On a miserable day in Hamilton, the Ottawa Redblacks overcame the conditions, swept the season series against Hamilton and won their fifth straight game at Tim Horton’s Field, 30-13, to clinch the East Division crown.
Here are all my thoughts on the game:
1) It was the throw that broke the camel’s back. Mid-third quarter, driving into the wind, Trevor Harris uncorked a deep 79-yard touchdown bomb that hit Diontae Spencer in stride. It was not only the throw of the game but of the season. Like most of Harris’ passes on the night, it was a tight spiral and perfectly placed.
The @REDBLACKS don't waste any time on this possession as Diontae Spencer (@DSpencer4_) catches a deep pass for a 79-yard touchdown!! This is his second touchdown catch of the game!#CFLGameDay pic.twitter.com/YcJWtHG1g5
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) October 27, 2018
In a game when his team needed him to be at his best, Harris not only completed 23-of-30 passes for 267 yards and a trio of touchdowns, but he also avoided making a mistake. And given the conditions, that might be the most impressive aspect of his performance. Harris was clinical against the Ticats, picking apart Hamilton’s secondary with ease.
For a quarterback who has taken his share of criticism this season, after seventeen games, the numbers speak for themselves: 5,116 passing yards, 22 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, ten 300-yard passing games and an 8.3 yards per pass average.
That said, the main knock of Harris has always been that he can’t win the big game. He’s dispelled some of that by shinning in back to back games that decided the East, but still, fair or not, many in R-Nation will judge his season on how he plays from here on out. In the eyes of many fans, remarkable regular season wins and impressive stats go out the window once the games become do or die. Harris’ legacy in Ottawa will ultimately be defined by how he plays in November.
2) Playing any team in consecutive weeks is a tough task. Doubly so when you’re an offensive coordinator looking to keep a familiar foe off-balance. And things get even more complicated when you’re playing in pouring rain. That’s why Jamie Elizondo deserves a ton of credit for the way his offence performed.
In spite of the conditions, and without the CFL’s leading rusher, Elizondo’s offence still managed to put up 350 yards of net offence, averaging seven yards per play. Elizondo’s play-calling spread the ball around, resulting in four receivers having at least four catches, making it impossible for Hamilton to lock in on any specific player.
Ottawa’s aggressiveness must also be commended. On a night when it would’ve been easy to play small ball football, Elizondo pushed the ball down the field, and it paid off. Whether it was the deep touchdown strike to Spencer to put the game out of reach in the third quarter or the third and one play-action pass with Dominique Davis that led to a 55-yard touchdown, the Redblacks weren’t afraid to take chances. Those calculated gambles showed confidence in the players who in turn, rewarded their coaches’ faith.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) October 27, 2018
As always, there remains room for improvement. The Redblacks were just 9-of-20 on second down conversions (45 per cent), 1-for-2 in the red zone and put together only five scoring drives on thirteen possessions.
The good news is that Elizondo and the offence have three weeks to install new wrinkles and put together a strong game plan for the East Final.
3) With William Powell held out of the game for “maintenance” fourth-year player Mossis Madu got his first action of the year. While he wasn’t disappointing, he also won’t be mistaken for Powell any time soon. Madu’s 11 carries were good for 26 yards (2.4 per carry) and his longest gain of the night was limited to eight yards. He wasn’t really a factor in the passing game, catching one pass for 10 yards, but he did block extremely well on passing downs, effectively picking up the blitz (when it came).
4) Would anyone argue against the Redblacks having the best receiving corps in the league? Whether it was Brad Sinopoli breaking the CFL record for most receptions by a Canadian in a single season, or Diontae Spencer crossing the 1,000 yard mark (the third Ottawa receiver to accomplish the feat in 2018), or R.J. Harris continuing his strong rookie campaign, Ottawa’s receiving corps screams balance.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) October 27, 2018
Against the Ticats Sinopoli had seven catches for 56 yards (bringing his season total to 116 receptions), Greg Ellingson had five for 71 yards and two touchdowns, Spencer had four for 116 yards and two touchdowns and Harris had six for 62 yards. Teams are forced to pick their poison when playing the Redblacks but the reality is they are four deep in the receiving corps and someone is always open. If they can remain healthy, they’ll continue to pose huge matchup problems against any defence they play.
