell.
While the Stamps held a two-score lead at one point in the third, it was Rainey’s one-yard touchdown run that pulled the Lions close and then, after a quick stop by the Lions’ defence, a spectacular return by one of the game’s most electrifying return men that made the difference.
In his first opening-day start, Jennings threw for 248 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions on 24-of-42 passing. Bryan Burnham had a game-high 88 yards on five catches as he looks to emerge as a top threat for the Lions in his third season in the league.
Mitchell threw for 233 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in the loss for the Stampeders. His favourite receiver was Kamar Jorden, who finished with 73 yards on three catches including the game’s only receiving touchdown.
With all the questions about who Mitchell might throw to in 2016, the 27-year-old Jorden answered the bell early for the Stamps’ offence when he hooked up with his quarterback for a 48-yard pickup on the game’s opening drive.
Looking to get on the board early and take the Lions’ home-opening crowd out of the game, Mitchell was sacked on a second-and-seven play by T.J. Lee on the blitz and lost a hold of the football. Big interior Mic’hael Brooks came up with the loose ball, immediately ending the threat and giving the Lions’ some early momentum.
More than anything, however, the impressive defensive play set the tone for how the rest of the game would unfold.
While all eyes were on the young pivots Mitchell and Jennings, neither could find the spark early on as defensive coordinators and former CFL players Mark Washington and DeVone Claybooks had their defences dialed in.
The Stamps got the football back and Mitchell put them back in scoring range, but Paredes missed his first field goal try from 47 yards out and Calgary opened the game with a single to make it 1-0.
Paredes wouldn’t make the same mistake on his next try, making good on a 43-yard field goal try to make it 4-0 Calgary, while Jennings and the Lions’ offence continued to struggle with back-to-back two-and-outs.
Third-year Stamps starter Mitchell continued to move the ball for the Stampeders but the offence couldn’t find ways to capitalize early on. With nine minutes to go in the half and a four-point lead, Calgary was stuffed on four straight plays at the BC goal line, including an off-side accepted against the Lions, leaving another Stamps possession without anything to show for.
It wasn’t long later the Stampeders finally cracked the code and finished a drive. Mitchell completed his first three passes of the drive, including a 25-yard pickup to Lemar Durant, setting up an 18-yard touchdown to Jorden to give Calgary a 10-0 lead after Paredes missed the extra point.
The Lions responded with a late field goal from Richie Leone, but in the end the first half was defined by three blocked punts on special teams for the Stampeders and a Calgary offence that couldn’t cash in on its chances.
Jennings got in a rhythm in the third and set up a Leone field goal midway through the quarter to shrink the Lions’ deficit to four, but the Stampeders didn’t take long to respond.
While the Lions struggled in the run game in the first game after the Andrew Harris era, the Stampeders couldn’t muster much on the ground either despite having the big Jerome Messam in the lineup to replace the retired Jon Cornish. Yet when a 59-yard kickoff return by Roy Finch and a 31-yard completion to Durant put Calgary in prime scoring position, it was the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Brampton, Ont. native in Messam who finished off the drive with the two-yard touchdown.
Messam’s first touchdown of the season extended Calgary’s lead to 17-6, and the Lions needed an answer from their 24-year-old sophomore quarterback in a hurry.
You could get the sense that Jennings was getting into more of a rhythm against a young Stampeder defence as the game progressed, and he only heated up heading towards the end of the third quarter. Jennings hit Burnham for a 15-yard pickup to get sticks moving, then after a 10-yard completion to Shawn Gore drew a pass interference penalty on the Stamps’ defence.
Two more completions to Burnham and the newcomer Nick Moore put the ball at the one, and from there it was the former University of Florida running back Rainey finishing the drive off with the one-yard touchdown run. Arceneaux couldn’t haul in the pass on the two-point conversion, but the Lions cut the Stampeder lead to 17-12 at the end of the third.
A quick stop by the BC defence and it wasn’t long after that the Lions turned the tables completely. On the very next punt, Rainey found an opening down the sideline, sprinting for a 72-yard punt return touchdown, his second major of the game.
Moore scored on the two-point conversion, giving BC a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter — the Lions’ first lead of the game.
As Mitchell looked to mount a response on the following drive, the Lions’ defence stepped up again, this time sacking Mitchell for the second time of the night on second down to stop the Calgary offence in its tracks. Alex Bazzie’s sack of Mitchell and a punt out of bounds by Rob Maver gave the Lions solid field position just half a quarter away from starting their season with a win.
Yet you just knew the Stampeders weren’t going to give up. Their defence made a quick stop to get the ball back in the hands of Mitchell, who promptly completed four straight passes, including one to offensive lineman turned eligible receiver Dan Federkeil for 21 yards.
But immediately after Adam Bighill ended the drive with a sack, the Stampeders looked to tie the game on a 31-yard field goal by Paredes with just over three minutes remaining. After struggling with two early misses, including an extra point, the veteran kicker again fired wide.
Thanks to some effective running by Jennings and a highlight-reel grab by Rainey at the sticks in addition to a first down run by Jeremiah Johnson, that was the last chance the Stampeders would get.
Johnson finished with 44 yards on nine carries to pace the Lions’ rushing attack while Messam, replacing the retired Jon Cornish, was held to 16 yards and a touchdown on seven carries against a stingy BC run defence. Moore was an active part of the Lions’ passing attack in his first game back in B.C. after signing with the Lions, while Emmanuel Arceneaux was held to just 39 yards on four carries.
The win for the Lions ended a run of four straight wins for the Stampeders, including this year’s pre-season game and last year’s Western Semi-Final. It also puts them all alone at the top of the West Division following Week 1, as the Stamps, Eskimos and Bombers are 0-1 while the Riders were idle. They’ll look to keep the momentum rolling with a visit to Tim Hortons Field to face the Ticats on Canada Day.
After allowing only three points in the first half and leading through most of the first three quarters, the Stampeders let one slip away Saturday night and will try to get back on the board in their home-opener, also on Canada Day vs. the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.