Harris’ huge night carries Ottawa to victory (& 11 other thoughts)

After blowing a 24-point lead against the Argos, the Ottawa Redblacks were eager to move on from last week’s debacle. The only way to achieve that was with a victory, although they won’t earn any style points, a scrappy defensive effort and a monster game from their quarterback carried the team. The Redblacks clawed their way to a come-from-behind 24-17 victory over the Montreal Alouettes.

Here are all my thoughts on the game.

1) The numbers from Trevor Harris’ 50th career start are ridiculous. By completing 44-of-54 of passes (81.5 per cent) for 487 yards, a touchdown and an interception, Harris had a career night and came up a single completion short of tying the CFL record for completions in a game (held by Henry Burris). Aside from a tipped pass that was returned for a pick six, Montreal simply had no answer for Harris’ quick-rhythm passing. Harris was brilliant, making quick, good reads and clearly in sync with his receivers. At one point he even completed 11 passes in a row. Shockingly, despite putting up a career high in passing yards (487), Harris’ longest completion of the night was just 27 yards. Harris did an excellent job of spreading the ball around, as is reflected by the fact that five receivers had six (or more) catches.

Much is expected of Harris and games last like night show why. When he’s on, he’s undeniably among the league’s elite. His challenge now is to continue to consistently play at the high level he is capable of.

2) When it wasn’t busy turning the ball over, Jamie Elizondo’s offence was operating like a well-oiled machine. Of Ottawa’s 13 offensive possessions, five resulted in points (two touchdowns, three field goals), three in punts (although no two and outs), and five in turnovers (three fumbles, a pick-six and a turnover on downs).

Despite their struggles to finish drives, the Redblacks moved the ball with ease, racking up 587 yards of net offence. The Redblacks generated 34 first downs (10 on the ground, 24 in the air), averaged seven yards per first down play, 8.2 yards per second down play and converted 65 per cent of all second down opportunities (20-for-31). They also dominated time of possession, holding onto the ball for 36:14.

Still, there’s room for improvement. Going 50 per cent in the red zone (2-for-4) isn’t ideal. Neither is calling 55 passing plays to 22 runs (although there’s something to be said for riding the hot hand when your quarterback is in the zone). Also, as much as Ottawa shredded Montreal in the short passing game, the lack of explosive deep plays is concerning.

3) Count me among those who support the decision to go for it on third and inches before the half. I may not be enamoured with the play call, especially when it seemed like a simple bootleg with Dominique Davis would’ve moved the chains, but I do like the aggressiveness. Head coach Rick Campbell has been criticized in the past for being too conservative, so hopefully, this signals a change in mindset.

4) After four games in which he failed to cross the 50-yard rushing mark, William Powell broke out of his mini-slump in a big way. He wasn’t often fed the ball, but when the Redblacks most needed him, he answered the bell. Powell finished the night with 17 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. Four of those carries, 36 yards and the touchdown, came on the Redblacks’ game-winning drive. Talk about saving your best for last. Powell was also a factor in the passing game, catching two passes for 21 yards. 18 of those yards came after the catch.

5) Led by Greg Ellingson’s best performance since Week 1 (11 catches for 110 yards), Ottawa’s receiving core had a huge night. In addition to Ellingson’s team-high 11 catches, four other Redblacks had more than six receptions. Brad Sinopoli made eight catches for 83 yards, Dominique Rhymes seven for 77, Diontae Spencer six for 74 and RJ Harris six for 70. Even fullback J.C. Beaulieu was a factor, snagging four passes for 52 yards, although his night was overshadowed by a pair of fumbles.

Given how quickly Trevor Harris was getting the ball of out his hands, the Redblacks’ receivers did an excellent job of swiftly creating separation at the snap of the ball. They were also able to repeatedly generate yards after the catch, as reflected the group’s 207 YAC (yards after the catch). The YAC also helps off-set the lack of explosive plays; the longest reception for any player was just 27 yards.

If Ottawa can maintain any semblance of this type of balanced production among their receiving corps going forward, their aerial attack will pose real problems for opposing defensive coordinators.

6) It’s worth mentioning that Harris’ huge game and the big numbers put up by Ottawa’s receivers aren’t possible if not for strong blocking from the offensive line. Although it would be easy to point to the three conceded sacks if you look at their entire body of work, giving up three sacks on 55 dropbacks isn’t bad at all. Furthermore, one of the sacks was more a result of Harris holding onto the ball too long. On top of keeping their quarterback upright, Ottawa’s offensive line was able to get it done on the ground, opening wide lanes through Montreal’s front seven. Any time a team averages 5.2 yards per carry you know the big boys up front are playing well.

7) Johnny Football’s second start was light years ahead of his debut performance, but still wasn’t overly spectacular. In fact, for most of the game, Noel Thorpe’s shuffled defensive unit kept Montreal in check. The mid-week release of Loucheiz Purifoy resulted in Sherrod Baltimore’s and Justin Howell’s first starts of the season and in Antoine Pruneau shifting to SAM linebacker. All three were solid and Pruneau led Ottawa’s defensive effort with a team high five tackles.

Although the Redblacks failed to pick off Manziel, the defence did sack him twice and force two fumbles (recovering one). They also held Montreal to just 241 yards of net offence and a 39 per cent conversion rate on 2nd down (7-of-18).

Given how soft the defence played in the second half against Toronto last week, it was reassuring to see Thorpe’s unit end the game with four straight two and outs.

8) Another week, another record-setting performance from rookie kicker Lewis Ward. By yet again making every kick he attempted (3-for-3), Ward has now extended his CFL rookie record of consecutive successful field goals to 22. His value to the team cannot be overstated and although it’s early, if he can maintain his level of play, his name should be in the conversation when discussing the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian.

9) As for the rest of Ottawa’s special teams, Richie Leone wasn’t called upon often, but when he was he did his job well. Leone’s three punts went for 143 yards and resulted in an average net gain of 46.7 yards. Much of that is on him, but full credit also goes to the cover units, which held Montreal to just three punt return yards, total.

10) Fantastic to see OSEG and the Redblacks’ honouring the ’68/’69 Rough Rider teams. Ottawa’s rich football history should be embraced at every opportunity, especially while those legendary players still walk among us. If you’re interested in reading more about those teams and this weekend’s celebration, check out my interview with Jim Cain.

11) With the win, the Redblacks move to 5-3 on the season. Besides creating some separation atop the East, the Redblacks own the season series tie-breaker over Montreal. While that’s unlikely to be a factor down the stretch, it’s also a good thing to have in your back pocket.

Ottawa’s sixth consecutive win over Montreal won’t answer every question surrounding the team (after all, it was hardly a resounding victory), but it does bode well. The reality is that good teams win the games they should, and this was a game Ottawa should have and needed to win. They won’t garner any style points with the victory, but they got the job done and earned a valuable two points.

There’s still room for improvement in every area and the Redblacks will look to build on this win when they visit Winnipeg next Friday and take on the Blue Bombers.

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