Harris’ MOP performance punches Ottawa’s Grey Cup ticket (& 13 other thoughts on beating the Ticats)

That’s one way to make a statement.

After listening to pundits claim how hard it was to beat the same team four times in a season and critics question his ability to rise to the occasion in big moments, Trevor Harris silenced his doubters in emphatic fashion.

Thanks to a record setting performance from their pivot and a smothering defensive effort, the Ottawa Redblacks hammered the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 46-27 and punched their ticket to next weekend’s Grey Cup contest in Edmonton.

Here are all my thoughts on Ottawa’s win:

1) If you notice Trevor Harris blinking a bit more this week, that’s because after three seasons in the nation’s capital, he’s finally stepped out of the long shadow cast by Henry Burris.

Harris’ performance against the Ticats didn’t just shut up his doubters, it earned him a spot in the record books. Every time Harris took the field, he shredded the Ticats. As the numbers reflect, he was zoned in and wholly in sync with his receivers. At one point, Harris even completed 14 consecutive passes.

He spread the ball around to ten (yes you read that right) different receivers and completed 90.6 per cent of his passes (29 of 32). That’s a CFL playoff record. Speaking of records, Harris’ six touchdown passes set another one, putting him ahead of guys like Anthony Calvillo, Danny Barrett and Ron Lancaster for most in a single playoff game.

Harris’ final stats read like a game of Madden played with cheat codes. 29 of 32 for 367 yards, six touchdowns and most importantly, no interceptions.

It must be acknowledged that Harris’ huge game doesn’t happen without the incredible protection afforded him by his offensive line. Aside from being hit by an unblocked blitzer on the game’s opening play, Harris always had a clean pocket to work from.

Fair or not, the playoffs are where a quarterback’s legacy is defined. It was only one win, but Harris went a long way towards establishing his.

2) Another major factor in Harris’ success was the stellar game plan put together by offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo. Elizondo has often drawn the ire of many in R-Nation throughout his time in the nation’s capital but he must be commended for his excellent play-calling against Hamilton. It seems like he took full advantage of the bye week to work some wrinkles into his game plan that the Ticats simply had no answer for.

Under his guidance, the Redblacks had their way with Hamilton’s defence. Ottawa averaged 7.4 yards per first down play, had a 70 per cent conversion rate on 2nd down (16 of 23), went 60 per cent in the red zone (3 of 5) and finished the night with 450 yards of net offence.

Using a variety of motion and misdirection plays, Elizondo orchestrated eight scoring drives (two field goals and six touchdowns). Even when the running game was struggling to generate significant yardage (Ottawa averaged 3.9 yards per carry), Elizondo stuck with it, calling 23 runs to 32 passes. That kind of balance goes a long way towards keeping a defence honest and forcing it to respect the threat of play-action.

Another thing Elizondo did well was capitalizing on turnovers. Both times his defence gifted him the ball, the offence scored on the following play. That’s the sign of an aggressive coordinator at the top of his game.

3) William Powell had 21 carries for 86 yards but his biggest contribution came not while rushing the ball, but rather in pass protection. As well as Powell ran (he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and busted three runs of 10+ yards), he blocked even better. Put simply, he was phenomenal at picking up the blitz and ensuring that Harris had an extra few seconds to identify the gaps in Hamilton’s defence when they brought the house.

What separates Powell from so many other backs is not only the things he can do with the ball in his hands (running over or around defenders), but the fact that he can be counted upon to pitch in and hold his own as a blocker on passing downs.

4) Hands up if you had the Canadian trio of FB J.C. Beaulieu, WR Marco Dubois and RB Brendan Gillanders all recording their first playoff touchdowns. Didn’t think so.

The unexpected production from Ottawa’s national depth players reinforces just how deep the Redblacks are in terms of offensive weapons.

5) As for the rest of the receiving corps, the usual suspects did their thing; Greg Ellingson had eight catches for 144 yards and a touchdown, Diontae Spencer had six for 41 yards and two touchdowns and R.J. Harris had six for 71 yards.

With the ball being spread around so evenly, it was Brad Sinopoli’s game to be on the short end of the stick; he finished with two catches on three targets for 24 yards. That said, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if your quarterback throws for six touchdowns and completes 90 per cent of his passes in spite of only targeting his favourite receiver just three times.

6) About a month ago the Redblacks made the decision to juggle their ratio and tinker with their offensive line, demoting Canadian Jason Lauzon-Séguin and promoting American Josue Matias. If Sunday’s game was any indication, it’s turned out to be a wise one. Matias’ steady presence at right tackle has stabilized the play of the entire group. The added rest that came with the bye week also allowed for the return of veteran Nolan MacMillan at right guard.

