FILOSO: Self-inflected wounds cost Ottawa a Grey Cup (& 12 other thoughts on losing to the Stamps)

On a night when their defence played well enough to win a championship, the Ottawa Redblacks’ Grey Cup dream slid out of reach thanks in large part to self-inflected wounds on offence and special teams.

Unable to overcome six turnovers, the Redblacks fell to the Calgary Stampeders 27-16 in front of a sold-out crowd of 55,819 at Commonwealth Stadium.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) A week after his flawless six-touchdown performance in the East Final, Trevor Harris crashed back to Earth on the game’s biggest stage. Although Ottawa’s offensive woes cannot be pinned solely on his shoulders, Harris’ worst game in two months came at the most inopportune time. Heading into the Grey Cup, Harris had thrown 17 touchdowns to just two interceptions over his last seven starts.

Against the Stampeders, Harris struggled out of the gate. At times he had issues deciphering Calgary’s defence and made a number of bad throws, completing just 52 per cent of his passes on the night, a far cry from his 90 per cent East Final completion rate. The final stat line reads 20 of 38 for 288 yards, a touchdown and three picks. It should be noted that both 4th quarter interceptions were a result of pressing and taking deep shots to try and get back into the game.

Given how much Ottawa’s offence relies on crisp route running and precision, it’s no stretch to say the slippery field wreaked havoc on the rhythm of the passing game. Harris was never in sync with his receivers and clearly struggled to properly set his feet and step into throws.

With the loss, Harris’ career record against the Stamps falls to 0-7-2. Despite his underwhelming showing in the Grey Cup, R-Nation should be rooting for Harris to be re-signed. 2018 was the year in which he fully came into his own, setting career highs in passing yardage, coming up clutch down the stretch and winning his first playoff game. Even if the season didn’t end as he and many in the nation’s capital would’ve liked, it shouldn’t overshadow Harris’ entire season of work. Harris remains among the league’s elite quarterbacks, even if he came up short when it mattered most.

2) Offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo always had his work cut out for him against the league’s top-rated defence, yet that doesn’t justify Ottawa’s poor offensive showing. Any way you slice it, the numbers are ugly.

Of the Redblacks’ 16 offensive possessions, three resulted in scoring drives (two field goals and a touchdown). Over the game’s final 30 minutes, Elizondo’s offence produced a single field goal. Against a team like the Stampeders, that was never going to cut.

Despite averaging 8.5 yards per 1st down play, Ottawa’s mustered only 4.5 per 2nd down play. The Redblacks converted 9 of 22 2nd down opportunities (41 per cent) but the real killer stat is that when they needed between 4-to-6 yards for a fresh set of downs, the Redblacks moved the chains 2 of 9 times.

Elizondo’s unit struggled to put together drives, but even when they did get into the red zone, they couldn’t finish and were forced to settle for a field goal. They also possessed the ball for less than 25 minutes and failed to capitalize on either of the interceptions generated by their defence.

While the Redblacks’ six turnovers can’t be laid squarely at Elizondo’s feet, even when Ottawa wasn’t turning the ball over it had nothing going on offence. Given the weapons at its disposal and how much production Elizondo’s offence has shown itself capable of delivering, to describe its Grey Cup performance as anything other than disappointing would be false.

3) A solid yet rather unremarkable night from William Powell. He ran hard when called upon (averaging 5.9 yards per carry) but his 2nd quarter fumble will haunt him. It came on the heels of an interception, right when the Redblacks looked to regain momentum. Overall, the Stamps effectively bottled Powell up, limiting the damage to 16 carries for 94 yards and two receptions for 8 yards.

4) Normally, the Buds are the engine that drives Ottawa’s offence. Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson are arguably the league’s most dangerous receiving duo, yet against Calgary, the typically sure-handed receivers struggled. Ellingson was targeted eleven times but snagged just four of those passes for 58 yards. Worse, Ellingson finished the night with three uncharacteristic drops. As for his partner in crime, Sinopoli turned seven targets into four catches for 61 yards. He also had a crucial drop on 3rd down which resulted in a turnover on downs late in the 4th quarter.

As for the rest of Ottawa’s receiving corps, Diontae Spencer was a non-factor, finishing the night with three catches for 31 yards. R.J. Harris capped off a strong rookie campaign by hauling in four passes for 66 yards. And lastly, despite making just eleven regular season receptions, Julian Feoli-Gudino made the most explosive play of the game.

5) For all of the talk heading into the game about Calgary’s fierce pass rush, Ottawa’s offensive line completely neutralized it. The slick field aided their cause but it wasn’t the only reason Trevor Harris had a clean pocket to work from all night long. Led by Alex Mateas, the Redblacks offensive line picked up the blitz well and gave Harris plenty of time to make his reads. They also had a strong showing in the ground game, opening lanes through the teeth of the defence, as the Redblacks ran almost exclusively up the gut.

6) Shame to see a championship level performance from the defence wasted. Noel Thorpe’s unit can take solace in the fact that although they didn’t come away with the win, they left it all out on the field.