5) For the second straight game, the offensive line was solid. American Josue Matias made his second start at right tackle in the place of Canadian Jason Lauzon-Séguin and acquitted himself well. As a unit, the offensive line kept a clean sheet, conceding zero sacks. Given that the Redblacks dropped back to pass 31 times, that’s an impressive accomplishment against a strong Ticat front seven. Yet as well as they pass protected and kept a clean pocket for Harris to step into, they struggled yet again on the ground, averaging 2.1 yards per rush won’t get the job done most nights. Oddly enough, the Redblacks repeatedly converted short yardage situations, but on normal running downs, failed to open lanes. With three weeks until the East Final, perhaps the return of Nolan MacMillan provides a boost.
6) Total group effort from Noel Thorpe’s defence against the Ticats. Eight players finished the game with at least three tackles and guys swarmed to the ball. The group was dialed in and limited the damage done by the always dangerous Jeremiah Masoli. Thanks to five knockdowns (including another from defensive end Danny Mason who seems to get his hands on a pass every week), Masoli completed just 52 per cent of his passes. He was also held to a single carry for 13 yards.
Of Hamilton’s 14 offensive possessions, seven ended in punts (including six two and outs), three in turnovers (two interceptions and a turnover on downs) and four in field goals. The Ticats went 8-for-23 on second down and 0-for-2 in the red zone.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) October 27, 2018
All in all, an excellent night’s work from Ottawa’s defence.
7) Rookie phenom Lewis Ward was only called upon once, but continued his streak, nailing a 33-yard field goal to extend his record to 46 in a row. At this point, he should have Rookie of the Year and Special Teamer of the Year locked up. If he doesn’t perhaps it’s because he missed another convert (I kid).
As for the rest of Ottawa’s special teams, Richie Leone punted six times for 271 yards, with a net average of just under 40 yards per punt. Even when things went wrong for Leone, he still came out okay. A bobbled snap in the fourth quarter resulted in a 61-yard boot (his longest kick of the night).
8) I get that you can’t exactly plan for the elements, but TSN’s soggy cameras were an embarrassment. Given that TSN is not only the national broadcaster of the CFL but that their production is also aired throughout the US, would it really have been so difficult to get someone to wipe the camera lens once in a while? I’ve watched plenty of NFL games in inclement weather but I can’t recall struggling to see the field or make out player numbers because of water on the camera lens. When people call the CFL bush league, this is exactly the kind of thing they’re referring to.
9) Despite leading their division for most of the season, the Redblacks have gotten shockingly little respect. Whether it’s been the CFL Simulator giving them single-digit odds of reaching the Grey Cup or pundits continually writing them off, Ottawa has never gotten the respect it deserves. That’s odd given that they’ve been the class of the East all season long. The Redblacks have played their best when it mattered most, going 7-4 against playoff teams. Perhaps now that they’ve won the East (and did so in dominant fashion), people will change their tune.
10) For the third time in their five year existence, the Ottawa Redblacks are East Division Champions and will host the East Final. It will be the third time in the past four seasons that the East Final is held in the nation’s capital. Both other times they have hosted the East Final (in 2015 and 2016), the Redblacks have gone on to play in the Grey Cup.
11) With the win, Rick Campbell’s squad improves to 10-7 on the season. Although one regular season game remains before the playoff bye, the focus at this point should be on resting players and ensuring the team is as healthy as possible for November 18th’s matchup against the winner of the East Semi-Final. Risking starters in a meaningless game against the Argos doesn’t make a lot of sense, so don’t be surprised to see players held out next week. Given how banged up the Redblacks have been, especially on defence, the extra bye week could allow someone like Antoine Pruneau or Nolan MacMillan to return off the six-game injured list.