Redblacks rise to occasion (& 12 other thoughts on beating the Ticats)

Following a listless opening half of football, a fiery half-time speech from head coach Rick Campbell seemed to spark the Ottawa Redblacks. They came out with purpose and desire in the second half, clawing their way to a lead and hanging on for a 35-31 win over the Hamilton Ticats at TD Place.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) The longer the game went on, the better Trevor Harris looked. On a windy night in the nation’s capital, Harris not only managed to complete 75 per cent of his passes while spreading the ball around to seven different receivers but most importantly, avoided any type of costly mistake. Harris went 24 of 32 for 341 yards (his 10th 300 yard game of the season) and a touchdown. Harris’ ball placement was sharp and although he had a handful of overthrows, those can likely be chalked up to the windy conditions.

Overall, Harris was efficient and effective, exactly what the Redblacks need him to be at this time of year.

2) Jamie Elizondo has to figure out a way to get his offence to start faster. A week after being shutout in the second half in Edmonton, Elizondo’s unit looked lost in the game’s opening 30 minutes against the Ticats. Of Ottawa’s eight opening half possessions, five ended in punts. The Redblacks also had five two and outs in the first half.

Luckily for R-Nation, this week Elizondo’s half-time adjustments paid off, as Ottawa came out in the third quarter and put together back to back touchdown drives to claw their way back into the game.

Ottawa’s offence finished the night with 422 yards of net offence, 28 first downs, possessed the ball for just over 30 minutes and averaged an impressive 8.7 yards per second down play. A large reason behind Ottawa’s second-half offensive output was that they managed to convert 15 of 25 second down opportunities (60 per cent). Funny how keeping drives alive leads not only to points, but to a rested defence, which in turn helps the offence get the ball back sooner.

Although issues remain, going 4 of 6 in the red zone is a huge improvement for a unit that, coming into the game, was one of the worst in the red zone. Have to commend the two point play-calling as well. It was brilliant and helped Ottawa improve to a league-best 15 of 20 on two-point conversions this season.

Finally, Elizondo’s commitment to the run, which wasn’t doing much, must be acknowledged. On a night when it would’ve been easy to get away from it (as he’s done in the past), Elizondo stuck with the ground game, keeping the defence honest and setting up play-action.

3) Speaking of the run, despite being bottled and contained by a stout Ticats defence for most of the game, R-Nation saw why William Powell needs his touches. It took until his 20th carry (his first 19 only went for 39 yards), but Powell’s 4th quarter run with just over a minute left in the game was a dagger. He took the ball and exploded through the heart of Hamilton’s defence for a 40 yard gain, effectively icing the game. Or rather, it would’ve, if not for the fact that Powell’s 21st carry resulted in an unfortunate fumble that set up a wilder ending than necessary. Nobody in Ottawa was happier to see the defence hold than No. 29. The CFL’s leading rusher finished the night with 21 carries for 87 yards.

4) Big night for Ottawa’s receiving corps. Greg Ellingson’s five catch, 59-yard performance moved him past the 1,000 yard receiving mark on the season. Ellingson becomes just the third player in Ottawa’s history to post four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons (along with Tony Gabriel and Brad Sinopoli). As for his partner in crime, Brad Sinopoli had himself a night, with a game high eight receptions for 113 yards. Sinopoli now has 109 receptions on the year, just four back of Canadian single season record held by Montreal’s Ben Cahoon (with 112).

As for Ottawa’s others receivers, rookie R.J. Harris helped pull coverage away from the Buds by hauling in five passes for 128 yards. Diontae Spencer had a relatively quiet night (three catches for 26 yards), but was instrumental in influencing coverage and made arguably the catch of the game, with an acrobatic twisting touchdown catch in the third quarter.

5) After giving up 15 sacks over the previous three games, the Redblacks finally decided to make a change on their offensive line, swapping out Canadian Lauzon-Séguin and bringing in American Josue Matias at right tackle. It was a change that looks to have paid off in pass protection, as for the majority of the night, Harris had a clean pocket to step up into. Still, the group conceded three sacks in the 4th quarter and had no push whatsoever in the ground game. Not only was Powell repeatedly stuffed for no gain, but shortage situations proved to be an adventure. Although Dominique Davis finished with a hat-trick of touchdowns on QB sneaks, it took him five carries to get those scores, and even then, on a couple of them he only just made it across the line. The point is, there’s still work to be done with this group, changing one player hasn’t solved all the offensive line’s woes.

