Redblacks shock Saskatchewan (& nine other thoughts)

In the midst of a two-game losing skid, the Ottawa Redblacks travelled to Saskatchewan to take on a team that had won four straight. Thanks to a couple of standout individual offensive performances and a stifling defensive effort, the Redblacks sent a sold-out crowd home disappointed, hanging on for a 30-25 victory.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) Trevor Harris’ struggles have been well documented. But last night, on the road and against one of the league’s toughest defences, he was at his best. Harris made quick decisions but more importantly, good ones. He took care of the ball, avoiding turnovers and even managed to connect on a number of deep shots down the field, something he’s rarely done this season.

Harris picked Saskatchewan’s secondary apart, completing 79.4 per cent of his passes (27-of-34) for 334 yards and two touchdowns. Time after time he threw darts, putting the ball where only his receiver could get it. In addition to getting the job down with his arm, Harris used his legs effectively. Although he only scrambled once (for a gain of five yards), Harris repeatedly bought time and extended plays by moving around the pocket and avoiding pressure.

As impressive a performance as it was, if Harris wants to silence his critics he’ll need to prove he can do it again. He’s had other big games this season, the issue has always been consistency.

2) After two lacklustre weeks of play-calling, Jamie Elizondo deserves credit for a solid game plan against Saskatchewan. His balanced approach (35 passing plays to 24 runs), kept the defence honest and allowed things like play-action to work. Elizondo also did an excellent job with his protection schemes, often using fullback J.C. Beaulieu as an extra blocker on passing plays.

Although Elizondo’s unit generated 481 yards of net offence, possessed the ball for over 32 minutes and was 2-for-2 in the red zone, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Despite averaging nine yards per second down play, the Redblacks only moved the chains 9-of-24 times on second down (38 per cent). Of Ottawa’s 17 offensive possessions, only five resulted in points (four touchdowns and a field goal). Also, of those 17 possessions, 13 lasted five plays or less. That’s hardly ideal.

3) Interesting night for William Powell. Although at times he struggled to find open space, he continually ran hard and downhill, never going down at first contact. He had 18 carries on the night and finished with 148 yards and two touchdowns. Powell is the kind of back who flourishes the more his name is called and eventually, he wore down Saskatchewan’s defence, busting four runs of 10-plus yards including the game-sealing 69-yard touchdown sprint in the fourth quarter. Thanks to his huge game, Powell now leads the CFL in rushing yardage and broken tackles.

4) Strong game from Ottawa’s receiving core. Led by Diontae Spencer’s eight catches for 110 yards and a touchdown, the Redblacks’ receivers were clearly in sync with their quarterback. It was a relatively quiet night for the Buds, as Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson combined to record nine catches for 99 yards. The emergence of R.J. Harris as a reliable downfield threat has been a boon to Ottawa’s passing attack and taken pressure off of the “big three”. His 44-yard touchdown catch was a thing of beauty.

5) After giving up six sacks against BC, Ottawa’s offensive line took a ton of heat from many in R-Nation. How did they respond? By keeping a clean sheet against the team that leads the leagues in sacks. Charleston Hughes and Willie Jefferson are among the best in the league at getting after the quarterback and both were practically invisible on the field. Although the veteran group blocked well (both on the ground and in pass protection), it must be acknowledged that Trevor Harris helped them out significantly by getting rid of the ball quickly and moving around the pocket when it collapsed.

6) It’s almost like Noel Thorpe’s unit took all the pre-game talk about the quality of Saskatchewan’s defence as a slight. Ottawa’s defence is often overlooked, but it gave Zach Collaros fits. Led by Avery Williams’ seven tackles, the Redblacks allowed just 240 yards of net offence. Of Saskatchewan’s 14 offensive possessions, 10 ended in punts, two in turnovers and two in scores. Aside from one busted play late in the fourth quarter, Ottawa’s defence was stifling. No Saskatchewan receiver totalled more than 18 yards after the catch. And you have to mention defensive lineman George Uko, who continues to impress with his ability to blow up run plays.

7) Jonathan Rose is an enigma. Undoubtedly he is the defensive back who is most often beat deep. It happened repeatedly in Winnipeg, B.C. and even early on against Saskatchewan. Yet he leads the league in interceptions (5) and came up huge for the Redblacks’ last night, with a red zone pick and one to seal the win in the last minute of the game. He also had a fantastic diving knockdown.

8) The positive for Ottawa’s special teams last night was the fact that Lewis Ward’s field goal streak is alive at 30, tying him with Paul McCallum for third longest all-time. The negative was everything else. Ottawa’s kick coverage was atrocious. They not only allowed the opening kick off to be returned for a touchdown but also a third-quarter punt. Even when Saskatchewan returners weren’t taking kicks back all the way to the end zone, they repeatedly flipped field position, averaging over 28 yards per return. Film study for Bob Dyce’s units won’t be fun.

9) Will the real Redblacks please stand up? Beating Saskatchewan at home is no easy task, and when combined with impressive road wins in Winnipeg and Hamilton, one gets the sense that Ottawa is capable of hanging with anyone. Yet on the flip side, there are ugly losses to Toronto, Montreal and B.C. It remains to be seen how the rest of Ottawa’s season unfolds but Rick Campbell’s squad has demonstrated that they should never be counted out.

With the win, the Redblacks improve to 4-3 against the West (the only Eastern team with a winning record) 7-5 on the year, remain atop the East and open a slight gap between themselves and the Ticats. This is the time of year when games seem to matter more and good teams simply find a way to get two points. With a tough game at home against Edmonton up next, the Redblacks will look to continue their playoff push and keep their play consistent.

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).