The result was Trevor Harris barely being touched or even pressured by the Ticats. The offensive line gave Harris plenty of pick to carve up Hamilton’s secondary. In addition to keeping their quarterback upright, Ottawa’s offensive line blocked well in the ground game, pounding away at a stout Ticat defensive front. In short yardage situations, which are a good litmus test for how much push an offensive line is getting, Alex Mateas and company imposed their will, converting every QB sneak attempted.

7) Although it was a relatively close game in the early going, momentum swung in Ottawa’s favour in the second quarter thanks to a pair of defensive turnovers. Noel Thorpe’s unit ultimately wound up picking off Eastern MOP nominee Jeremiah Masoli three times and limited the dual-threat quarterback to a single rush of 12 yards.

Ottawa’s defence was blitz heavy and Thorpe dug deep into his pressure packages as he unleashed his defenders on Hamilton’s pivot again and again. Of the Ticat’s twelve possessions, three ended in two and outs, three with interceptions, four with field goals and two with touchdowns.

Led by veteran linebacker Kyries Hebert’s team-high seven tackles, the Redblacks’ defence gave a master class in the “bend but don’t break” defence. Five times the Ticats drove inside Ottawa’s 20 yard line, but only twice did they come away with touchdowns. It’s worth mentioning that one of those touchdown drives would’ve ended in a field goal attempt if not for flags giving Hamilton fresh sets of downs.

8) Speaking of flags, in the five-year existence of the Redblacks’ franchise, no on-field action has ever been stupider than Jonathan Rose’s late hit and referee shove.

To begin with, although late hits aren’t exactly uncommon, body slamming your opponent into the middle of their bench when they’re clearly out of bounds is dumb.

Shoving the referee that’s trying to separate you from being swarmed by a justifiably angry bench of opponents is dumber.

Doing all that following a 2nd down stop when your team has a stranglehold on a playoff game in the second quarter is even dumber and demonstrates an utter lack of situational awareness.

Rose’s actions were dangerous, selfish and inexcusable. He’s extremely fortunate that the little life the Ticats took from their end of the half touchdown was quickly snuffed out by Trevor Harris and company at the start of the second half and more importantly, that the official he shoved wasn’t hurt.

Rose should expect a hefty fine from the league and frankly I’d be surprised if he is available to play at the Grey Cup as there is a precedent for a suspension.

9) One final note on Rose’s actions. Full credit to 21-year-old Carleton Ravens alum Justin Howell, who came in cold off the bench and didn’t miss a beat filling in for Rose. Typically limited to special teams duties, Howell finished the game with six tackles.

10) In case you were wondering, Lewis Ward is indeed human. After a stunning regular season which included a pro football record 48 straight field goals, Ward’s playoff debut was a disaster, at least by his own near perfect standards.

In addition to shanking a handful of converts, after making his first two field goal attempts, Ward pushed 44 yard attempt wide in the 4th quarter. It was his first field goal miss in five months. Frankly, it was going to happen sooner or later and better for the Redblacks that it happened when the game was out of reach. Now, instead of focusing on the pressure that comes with maintaining such a huge streak, Ward can concentrate on starting a new one.

11) I understand the league’s desire to protect quarterbacks and I applaud initiatives like the one introduced this week to protect them by having an eight official to focus solely on head hits, but if a quarterback lowering his helmet and running into a defender constitutes roughing the passer, they might as well put a flag belt on the men under centre. The fact the Avery Ellis’ clean third quarter sack on Masoli was flagged because Masoli ran into him with his head lowered was a farce, plain and simple.

12) Hard to argue against a coach who’s team is making their third Grey Cup appearance in four years, but count me among those who don’t believe in using a challenge in the first quarter for something that won’t result in points. In the end, Campbell’s decision to use his challenge early on didn’t come back to haunt his team, but it could’ve. Also, following Sherrod Baltimore’s game sealing interception late in the 4th quarter, you have to wonder why Trevor Harris remained in the game. Seemed like the perfect opportunity to have Dominique Davis come in to hand the ball off. Better safe than sorry, especially with the way some Ticat defensive linemen weere firing off into the offensive line during the victory kneel downs.

13) With the win, the Ottawa punches their ticket to the Grey Cup for the third time in the past four years. The last time that happened Russ Jackson was under centre for the Rough Riders in the 1960s (1966, 1968, 1969).

All things considered, it’s remarkable how successful the Redblacks’ first five years have turned out to be. Literally, generations of Ottawa fans never saw a team finish better than .500, let alone win a playoff game. Now, the Redblacks have achieved a level of consistent success where Grey Cup appearances are almost routine.

Their opponent in the championship game will be a familiar one, with the Stampeders looking to avenge their 2016 overtime loss. The Redblacks lost both games against the Stamps in the regular season, but the team has evolved considerably since their early July meetings.

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).