VANCOUVER — Even after putting up monster numbers in his first ever CFL playoff game, B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke saw room for improvement.
“We came out of it with a win. That was the most satisfying part to me," the 24-year-old Canadian said Sunday after the Lions topped the Calgary Stampeders 30-16 in the West Division semifinal.
"I mean, it wasn't pretty, but we got it done. And that's what playoffs are all about."
Rourke threw for 321 yards and two touchdowns, connecting on 22-of-30 attempts. It was his first full game since Aug. 19, when he suffered a foot injury that required surgery and forced the first-year star to the sidelines for eight games.
The performance didn't surprise Lions' head coach Rick Campbell.
"I've been the No. 1 Nathan Rourke fan for the last three years and he's gonna approach it — playoff, pre pre-season, regular season — he's going to have that same mentality (every game)," he said.
B.C. got solid performances across the lineup.
Antonio Pipkin added 45 passing yards and a TD for the Lions, while Sean Whyte connected for three field goals and the defensive unit limited Calgary — who boosted the CFL's best run game in the regular season — to 83 rushing yards.
Stopping the league's top running back was a focus for the defensive group all week, said defensive lineman Mathieu Betts.
"Obviously they have a really good guy with Ka’Deem (Carey) there," he said. "Credit goes to our coaches for getting us ready, guys bought in and with our offence taking the lead … somewhere in the first half, they became one dimensional, so that helped.”
Calgary quarterback Jake Maier also started in his first playoff game Sunday and connected on 12-of-22 passing attempts for 138 yards before being replaced by veteran Bo Levi Mitchell in the fourth quarter.
Maier said he and his teammates simply didn't execute.
"It hurts really bad, but I can assure you this — I'll be back and we'll be back from this," he said.
Mitchell threw for 147 yards in what was likely his last appearance in a Stampeders' uniform.
“It's been an amazing ride, an amazing career for that chapter. And I just appreciate it and everybody that’s given me the opportunity," he said. “I look forward to the next part.”
Renee Parades made all three of his field goal attempts, including a 32-yard kick.
The two sides came in with identical 12-6 regular-season records but the Stampeders were plagued by penalties on Sunday, taking eight for 83 yards.
"It's disappointing, a 12-win season we didn't make any noise in the playoffs," said Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson. "I think we had a team that could win it. That's the problem I have with not playing our best game, but (B.C.) has a good team, too. They played well."
The Lions will head to Winnipeg to face the Blue Bombers in the West Division final on Nov. 13. The East Division final will see the Montreal Alouettes take on the Argonauts in Toronto the same day.
The Grey Cup will be played in Regina on Nov. 20.
A crowd of 30,114 fans took in Sunday's game inside a chilly B.C. Place. Their cheers and energy helped propel the Lions to the win, Campbell said.
"Obviously the players deserve all the credit but I think it's really cool the atmosphere, that's a real deal atmosphere. The fans were fantastic," he said. "It's pretty fun and special to be a part of."
Both sides were limited to field goals through much of the first two quarters, including a 41-yard kick by Whyte early in the second.
B.C. took a 13-6 lead into halftime after a series of solid passes put the Lions deep in Stampeders' territory.
Rourke connected with Burnham on a 19-yard toss, then sent a 25-yard bomb to Keon Hatcher before capping the drive with a 13-yard rocket to Alexander Hollins deep in the end zone. The QB was hit hard as he let the ball fly but walked off the field on his own and was back for B.C.'s next possession.
The Lions' offensive line had difficulty at times on Sunday and midway through the third, Rourke was sacked for the fourth time. He recovered quickly and followed up by threading a 16-yard pass to Bryan Burnham through a pair of Stamps defenders.
The Lions capped the drive when short-yardage specialist Pipkin came in on third down. While being hauled to the turf, Pipkin put up a 20-yard toss to an unmarked Hatcher, who sprinted 25 yards for B.C.'s second touchdown of the game.
The team had been working on the play all season, Hatcher said.
"When we heard in the huddle, me, (Dominique) Rhymes and Alex (Hollins) looked at each other like 'Oh my god, they called it, they called it,'" he said. "I was super excited but you've got to execute. So that's what happened. We executed and got a touchdown out of it."
With less than 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Calgary opted to replace Maier with Mitchell in a bid to spark the offence.
"Jake played hard and I don't think it was really on him," Dickenson said. "I just don't think there were enough guys open. We didn't have the ball long enough. We weren't protecting him well enough. Calls weren't fitting well enough. It was a group effort."
Mitchell, a two-time Grey Cup champion, drove his side to B.C.'s eight-yard line on his first possession before getting sacked. Parades finished the scoring drive with a 24-yard field goal, cutting the Lions' lead to 20-9.
The Lions boosted their advantage to 27-9 with just over three minutes left on the clock.
Rourke dished a seven-yard pass to Hollins, who rushed for an additional 22 yards and put B.C. in scoring position.
The Canadian QB then waited patiently in the pocket for the right target and picked out Burnham in the end zone. Rourke sailed a 10-yard bomb to the veteran receiver for B.C.'s third TD of the day.
Calgary made a late push, with Carey appearing to punch in the Stamps' lone touchdown with a one-yard run with a minute and 49 seconds to go. The play was overturned on review, with officials determining he had not, in fact, crossed the goal line.
The down was replayed, this time with Tommy Stevens as he muscled the ball into the end zone with a one-yard QB sneak that cut B.C.'s lead to 27-16.
Whyte capped the final drive of the day with a 15-yard field goal to seal the score at 30-16.
NOTES: Calgary took six penalties for 68 yards in the first half. B.C. had one for five yards. … Sunday marked the Lions' first home playoff game since 2016 and the team's first post-season appearance since 2018. The Stampeders made the playoffs for a club-record 17th straight season this year. … The last time two starting QBs made their playoff debut in the same game was Nov. 23, 2014 when Bo Levi Mitchell (Calgary) took on Michael Reilly (Edmonton) in the West final.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2022.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press