Redblacks put the ‘L’ in Elks and 11 other thoughts on Ottawa’s upset win in Edmonton

Photo courtesy: Ottawa Redblacks

After a 645 day hiatus that featured a complete roster overhaul, three drafts, the launch of a new line of uniforms, and a global pandemic, the Ottawa Redblacks finally returned to the field, beating the Edmonton Elks by a score of 16-12 in front of a crowd of 30,302.

The win was Ottawa’s first at Commonwealth Stadium since 2016, when they beat Edmonton in a 45-37 overtime thriller.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) Heading into the season opener there was significant concern about how little Matt Nichols had participated in training camp. Not only did he go long stretches without throwing, when he was under centre, while accurate, his passes lacked velocity. That was exactly the case against the Elks.

The stat line is rough: 12-of-20 passes completed (60 percent) for 71 yards. His longest pass of the game came in at just 15 yards and overall, Nichols averaged 3.6 yards per completion.

The only stat head coach Paul LaPolice will care about is that as a visitor, Nichols improved to 6-0 in his career as a starter in Edmonton, but the real concern is that it’s very clear his shoulder isn’t right. The fact of the matter is in the CFL it’s rare for a team to win in spite of its quarterback play. Although Nichols avoided turning the ball over and made good reads, his inability to deliver the ball with any kind of zip hurt his receivers and led to stalled drives.

Ottawa has a bye in Week 2, so in theory that’s more time for the team to rest his shoulder, but if two years off and being on a pitch count in training camp didn’t help, it’s fair to ask if an extra week will make any difference. If not, R-Nation might see a new quarterback under centre in Saskatchewan on August 21.

2) Paul LaPolice’s first game calling plays for Ottawa was an interesting one. On one hand, 11 of his team’s 14 drives resulted in two-and-outs, with seven straight to start the game and another three to open the second half. On the other hand, I’m not sure how one is supposed to direct an offensive attack when the quarterback can’t push the ball down the field.

Overall, the Redblacks ran 42 plays, averaged 2.2 yards per play, gained a total of seven first downs and 94 yards of offence total. Most concerning was their inability to sustain drives: converting 3-of-19 second down opportunities while averaging 0.2 yards per second down play is not typically a winning formula.

Although it was far from a banner night offensively, what was encouraging to see was the motion and misdirection used — something lacking in 2019 — and the fact that despite it not really paying off, the team never abandoned the run. The good thing about the early bye week is it gives LaPolice real film to use to teach his system to his nine new offensive starters.

3) As to be expected when the quarterback struggles, it was a pretty quiet night for Ottawa’s receiving group. With that said, Ryan Davis had a decent CFL debut, turning seven targets into six catches for 33 yards. The former Auburn University star ran crisp routes and showcased his speed — he’ll be one to watch. The only other receivers with more than one catch on the night was Nate Behar with two receptions for two yards and R.J. Harris had two catches for 20 yards.

4) Ottawa’s revamped offensive line was always in tough against a stout Elks defence. From left to right the starting group was Tyler Catalina, Jakub Szott, Mark Korte, Nolan MacMillan and Na’Ty Rodgers. At times, they each played anonymously, which is a compliment because you never want a specific offensive lineman to be discernible.

But more often than not, the group’s lack of push was noticeable and there was a number of breakdowns in pass protection. As a whole, the unit gave up four sacks but it would have been more if not for Nichols’ ability to throw the ball away when under pressure. Furthermore, averaging just 3.5 yards per run isn’t ideal. Building cohesion in the trenches takes time but going forward, the group must be better.

5) Sometimes an offence bails out the defence. But sometimes the defence dominates, forces three interceptions — including a pick six — pressures an opposing quarterback more often than not when he drops back, records three sacks and has eight different players notch at least four tackles. Saturday night in Edmonton was the latter situation.

Defensive coordinator Mike Benevides had his unit ready to play and they brought the heat against a formidable opponent. Elks head coach and play caller Jamie Elizondo and quarterback Trevor Harris are familiar names in the nation’s capital. They produced a lot of offence during their time with the Redblacks.

But similar to what often happened in Ottawa, versus the Redblacks, Elizondo and Harris were able to move the ball up and down the field, but struggled to finish dives. Even if Harris completed 75 percent of his passes and racked up 333 yards, he finished the night with three interceptions and no touchdowns.

The Elks ran 68 plays, averaged 6.2 yards per play, possessed the ball for 35 minutes and 36 seconds but only four of their 16 drives resulted in points, six were two-and-outs and all of those points came from field goals. Edmonton was 0-for-3 in the red zone and converted 50 percent of their second down opportunities 13-of-26.

Ottawa’s 2019 Most Outstanding Player, middle linebacker Avery Williams led the way for the Redblacks with 14 tackles and a sack. Sherrod Baltimore also had eight tackles. Defensive end Stansly Maponga didn’t register a sack in his CFL debut but stood out with his quick burst off the snap and the resulting pressure he was able to apply.

7) All that said, the defensive player of the game award goes to Abdul Kanneh, he of 2016 Grey Cup ankle tackle fame. Kanneh was at his ferocious best against the Elks, flying around the field with reckless abandon and coming up with timely splash plays. Obviously his two interceptions, including Ottawa’s only touchdown of the night, were huge, but his late game goal line tackle was just as vital to securing the win as was his pick-six.

8) Heading to the game, Harris had never lost to the Redblacks, beating Ottawa four times with the Argos and once with Edmonton. This time around he came up just short.

9) Three things in life are certain: death, taxes and Bob Dyce’s special teams being rock solid. As R-Nation has come to expect, Ottawa’s special teams were spectacular. Lewis Ward is as reliable as ever and went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, nailing kicks from the 52, 21 and 51 yards.

Punter Richie Leone was called upon 11 times and responded by booming the ball for 534 yards. Leone averaged 48.5 yards per punt but the really telling stat is that the net average when he booted the ball away was 44.6 yards. That’s significant as it speaks to the hang time of his kicks and more importantly, the stellar job done by the coverage units. Adam Auclair, Frankie Griffin and Randall Evans led the way with two special teams tackles apiece.

Absolutely loved seeing the trickery attempted on a punt return in the second quarter and if there’s an angle that shows DeVonte Dedmon’s pass as anything other than a perfect lateral, I’ve yet to see it. Seriously, if TSN doesn’t have a replay that showed a forward pass, what did the command centre look at to overturn the call? From everything they showed Dedmon was on the 38 when he passed the ball across the field to Davis, who caught it on the 38. Ah well, it wouldn’t be opening weekend without some command centre controversy, eh?

10) Neat to see Ottawa’s new away uniforms in game action. I wrote when they were launched that I liked them and I still do, but after seeing them on the field, I think more plaid is necessary to truly distinguish them from the Stampeders. Plaid isn’t everyone’s taste but putting some on the shoulders, in the numbers or even using plaid socks would’ve given it a much more Ottawa feel.

11) With the win, the Redblacks move into a tie for first place in the East Division with Toronto, who pulled off an upset of their own in Calgary. In an interesting note, after Eastern teams won just 16-of-40 meetings with Western teams in 2019, they’ve started the year 2-1 in 2021.

If it feels like this win was a long time coming for Ottawa, that’s because their last victory came all the way back on August 2, 2019 — two years and five days ago.

Since joining the league in 2014, the Redblacks have played Edmonton 13 times. Nine of those games have been decided by four points or less.

It might not have been the prettiest win, but they all count the same in the standings and securing two points on the road in a tough environment is an excellent start to Ottawa’s 2021 campaign.

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).