Much like it was all season long, the Redblacks’ defence was dominant. In addition to picking off Bo Levi Mitchell twice, they repeatedly bailed out their offence, who hung them out to dry. That the Stampeders only managed ten points off of Ottawa’s six turnovers is a testament to the defence’s stellar play.

Of Calgary’s 16 offensive possessions, only four resulted in scoring drives (two touchdowns, two field goals). The Stampeders were also held to just six points in the second half and a 50 per cent second down conversion rate (13 of 26).

Calgary’s leading rusher was Don Jackson, who finished the game with 53 yards (averaging 3.8 yards per carry), Mitchell was held to 253 passing yards and no Stampeder receiver had more than 64 reception yards.

Eight Redblacks wound up with at least three defensive tackles but unsurprisingly the player who led the way was veteran linebacker Kyries Hebert. In what may have been his last game in the nation’s capital, the former Renegade made a game high eight tackles, pressured Mitchell into an interception and nearly had a pick of his own.

In the end, Ottawa’s defence was simply on the field too often (over 35 minutes), and put in too many hard spots by their offensive counterparts.

7) With all of the controversy surrounding Jonathan Rose following his boneheaded actions in the East Final, you knew one way or the other he’d be a storyline in the Grey Cup. Fans didn’t have to wait long for him to make an appearance as Rose’s 1st quarter end zone interception snuffed out a promising Calgary drive. Rose actually should’ve had a second interception but failed to hang onto another errant pass in the second quarter. Whether or not Rose ends up re-signing in Ottawa, his suspension will likely come into effect early in the 2019 season.

8) After being a strength all season long, Ottawa’s special teams units were an Achilles heel against the Stampeders. A week after missing a field goal and shanking two converts, Rookie and Special Teamer of the year Lewis Ward went 2 of 3 on field goal attempts, missing a 48 yarder in the 1st quarter. Following a historic regular season, it’s fair to say Ward cooled off significantly in the playoffs.

Speaking of points left on the board, allowing a 97-yard punt return touchdown (the longest in Grey Cup history), right before the half was a back-breaker. Whether it was a tactical miscue on the part of Rick Campbell or Richie Leone for failing to boot the ball out of bounds, after a strong rally in the second quarter, conceding a punt return touchdown right before the half killed any momentum the Redblacks might have built.

Things only got worse in the second half when Diontae Spencer failed to secure the ball with both hands and coughed up a fumble early in the 4th quarter. That fumble led to a field goal and if you factor in Ward’s miss and the return touchdown conceded, the Redblacks “gave up” 13 points on special teams. When you lose the game by 9, that stings.

Shoutout to J.P. Bolduc for his three special teams tackles and to long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa for getting the job done despite the conditions. Bourassa’s consistency has been overlooked all year long but if he doesn’t do his job well, Ward’s streak doesn’t exist.

9) While the slippery field cannot and should not be used as an excuse by Ottawa, the fact that it was a factor can’t be ignored either. Given how everyone from fans to media spent the week crowing about the unusually warm weather in Edmonton, why was the field so slippery? As mentioned above, the Redblacks cannot use the field conditions as an excuse, after all, both teams played on the same sufferance, but you can’t help but feel like both teams could’ve played much better had the field not been so unreliable.

10) Although Rick Campbell might take some flak for his decision to go for it on 3rd and two with eight minutes left in the 4th quarter when down by 13, I personally loved the call. On a night when the Redblacks had struggled to get anything going offensively, given how close Ottawa was to the end zone and how badly they needed a boost, it was the right choice. That said, I wasn’t enamoured with the play-call, but if Sinopoli hangs on to the routine catch he’s made dozens of times this season, it’s a non-issue.

11) In hindsight, one decision Campbell may come to rue was the choice to practice indoors all week instead of being outdoors at Commonwealth whenever possible. Perhaps more time on the actual playing surface would’ve influenced a change or alternation in the offensive game plan. It may have also given players a better chance to make a more informed decision in terms of footwear.

12) 2018 won’t go down as a Grey Cup-winning season for the Ottawa Redblacks, but it still will be remembered fondly once the sting of a disappointing loss starts to fade.

In the big picture, the Redblacks’ accomplishments since their inaugural season are impressive. Four straight playoff appearances, three East Final victories, three Grey Cup appearances and a championship win. Given that high-level success is so rare and fleeting in pro sports, Ottawa’s current run should be cherished while it lasts.

Literally generations of fans in the nation’s capital never saw a team finish better than .500, let alone win a playoff game. Nowadays, the Redblacks have achieved a level of consistent success where Grey Cup appearances are almost routine.

That’s a direct result of the hard work and sound decisions made by GM Marcel Desjardins and head coach Rick Campbell. With a long list of potential free agents and CBA uncertainty looming, whatever roster the Redblacks field in 2019 is sure to be different. But thanks to the solid foundation already in place, for Desjardins and Campbell the goal will be the same; pursuing a championship.

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).