Eskimos fly past Alouettes; thoughts on the Eastern Semi-Final

I wasn’t buying into the narrative of Edmonton being the underdog in the Eastern Semi-Final.

That doesn’t mean I was certain they would win – I have a solid enough statistics background to avoid that – but there’s one guy in particular who fueled the thought. His name is Trevor Harris and he showed us all exactly why, blasting past even the highest of expectations.

The Eskimos never trailed but it was in doubt until the last minute. Esks over Als, 37-29.

Some thoughts:

– We have to start with the man himself, Harris. He opened with 22 straight completions, threading needles and dropping dimes, falling one shy of tying a CFL record with a pass bouncing off Greg Ellingson’s hands just before halftime. He instead established both a playoff record and a ‘from the start of the game’ record. At his peak he was 34-for-35 (over 97 percent) and at halftime he sat at 23-of-24 (for 259 yards, so not just little passes) while Vernon Adams was only 6-for-9. Impressive stuff.

The craziest stat though: through three quarters Harris had 413 yards – pretty consistently around the 138 per quarter average. In the fourth he had eight yards. I don’t know how that happens – the third quarter was still excellent, so probably not Montreal halftime adjustments – but it gave him a final stat line: 36-of-39 for 421 yards, one touchdown, and one tipped interception. The Ellingson miss, the unlucky pick, and a drop on a second and 15 check down were the only blemishes along with getting sacked once.

Don’t be fooled by ‘one passing touchdown’, as Harris led the Esks on no fewer than eight scoring drives, including two rushing touchdowns from C.J. Gable. Tremendous stuff from No. 7, his ultimate 92.3 percent completion rate is good for second all-time (minimum 20 attempts, and assuming no weird database quirks), behind only Ricky Ray’s 19-for-20 in 2013 and even better than his own 29-of-32 against Hamilton last November.

– As for the rest of the offence, the O-line obviously played a huge part in Harris’ success, giving him the time and space he needed to work his magic. Ellingson edged out Ricky Collins for the team lead in receiving with 125 to 117 yards, respectively.

Gable again had a middling 14 carries for 54 yards, but best demonstrated his role on both touchdown bullrushes. And Shaq Cooper, squeezed onto the roster, showed why he’s an excellent complement to Gable with seven touches for 63 yards and great burst every time.

Then there’s 35-year-old fullback Calvin McCarty, who almost caught a touchdown in the first quarter (getting tackled at the two) but made up for it in a big way in the second quarter. He was very involved in the offence, finishing with six touches for 36 yards and the score. Pick your favourite players and appreciate them while they’re there.

– We can’t keep going without giving huge credit to head coach Jason Maas, who game-planned out of his mind. Of course the execution was very good and Montreal’s defence showed its weaknesses, but the Eskimo offence was completely unstoppable for three quarters.

There were some familiar mistakes: a few ineffective swings; some throwing for five on second and eight (the type which resulted in Edmonton’s only punt of the first half); Gable running sideways instead of straight ahead on second and two inside the 10.

But 478 yards and 37 points with it is a tremendous day.

When your quarterback completes 22 straight passes, it’s because you know exactly where you should be looking to throw. Knowing how to take advantage of your opponents’ flaws – in Montreal’s case, a sketchy pass defence – is a key quality of any good coach. Harris and his cast of receivers found holes on holes. Eight players had a catch in the first twenty minutes and all finished with at least two.

The fourth quarter, as indicated, was strangely poor, either because of execution or a lack of faith in what was working. A stalled red zone drive to start followed by a first-play interception and then consecutive two-and-outs certainly kept things interesting. But overall, they did enough to win.

I could make a joke about bad challenges and Khari Jones wasting his but Maas was actually middle of the league pack in the regular season.

– A last comment on the offence: time of possession was ridiculous for the entire game, with an assist from Mario Alford’s big return. At halftime Edmonton led 21 minutes to nine, and it was around 30-15 after the third before settling at 36-24 final.

– On to the defence, which was a complete disaster for the first half and many parts of the second. Defensive back Josh Johnson did the absolute most when it mattered, coming up with a trio of second-half interceptions including one on each of Montreal’s last two drives.

