Redblacks punch playoff ticket (& 12 other thoughts)

It wasn’t always pretty. In fact, at times, it was downright ugly. But in the end, the Ottawa Redblacks did just enough to punch their playoff ticket for the third consecutive season.

In a game that required another scrappy comeback, this time overcoming a 12 point deficit with 5 minutes remaining, the Redblacks gutted out a win with two late touchdowns to beat Saskatchewan 33-32.

It was Ottawa’s 13th game of the year decided by 7 points or less (a CFL record) and their first win against a Chris Jones coached team in 9 tries.

Here are all my thoughts on the win:

1) Over the first 55 minutes, Trevor Harris threw for just 141 yards and an interception. But, his weak performance will largely be swept under the rug thanks to two late scoring drives in which he passed for 121 yards and two touchdowns. On a night when he completed only 51.5% of his passes, was nearly picked off multiple times and repeatedly missed open receivers (overthrowing Diontae Spencer three times), Harris came up big when his team needed him the most. To be fair, he didn’t get much help from the rest of the offence, as he was often under heavy pressure and his receivers combined for six drops.

2) If you’re offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo, aside from your two final drives, there’s really not much to like about the offensive performance. As has been the case often this season, the Redblacks were awful on 2nd down, converting just 8/20 opportunities (40%). That’s despite averaging 8.6 yards per 1st down play. Given that Saskatchewan’s pass rush was so fierce, it was surprising that Elizondo didn’t stick with the ground game, only calling William Powell’s number ten times. Two weeks ago Powell shredded Saskatchewan for 187 yards, but was given 26 touches. With Harris struggling, it’s hard to understand why Powell wasn’t leaned on more. Ottawa massively lost the time of possession battle, controlling the ball for just 21:41 and went two and out four times. The saving grace, and ultimately the difference in the game, was the fact that the Redblacks went 3/3 in the red zone.

3) Although he was only handed the ball ten times, Powell made the most of his opportunities, gashing Saskatchewan’s defence for 58 yards. Powell busted two runs of 10+ yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Powell, who averaged 20.5 carries the past four weeks, had a significantly reduced workload and it was detrimental to the offence as a whole. As they head to the playoffs, the Redblacks should not be afraid to feed the hottest back in the league.

4) Much like their QB, Ottawa’s receiving corps salvaged an otherwise poor group outing on the game’s final two drives. Still, there’s no glossing over the fact that there were simply too many drops. Greg Ellingson, the CFL’s leading receiver, had two. Rookie Dominique Rhymes had two. Juron Criner and Patrick Lavoie each had one. One receiver who was solid all night (especially on the game’s final drives), was Jake Harty, who filled in admirably for Brad Sinopoli. Harty turned four targets into four catches and 44 yards. Diontae Spencer had an excellent game, frequently getting behind the defence, averaging 23.7 yards per catch, and finishing the game with 71 yards and a touchdown. Those stats would be even more impressive if Harris hadn’t overthrown him a few times.

5) After missing a couple of games with injury, Jon “Dangerbeard” Gott returned to Ottawa’s lineup. But it wasn’t at his regular position, as strong play from Alex Mateas earned him the right to keep starting at centre. Early on, it was apparent that Gott needed some time to adjust playing a position (right guard) that he hadn’t played the past four seasons. Maybe the cast on his right wrist was also a factor. Whatever the case, it took awhile for the Redblacks’ offensive line to settle in and provide Harris a clean pocket to throw from. As a unit, the offensive line gave up 7 pressures but no sacks. They were relatively successful on the ground, but were stuffed on 3rd and 1 in the second quarter, leading to a turnover on downs. More than any other group on the team, the offensive line will benefit from the upcoming bye weeks as it may allow guys like SirVincent Rogers and Nolan MacMillan to get healthy and return.

6) It’s fair to say that Mark Nelson’s defence took a bend but don’t break approach in Regina. Saskatchewan put up huge numbers; 26 first downs, 446 yards of net offence, averaged 7 yards per play and controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes, but were repeatedly forced to settled for field goals. Ottawa’s defence was given a short field a few times (once off a big punt return, once off a turnover on downs, once off an interception) but managed to limit the damage to three points. That ultimately wound up being the difference, as Saskatchewan only scored two touchdowns in six red zone trips. The Redblacks were opportunistic, generating two interceptions, one in the end zone, the other a pick six. And while they failed to force a single two and out all game long, they were able to limit Saskatchewan to a 42% conversion rate on 2nd down (10/24). The defence was lead by Taylor Reed, Sherrod Baltimore and Corey Tindal, who each made 8 tackles.

7) Speaking of Tindal, he had a rough night, often finding himself on the losing end of a one on one matchup with Duron Carter. He was also flagged for defensive pass interference and objectionable conduct. As for the rest of the secondary, it’s hard to say anyone had a good night when an opposing receiver (Carter) made 11 catches for 231 yards, but Antoine Pruneau’s one handed pick six was a thing of beauty. It provided a spark and put points on the board when the offence was flat. That’s the second week in a row that Pruneau has made a game changing play (last week it was an onside kick recovery).

8) In a game in which he made both field goals he attempted and averaged 46.6 yards per punt, Brett Maher’s best play came from his right arm, when he threw an 8 yard strike to Harty on a fake punt to keep a scoring drive alive. For the second consecutive week, Maher was involved in a trick play and executed his role to perfection. Bob Dyce deserves a ton of credit for having his special teams come up big when called upon. That being said, the cover units remain a work in progress, as Saskatchewan averaged 19 yards per punt return and 21 per kickoff.

9) Although the Redblacks have complained about the schedule since it was announced in the off-season, having byes in two of the next three weeks could be a blessing in disguise. Obviously, the worry about rust from having a single game in month is a significant concern, but given that Ottawa has five guys on the one-game injured list and seven on the six-game list, maybe time off is exactly what the doctor ordered. And that’s without taking in account the fact that Andrew Marshall, Zack Evans and Antoine Pruneau were all shaken up in the win over Saskatchewan. Evans seemed to dodge a bullet but Marshall is a key special teamer and Pruneau is one of Ottawa’s most important players. He left the game late in the 4th quarter and didn’t return after Jerrell Gavins rolled into his leg during a QB sneak.

10) With the win, the Redblacks move to 7-9-1, eliminate the Ticats and head to the post-season for the third straight year. There will now be playoff football at TD Place, though it remains to be seen if Ottawa will host the East Semi-Final or Final. One thing worth keeping an eye on is the temporary Grey Cup seats. If completed in time, they might allow thousands of extra members of R-Nation to pack the house for the home playoff game.

11) It’ll be interesting to see how the Rick Campbell handles his team’s final regular season game. On one hand, the East division crown is still up for grabs, although the Argos do have a game in hand. On the other, the Oct. 27th game is meaningless in the sense that Ottawa is already guaranteed a playoff spot. That said, even if you’re worried about losing someone to injury, resting guys when you only have a single game in a month doesn’t bode well for keeping anyone sharp. There will be much talk of rust as the playoffs approach and for Ottawa, it’ll be a legitimate concern.

12) It’s a small thing but have to admit I love the uniform combination used by the Redblacks last night in Regina. While I do appreciate their normal all white road look, in my mind, the black helmet, white jersey and black pants is a winning (and more traditional) look.

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