6) Up against the league’s best offensive attack, one that leads the CFL in rushing yards and passing yards per game, Noel Thorpe’s defence came to play. Even though they gave up 25 points in the first half, that’s likely a result of being on the field for nearly 18 minutes. Still, Ottawa’s defence managed to generate a turnover when Sherrod Baltimore picked off an errant pass. They also forced three two and outs, an impress accomplishment against the team with the fewest two and outs in the league. But it was in the second half that Thorpe’s unit really rose to the occasion. Led by Kyries Hebert’s eight tackles and game-sealing fumble recovery, the Redblacks shut down Hamilton’s attack, limiting them to a pair of field goals over the game’s final 30 minutes.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ottawa’s defensive performance is that they continue to get the job done despite being heavily banged up. Against Hamilton, the Redblacks were without Avery Williams, Randall Evans, Antoine Pruneau, George Uko and Kevin Brown. All players who have started multiple games for the Redblacks this season.

7) I love what Anthony Cioffi brings to Ottawa’s defence; he plays with speed, energy and aggression. But his high hit on Luke Tasker was stupid and dangerous. There’s simply no justification for launching yourself into a guy that late, especially when he clearly doesn’t have the ball. Not only was Cioffi fortunate not to have injured Tasker, he was also lucky that Hamilton only put three points on the board. Cioffi most certainly has a fine on the way but should avoid suspension as he’ll be considered a first time offender.

8) Following an early field goal that pulled him into a tie with NFL legend Adam Vinatieri for most consecutive field goals made in pro football history, Lewis Ward shattered the record in style. In the middle of the second quarter Ward trotted out and nailed a career-long 52 yarder with panache, making it look easy.

It’s mind-blowing how good Ward has been this season. As I’ve mentioned before, as much as this record is his, it’s also Richie Leone’s (his holder) and Louis-Philippe Bourassa’s (his long snapper). The holy trinity has earned themselves a special place in Ottawa’s football lore. Watching the trio at work is like poetry in motion. They’re automatic and perfect. It truly is special.

At this point it’s worth wondering what the future holds for Ward. Will the NFL come calling? Or will his size scare teams off? The last kicker who made the jump from Ottawa to the NFL (Lawerence Tynes) went on to have a pretty decent career.

As for those who dismiss Ward’s pro football record because it didn’t happen in the pressure cooker that is the NFL, I’d argue that kickers in the CFL often deal with worse weather due to more outdoor stadiums. In the end, kicking is kicking.

9) As for the rest of Ottawa’s special teams, the wind wreaked havoc with Richie Leone’s punts. Normally, he’s consistently swinging field position in Ottawa’s favour. Last night he shanked a pair of punts and averaged just 33 yards of net field position change.

The cover units weren’t spectacular either, allowing a handful of long returns to Ticat returner Frankie Williams. Maybe the fact that the Redblacks had ten defensive linemen dressed to eleven linebackers and defensive backs had something to do with it.

10) Despite stretches of inconsistent play (especially on offence), when it mattered most the Redblacks came up clutch and got the job done. Up against a Ticat team that hadn’t trailed in a game since September 22nd, one that had built double-digit leads in each of their past seven games and one that had won five of their last seven games, Rick Campbell’s squad never quit. Overcoming a 16-point deficit and hanging on to win was the kind of gutty performance R-Nation had been clamouring for all season long.

11) On that note, given what was at stake (first place in the division) and how wildly entertaining the game turned out to be, it’s a shame that for the second straight home game, the Redblacks weren’t playing in front of a sold out crowd. It wasn’t as bad as the smallest crowd in franchise history (21,027) that was on hand against the Bombers, but it makes no sense that TD Place was 500 people short of a sell out (24,000) last night against the Ticats. Step up R-Nation, this is the time of year when a packed house makes a difference.

12) With the win, Ottawa’s record improves to 9-7 on the season, guaranteeing the Redblacks of their first .500 season since 2015. More importantly, the win gives the Redblacks the season series tie-breaker against the Ticats. Although they have not secured the East division crown, at this point, Ottawa is in the driver’s seat. The Redblacks one win over their final two games to clinch and lock up a bye to the East Final. Their first opportunity will come next week in Hamilton, against a group that will be fighting tooth and nail to make sure both teams go into the final week of the regular season with something to play for.

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).