VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- After struggling to score and make plays on special teams, the Baltimore Football Club appeared to have finished a gutty comeback when Chris Wright returned a punt 55 yards to give the team its first lead late in the fourth quarter last night.
But Baltimore could not hold off the B.C. Lions in a rematch of last year's Grey Cup opponents. A fumble by running back Mike Pringle with just over two minutes left gave the Lions a chance, and they took advantage of it with a 37-yard drive that ended with Cory Philpot's 2-yard run with 15 seconds left, rallying the Lions to a 37-34 victory in the season opener before 23,999 at B.C. Place.
"That was a difficult time," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said of the Lions' winning drive. "We thought our defense would stop them. I think we were surprised that they ran the ball in that situation with time running out. We missed some tackles.
"We had chances to win. We came back and went ahead and we should have won this football game. We didn't," Matthews added. "We have to coach them better, and the players have to play better. We don't have an alibi for not playing well."
It was a costly defeat for Baltimore, particularly in its defensive backfield. The team lost cornerback Karl Anthony, possibly for the season, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, an injury that occurred in the first half. In addition, cornerback Irv Smith (shoulder) and halfback Ken Watson (bruised knee) are questionable for Saturday's home opener against San Antonio.
It took Baltimore more than two quarters to pull even with the Lions, who withstood the BFC's pass rush most of the night and consistently pressured quarterback Tracy Ham against what was supposed to be the league's premier offensive line.
Thanks to the Baltimore defense, which forced three turnovers and blocked a field-goal try in the first half, the BFC trailed by only 17-10 at halftime. And Baltimore needed less than three minutes to even the score, opening the second half with a four-play, 72-yard march.
Ham connected with slot back Chris Armstrong for 44 yards to the Lions' 1, and Pringle scored. Carlos Huerta's conversion tied it with 12:36 left in the third quarter.
But B.C. answered with a 65-yard drive in which quarterback Danny McManus burned cornerback Courtney Griffin -- Anthony's replacement -- three times. Philpot ran 7 yards for the touchdown that made it 24-17.
Baltimore cut the lead to 24-20 on a 38-yard field goal by Huerta midway through the quarter, but the Lions countered with a 17-yard field goal by Lui Passaglia to pull ahead, 27-20, with 3:45 left.
Baltimore then forced its fourth turnover, when Elfrid Payton pressured McManus into throwing an interception to Chuck Anthony, who returned it 25 yards to the Lions' 16. On the next play, Ham passed to Shannon Culver for a touchdown to tie the score at 27 on the third quarter's final play.
The Lions then opened the fourth quarter with a seven-minute drive that ended with a 13-yard field goal by Passaglia that made it 30-27. Then, Wright gave Baltimore its first lead by sprinting untouched for the score. It wasn't enough.
Baltimore found itself trailing by 14 points before Ham had even attempted a pass, thanks largely to some sloppy special teams work.
The first bad sign came when Josh Miller's opening kickoff sailed out of bounds, resulting in a 5-yard penalty. Miller's second attempt went right to Philpot, who cut between two defenders and sprinted down the right sideline, where Miller hustled over to bump him out of bounds at the Baltimore 34, holding him to a 59-yard return.
The Lions then drove 34 yards in six plays. They were helped by an offsides penalty against Elfrid Payton. McManus teamed with Darren Flutie for completions of nine and 11 yards, the last one putting B.C. in a first-and-goal position at the 5.
Two plays later, Philpot dived over a pile of Baltimore defenders for a three-yard touchdown. Passaglia's extra point gave the Lions a 7-0 lead four minutes into the contest.
Two runs by Pringle failed to net Baltimore a first down on its first possession, and an illegal-substitution penalty pushed the BFC back to its 30 for a punt. Once again, the coverage team failed, as the Lions' Spencer McLennan broke a tackle, nearly fell, then regained enough balance to ramble for a 30-yard return to the Baltimore 46.
It took B.C. just four plays to march into the end zone. McManus hit Flutie for 18 yards, then found a wide-open Matt Clark for 19 to the Baltimore 9. After Philpot picked up eight yards, McManus sneaked in for a one-yard score, putting the BFC in a 14-0 hole with 6:38 left in the first quarter.
Baltimore finally got its offense into gear, putting together a 10-play, 81-yard march that consumed a little over five minutes.