VANCOUVER — Mike Benevides believes the toughest test for a young quarterback comes in his second start.
“Game No. 1 you’re just trying to get through it,” the B.C. Lions head coach said Thursday. “Game No. 2 you know you’re the starter. There’s a lot of different things. The opponent has some tape on you.”
Thomas DeMarco not only survived his second professional start last week, he improved to 2-0 and will be going for a third straight win Friday night when the Lions host the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a key West Division matchup at B.C. Place Stadium.
The 24-year-old from Palm Desert, Calif., who saw limited action as the Lions’ third-string quarterback last season, has been thrown into the fire the last two weeks with starter Travis Lulay nursing a shoulder injury.
“He’s a tremendous competitor. Everything he’s ever had to do, he’s had to overcome (adversity),” Benevides said of DeMarco. “He has tremendous poise. He has a way that the game’s not too big for him. He’s got a way to stay humble and stay loose and relaxed.
“There’s no doubt experience is not in his favour but what he’s done has been quite amazing.”
DeMarco has been efficient, if not spectacular, for the Lions (9-4), completing 39-of-65 passes for 435 yards and four touchdowns against zero interceptions.
He said that making his first two starts on the road, including 24-22 victory over the Roughriders (8-5) in Regina and a 53-17 blowout of the Blue Bombers in Winnipeg last week, has been beneficial.
“I feel a little more comfortable. It’s not my first play going in, but whether you’re home or away you’re going to have those nerves,” said DeMarco, whose team is 6-0 at B.C. Place. “You’re going to have that anxiety to get in there and play well.
“The biggest thing is the longer I’m in there, the more comfortable I’m going to get.”
DeMarco got a big boost from the Lions defence in last week’s victory over Winnipeg that clinched a playoff berth.
Adam Bighill was a catalyst with 10 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles. The third-year linebacker also had 30-yard touchdown return of a fumble and was named the CFL’s defensive player of the week and the defensive player of the month for September as the Lions won their third straight.
Lions cornerback Joshua Bell said the B.C. defenders are feeding off each other’s energy.
“You actually start salivating because you want to make the next play,” he said. “It’s like lions on a big catch. Everybody wants a piece of that meat.”
The Roughriders, meanwhile, limp into the game having lost four straight after ripping off wins in eight of their first nine contests.
Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant has three straight 300-yard passing games and six touchdowns over that span, but has been intercepted six times.
“We’re definitely entering the most crucial part of the season,” Durant said. “We’re fighting for playoff seedings.
“The good thing about it is we can control our own destiny. We play these guys two more times.”
Friday’s game also marks the return to Vancouver of former Lions receiver Geroy Simon, who was traded to Saskatchewan in the off-season. The 38-year-old broke the CFL record for career catches last week in the Roughriders’ 17-12 loss to the Montreal Alouettes.
Saskatchewan expects to have star running back Kory Sheets in the lineup after he missed the last two weeks with a knee injury. Sheets was a key to Saskatchewan’s early season success with a league-high 1,222 yards rushing.
“He’s certainly a big-time player and our guys are jacked up to play against him,” Benevides said. “He’s going to get his yardage. He’s going to make his plays. I think the biggest thing is how you approach it. I think it takes 12 men running to the football (on defence).”
Saskatchewan can tie B.C. for second in the West standings with a victory, while the Lions can pull even with the Stampeders — at least temporarily — ahead of next week’s pivotal game at Calgary. The Stampeders host the Blue Bombers on Saturday.
“Our mentality isn’t to get a home playoff game. Our mentality is to play at home the whole playoffs,” Lions defensive back Korey Banks said. “We’re going to take care of our own destiny. The cards are in our hands and we like it that way.”