He got roasted once by Shaq Evans in Week 20, but aside from that game he was an all-star at every position and showed his best stuff on Sunday.

The secondary as a whole, though, left the Alouettes way too much room to work and they frequently took advantage of it. With how little the defence was on the field, 23 offensive points against isn’t great. And while Adams posted a mild 14-for-27 passing, the Als got 226 yards out of those 14 completions. For all of Edmonton’s possession time, Montreal made up a lot of ground with big plays.

I do have to point out: the Esks were playing without Anthony Orange, Money Hunter, Forrest Hightower and effectively Arjen Colquhoun. That’s almost a whole starting lineup.

For comparison, Saskatchewan replaced Solomon Means with L.J. McCray at field corner for game six and started the exact same lineup – Marshall, Gainey, Edem, Moncrief, Purifoy, McCray – for 12 straight games before sitting Moncrief in game 18. Edmonton never went more than four games without a change.

It’s hard to perform consistently well with that much shuffling, especially when you’re reduced to mostly backups. Fortunately the Esks avoided serious injury troubles in 2019, with that one exception. You’d still expect better out of Phillip Lolley’s unit. Johnson was just about the only constant, but while he played games one and 19 at boundary halfback, he played more at each corner and field half in between. That’s a big part of my respect for him.

– Shifting away from the secondary, after one punt from each team in the first half, Edmonton immediately forced a two-and-out to start the second half. We also saw two sacks from the Esks defence, both on huge second downs in the fourth quarter to force two and outs.

Additionally, they kept Montreal’s biggest weapons in check – Geno Lewis only had four catches for 48 yards and William Stanback had 38 yards total, although with two touchdowns. Instead Vernon Adams Jr. was their most dangerous rusher – while Edmonton got quite a bit of pressure, Adams frequently evaded it and as he’s known to do made plays with his legs instead, even scoring on a designed run.

But Adams has his flaws, most of which can be pinned down on being a young quarterback. He takes serious risks with the ball and has all season, finally getting punished late on Sunday. That likely isn’t helped by inexperience on the big stage, which Matt Dunigan suggested after the game made it hard to read the field.

It would also be appreciated if he could stop trying to sell every penalty that comes near him, but he’s got enough raw talent to grow into a true star. His post-game activity was reportedly straight class, both interview and signing for fans after a crushing loss.

One more point on underdog vs. favourite: Montreal had two more wins than Edmonton this season. They pulled out massively unlikely victories over Calgary and then Winnipeg. There was never much separating these two.

– Edmonton allowed one kick return touchdown in the regular season (at Calgary), as I pointed out at the time sprung by a big hold on Alex Bazzie. All the respect for Mario Aflord’s tremendous talents, but it appears we are two-for-two. It might have been a bit of a slip or sell, but it also looks like a horse collar. (Apologies for the potato cam, but watch right on top of the number 30.)

Alford’s Eskimo counterpart Jamill Smith, meanwhile, was very solid in his first game back in green and gold, especially in the fourth quarter.

– Penalties weren’t a big issue for either team, with 65 total yards between the two including 30 in offsetting roughness. Edmonton’s other penalties were three offsides and two illegal blocks, one of each accepted, plus a declined holding. Oddly, the roughness was Edmonton’s only first half penalty and a declined illegal contact was Montreal’s only second half penalty.

The point, though, is that for all of Edmonton’s ‘discipline issues’, Montreal gave Edmonton two first downs on second down via penalty that set up the Esks’ second touchdown. How about that turn of events?

– Sean ‘Money’ Whyte once again, perfect in his former home. Five-for-five in field goals, spaced out between 17 and 43 yards, plus three-for-three in converts.

On to Hamilton. If the Esks dress the same secondary next week, they probably get wiped off the field. It’s still a one-off in November, and the last time Trevor Harris faced the Ticats…

Edmonton is 3-3 in East playoff games (3-1 in the semi-finals) and will try for their third time to win an East Final, this time with a Grey Cup date in Calgary on the line.

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