Lions can prove they’re con­tenders in Cal­gary

Buono says it’s time for enig­matic team to ‘step up’ against pow­er­ful Stam­ped­ers

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - ED WILLES ewil­les@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/willeson­sports

In the run-up to a defin­ing game for a team that’s still im­pos­si­ble to de­fine, a group of vet­er­ans ad­dressed the B.C. Lions this week.

Their mes­sage — ev­ery­thing we have worked for this CFL sea­son is still in front of us — is about what you would ex­pect this time of year. But the more in­ter­est­ing, and telling, as­pect of the lock­er­room or­a­tory were the play­ers who did the talk­ing.

There was the quar­ter­back, Travis Lulay, whose left shoul­der is held to­gether with duct tape and pa­per clips. There was run­ning back Jeremiah John­son, who’s ced­ing his job as the fea­ture back to Tyrell Sut­ton for tonight’s meet­ing with the Stam­ped­ers. There was full­back Rolly Lum­bala, who has rushed for three yards on two car­ries this sea­son. And there was tackle Joel Figueroa, who has now played 14 games in his sto­ried Lions’ ca­reer.

These four play­ers also help make up the core of the Lions’ lead­er­ship group that might ex­plain the er­ratic na­ture of this sea­son. But what­ever else they are, the Leos are on a 4-1 run, they have four games left on their sched­ule, and a play­off berth is hang­ing in the bal­ance.

True, af­ter 14 games, their head coach still isn’t cer­tain what he has with this team but, be­gin­ning to­day at McMa­hon Sta­dium, he’ll start to find out.

Hell, we all will.

“I don’t know yet,” Wally Buono said as the Lions went through their fi­nal walk-through on Fri­day. “Ask me on Sun­day. Se­ri­ously. You have to step up some­time. You can’t keep wait­ing. This team has waited long enough.”

And, to para­phrase the late great Tom Petty, that wait­ing has been the hard­est part for coach Buono.

This game comes equipped with some ready-made sto­ry­lines: It’s Buono’s fi­nal reg­u­larsea­son trip to Cal­gary, where he coached for 13 sea­sons; he’s fac­ing Stamps head coach Dave Dick­en­son, who Buono coached in Cal­gary and Van­cou­ver; and his re­la­tion­ship with Stamps GM John Huf­nagel dates back three decades.

But the old Lion is con­cerned with only one thing.

“All that other stuff is great,” he said, “but I’m here to win a foot­ball game.”

How he goes about do­ing that is the next ques­tion, be­cause over the last 10 years, McMa­hon has been as hos­pitable to the Lions as the Bates Mo­tel was to Janet Leigh.

Since Huf­nagel took over the Stamps in 2008, the Lions have gone 5-11 in Cal­gary, with a nifty 0-3 mark in the play­offs. Still, this will be a dif­fer­ent Stam­ped­ers team fac­ing the Lions, largely be­cause they fig­ure to be miss­ing four start­ing re­ceivers. But the Lions will also have a dif­fer­ent look tonight be­cause, well, they seem to have a dif­fer­ent look for each game.

In this week’s makeover, Sut­ton steps in for John­son as the fea­ture ball car­rier while John­son sup­plants Chris Rainey as the re­turn man and backup run­ning back.

The Lions will try to get both play­ers on the field in some pack­ages, but the larger goal for the of­fence is a more phys­i­cal run­ning game that’s been Sut­ton’s call­ing card in his five-plus CFL sea­sons.

“You’re not go­ing to win in Oc­to­ber or Novem­ber un­less you can run the foot­ball,” said Buono.

“See that wind (gust­ing to 35 km/h Fri­day)? It’s go­ing to be colder (Satur­day). You have to be phys­i­cal, and when we’re phys­i­cal, we win. When we’re not phys­i­cal, we lose.”

To that end, Figueroa be­comes a key cog in the run game. The six-foot-six, 320-pound tackle from Mi­ami isn’t ex­actly lo­qua­cious, but he’s a pres­ence and he’s emerged as a leader this sea­son. When mem­bers of the Hamil­ton Tiger-Cats were mess­ing with Lions kicker Ty Long two weeks ago in Hamil­ton — are you re­ally that tough if you’re try­ing to in­tim­i­date a kicker? — Figueroa ar­rived on the scene and re­stored or­der.

“He had my back,” Long said. “I’ll al­ways have your back, even when you’re wrong,” Figueroa said, be­fore adding: “This is a brand new team. There are guys from all over. It’s taken a while, but we’re fi­nally start­ing to jell. We just have to keep grind­ing.”

Still, the key to the Lions’ play­off as­pi­ra­tions is Lulay, the oft­in­jured for­mer most out­stand­ing player who re­turns to the starters’ job this week af­ter miss­ing four games with a sep­a­rated left shoul­der.

The 35-year-old vet rep­re­sents the ul­ti­mate vari­able in the Lions’ equa­tion. When Lulay has played this sea­son, he’s given the team a spark.

But he hasn’t been in the lineup long enough to gain any trac­tion with the of­fence.

He now has these four reg­u­larsea­son games left to rally this team, four games that could change the nar­ra­tive of the lat­ter part of his ca­reer with the Lions. Lulay ad­mits he’s thought about that.

Then again, he’s thought about a lot of things re­cently.

“You have to get over that,” Lulay an­swered when asked about the men­tal hur­dle of com­ing back from yet an­other in­jury. “It can’t ex­ist. If that’s in the back of your mind, if it clouds your fo­cus in any way, you’re not ready.”

And he be­lieves he and his team are ready.

“Noth­ing is guar­an­teed in this game, but we have four games guar­an­teed as a group,” Lulay said. “What we make of those four games is up to us, and we have this chance to have a fun end­ing.”

And, maybe, fig­ure out who they are.

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Af­ter miss­ing the last four games with a shoul­der in­jury, quar­ter­back Travis Lulay hopes to lead the Lions to the play­offs.

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