Injuries ruin Redblacks’ pre-season opener (and 14 other thoughts)

200 days after losing to Saskatchewan in the East Semi-Final, R-Nation finally got to see their Ottawa Redblacks take the field at TD Place.

The home team won 27-7, but did the 20,539 on hand really care? The real story isn’t that Ottawa won a pre-season game, but rather that they may have/almost/nearly lost their starting quarterback to a serious knee injury.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) For six minutes, Trevor Harris looked sharp and in rhythm. He was assertive with his reads and ran Ottawa’s no-huddle offence effectively, hitting receivers in stride. Then, disaster seemed to strike.

As Harris clutched his left leg and writhed on the turf in pain, it was easy for R-Nation to feel like their year was up. Although he limped off the field with help, Harris watched the second half of the game from the sideline, standing without the aid of crutches and without his knee wrapped in ice. Head coach Rick Campbell even claimed after the game that his injury wasn’t crazy bad, whatever that means.

Despite the post-game optimism in the air, if history is any indication, similar looking hits don’t bode well. Even if Harris can return following Ottawa’s Week 1 bye, he surely won’t be at 100%.

2) If Harris can’t go to start the regular season, Dominique Dion Davis will be the first man given an opportunity to take the reigns. To his credit, he did well when thrust into the fire. On his first series of the night, he came in and went 6/6 for 70 yards, a touchdown and a two-point convert. Davis looked cool, calm and collected when under centre. He did a good job using his legs to buy time and move the pocket. In addition to the touchdown drive, Davis led the Redblacks to a field goal and two, two and outs.

3) So what’s a general manager to do? Much will depend on what the doctors say this morning. If Harris misses a significant chunk of time, Marcel Desjardins will need to reinforce his quarterback group, because Danny Collins going 12/21 (57%) for 185 yards, a touchdown and an interception doesn’t inspire much confidence behind Davis.

That may be easier said than done because the quarterback market offers slim pickings. The free agent pool is bare; Drew Tate is headed to coach in the NCAA for those wondering and Henry Burris may still be in good shape but is long retired and well into the next stage of his career.

Trading won’t land anyone proven. In terms of teams with QB depth, Edmonton, Hamilton and Toronto come to mind. The Eskimos won’t part with their safety blanket in Kevin Glenn, never mind the fact that he may have burned his bridges during the expansion draft. I don’t care how much Johnny Manziel is hyped, the Ticats aren’t parting with a proven thing in Jeremiah Masoli. Perhaps Vernon Adams Jr. could be pried free but would that really be an upgrade? Besides, as NHL insider Elliotte Friedman is keen to say, opposing GMs don’t throw life vests when you’re floundering, they throw anvils. Ottawa’s best bet may be to sit tight and see who gets cut from a deep Argos quarterback group.

4) Running back William Powell’s night was short but film study won’t be kind. His one carry was good for four yards, but his missed block on a blitzing defender could have ended the Redblacks’ season before it began.

It was no surprise to see Mossis Madu enter the game following Powell’s whiff. Given that Powell and Madu are both capable of being lead backs, the battle for a starting job may come down to blocking ability. Allowing defenders a free run at your quarterback isn’t going to result in more playing time.

5) The Redblacks rarely ran the ball, with offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo calling 41 pass plays to 17 runs. Cedric O’Neal was handed the ball seven times but only mustered nine yards, averaging 1.3 yards per carry. Canadian Wayne Moore entered the game late in the 4th quarter but made every snap count, turning four carries into 29 yards.

6) As for the receiving corps, let’s start with the vets. Greg Ellingson looked like Greg Ellingson. His routes were smooth and he was a go-to guy for both Harris and Davis. After making his third catch of the night, he came up gingerly and wound up on the sidelines icing his leg. For a team that’s already being cautious with Brad Sinopoli, Ottawa can ill afford an injury to their best receiver. Diontae Spencer had a trio of catches, but also dropped a deep sideline pass that hit him square in the hands.

In terms of newcomers, Noel Thomas and Kieren Duncan stood out. The former for turning six targets into five catches for 63 yards and the latter for blowing by Montreal’s defence and hauling in a 54-yard touchdown bomb.

7) One should never read too much into a pre-season game; starters play sparing and coaches use vanilla playbooks. That said, there’s a few takeaways to be made from new defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe’s first game. Clearly, he isn’t afraid to blitz. The Redblacks brought pressure early and often and wound up generating three turnovers and four sacks. Furthermore, any time you hold an opposing team to two field goals and a rouge is commendable. Given how toothless Ottawa’s pass rush was last season, it was good to see defensive ends Jonathan Newsome and Avery Ellis looking spry off the edge.

8) It was a shame to see Anthony Cioffi’s impressive pick-six come off the board due to a flag. Last season, Cioffi’s 106 yard touchdown return would’ve stood, but thanks to a new off-season rule in which the CFL eliminated blindside blocks (aka hitting a defender that’s moving back towards his own goal-line), Cioffi gets credit for an interception but no points. Count me among those unimpressed with the rule change. If you’re chasing down the ball carrier, in my head, you’re fair game and should have your head on a swivel.

9) Thirteen years after taking the field at Lansdowne with the Renegades, Kyries Hebert was back in red and black. It didn’t take long for the ferocious defender to make his presence felt with a late sideline hit that resulted in an unnecessary roughness penalty. Hebert has a history of playing on the edge, and while he was signed to be mean and nasty, the Redblacks need him making plays that don’t result in flags.

10) Bob Dyce has to be feeling good about his special teams units. First off, rookie Canadian kicker Lewis Ward went a long way towards securing the starting placekicking job. Lewis made all four field goals he attempted (43, 44, 23 and 20 yards) and nailed an extra point attempt. In terms of punting, Richie Leone averaged 48 yards on six punts and had one massive hit to force a fumble.

As for the return game, RJ Shelton and Kieren Duncan impressed. Shelton had two returns for 47 yards while Duncan had five for 57 yards, including a 34 yarder. It bodes well that the Redblacks have options other than Diontae Spencer. Obviously, Spencer demonstrated last season that he’s a huge threat in the return game, but given that he’ll also be an important cog on offence, he can’t be risked handling every single return.

11) Speaking of returns, Rick Campbell’s decision to use star off-season acquisition Loucheiz Purifoy as a punt returner in the fourth quarter was plain stupid. On a night when Campbell could’ve lost his starting quarterback for the season, the decision to have Purifoy (a versatile defender who will be counted upon to contribute in a big way in 2018), handle a punt return late in a pre-season game was inexplicable.

12) In addition to the injuries suffered by Trevor Harris and Greg Ellingson, 2018 third round back Andrew Pickett limped off in the fourth quarter. Despite Ottawa’s depth on the offensive line, losing Pickett would be a blow.

13) OSEG just gets it. When it comes to fan interaction and building a connection between fans and the Redblacks’ organization, OSEG continues to show they won’t leave any stone unturned. Thanks to a fan twitter poll, CEO Mark Goudie allowed fans to replace the usual C at centre field with a 55-yard line.

The Redblacks also had prominent Sens personality (and epic ranter) bRian5or6 on hand to rev up the crowd.

14) Pre-season wins should always be taken with a grain of salt (doubly so given how inept the Alouettes looked), but it’s good for the 2018 Redblacks to get an early taste of winning. Rick Campbell and his coaching staff have a week to clean things up before Ottawa heads down to Guelph for a date with the Toronto Argonauts.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).