It’s been quite the start to the season for Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke and the B.C. Lions.
The Victoria-born Rourke has been stellar for the unbeaten Lions (3-0). The former Ohio University star has completed 88-of-105 passes (83.8 per cent) for 1,077 yards and a league-high nine touchdown passes while rushing for 180 yards on 15 carries (12-yard average) and three TDs thus far.
Rourke threw for 436 yards — a CFL single-game record for a Canadian quarterback — and four TDs in the Lions’ 44-3 home win over Toronto on June 25.
B.C. puts its unbeaten record on the line Saturday when it hosts the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the defending Grey Cup champions who are also undefeated (4-0) despite seemingly not having played their best football yet.
All four of Winnipeg’s wins have come against East Division competition. After sweeping a home-and-home series to start the season with Ottawa (19-17 and 19-12), the Bombers defeated Hamilton 26-12 before securing a 23-22 road victory over Toronto on Monday when veteran Argonauts kicker Boris Bede missed the potential game-tying convert.
B.C. is coming off a 34-31 road win over Ottawa on Thursday as Rourke threw for 359 yards and two TDs with two interceptions while rushing for a game-high 87 yards and a touchdown. But the Lions return to B.C. Place Stadium, where they’re 2-0, having outscored Edmonton and Toronto by a whopping 103-18 margin.
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The combination of a smothering defence and mistake-free offence has helped guide Winnipeg to consecutive Grey Cup titles. And so far in 2022, the Bombers’ unit is allowing a CFL-low 15.8 offensive points per game despite being ranked seventh in offensive yards allowed (370.3 per game) and last against the pass (315.5 yards).
But once again, the Bombers don’t beat themselves as they’re ranked No. 1 in turnover ratio (plus-7), tied for first with Calgary in fewest turnovers made (four) and second in most turnovers forced (11).
Quarterback Zach Collaros, the CFL’s outstanding player last season, has completed 79-of-111 passes this season (71.2 per cent) for 933 yards with four TDs and three interceptions. But the Bombers’ ground attack, which has traditionally been at or near the top of the CFL, is currently ranked seventh, averaging 78 yards per game.
Winnipeg’s defence — run by veteran co-ordinator Richie Hall — will present Rourke and Co. with its stiffest test of the season. But B.C.’s offence will offer no shortage of challenges for the Bombers, who’ll have to prepare for the Lions on a short week and play road games in Toronto and Vancouver in the span of five days.
B.C. leads the CFL in offensive yards (511.3 per game), rushing yards (161.3), passing yards (359), offensive points (45.7) and offensive touchdowns (17). And with all-star Bryan Burnham on the injured list, Keon Hatcher (18 catches on 19 targets for 282 yards and two TDs) has stepped up for a receiving corps that also includes Lucky Whitehead (20 catches, 237 yards) and Dominique Rhymes (14 catches, 235 yards. two TDs).
It’s never wise to bet against a Mike O’Shea-coached team, especially one that’s battle tested and has shown a penchant for knowing what to do in order to win. Winnipeg has also won the last five head-to-head matchups versus B.C.
But the quick turnaround and travel considerations, not to mention B.C. having had more prep time since its win in Ottawa, should give the home team an advantage.
Calgary Stampeders versus Edmonton Elks (Thursday night)
At Edmonton, Canadian rookie Tre Ford makes a second straight start for the Elks (1-3), who’re coming off a 29-25 road win in Hamilton. The former Waterloo star was 15-of-26 passing for 159 yards with a TD and interception while rushing for a game-high 61 yards in his first CFL start. Defensive back Jalen Collins’s 14-yard fumble return for the TD clinched the victory. Calgary (3-0) has won five of the last six meetings with its provincial rival, including a 30-23 home win June 25, and starter Bo Levi Mitchell is 14-4 against Edmonton.
Ottawa Redblacks versus Saskatchewan Roughriders (Friday night)
At Regina, the Riders (3-1) are 2-0 at home, having outscored their opponents 71-33. Defensive lineman Pete Robertson (CFL-high seven sacks) anchors a Saskatchewan defence that has a league-leading 21 sacks while Jamal Morrow is the top rusher (257 yards, two TDs) while adding 11 catches for 115 yards. Ottawa (0-3) is ranked fifth in scoring (20 offensive points per game) and eighth in offensive touchdowns scored (four).
Last week: 4-0.
CP’s overall record: 15-1.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press