‘Sandlot’ Greg Ellingson schemes up winner & nine other thoughts on the Elks Labour Day victory

The year was 2011.

Moves like Jagger by Maroon 5 were storming to the top of the Billboard charts, The Help was in control of the US box office and Ricky Ray was the quarterback of the Edmonton… well, we already know that was different the last time the green and gold won a Labour Day Classic.

That changed in resounding fashion Monday, as the Edmonton Elks shook off two weeks of adversity and topped the Calgary Stampeders on the road by a score of 32-20.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

The good, the bad and the angry

Back in the day, Henry Burris earned a reputation for showing up on game day as either “good Hank” or “bad Hank.” For stretches of his career, Burris’ Ottawa protégé Trevor Harris has fallen into a similar pattern.

Even more so than the Hall of Famer’s cycle, the regularity with which “good Trevor” or “bad Trevor” has appeared has been regulated by the quarterback’s mental state, something he has struggled to keep consistent.

To start 2021, Harris was less “bad Trevor” than he was “sad Trevor” and his first two games reflected a lack of confidence. He was much improved against B.C., but you had to wonder what effect two weeks of isolation and controversy would have on Harris’ psyche coming in to this one.

The answer was it made him angry, a sentiment that was shared by many of his teammates. The Elks had an edge and it turns out that “angry Trevor” is an entirely different animal.

“I think he’s enjoying all the haters and it’s really put a chip on his shoulder and it ran down to us. We were pretty pissed off about it too,” veteran offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell said of his quarterback after the game. “We were going through a lot of stuff internally with this COVID shutdown, we were hearing a lot of stuff in the media and the guys came out angry.”

Harris came into the Labour Day Classic like a man possessed, slinging the ball deep in a way he hasn’t all season. There was no rust for the offence to shake off as he picked apart the Stampeders in the first half, going 17-of-21 for 215 yards and two touchdowns to take an early lead. With a couple of beautiful deep balls to his credit, it was awfully hard to find any fault in the performance.

Things slowed down a little in the third quarter, but he once again finished strong in the fourth with some clutch throws. The end result was perhaps the finest outing by a quarterback this season, as Harris threw for 398 yards and four touchdowns with a 75.8 completion percentage. It broke a streak of eight straight Labour Day losses for Edmonton and was the quarterback’s first career victory over the Stampeders.

Harris was clearly upset regarding some of the narratives surrounding himself and his team during their COVID outbreak, making his thoughts quite clear in a press conference this week, as well as after the win.

“I was mad because we have people speaking out of turn and saying things that aren’t true about our team. I don’t mind, but when it comes to my teammates and about us and trying to derail this team, that’s what angers me,” Harris said with fire still present in his voice, before calming.

“I think it’s important for us to play with an edge every week regardless of who we’re playing and making sure that we’re continuing to push on the gas pedal every week because this team has a lot of capabilities.”

Some of his sharp tongued remarks were addressed at members of this very publication and on behalf of 3DownNation I have one thing to say to the Elks’ quarterback: you’re welcome.

If it takes that type of extrinsic motivation to produce this type of fiery performance, we simply await your thank you card. The CFL was better off for it.

Underlying conditions

I’ll do my best to keep the amount of COVID talk to a minimum in this article, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch seriously on the outbreak that nearly cost Edmonton a game and publicly threatened the CFL.

When it comes to the origins of the outbreak and the 13 players who contracted the virus, there are the public statements made by the team and then there are rumours behind the scenes. The truth no doubt lies somewhere in the middle, but by their own admission there were violations of COVID protocol within the organization. I do not think the Elks are the sole team guilty of such infractions, but they deserved every ounce of flak they got for being the unlucky one that was exposed.

However, the way the team responded puts to bed any belief that the Elks are a fractured organization or that several early controversies have caused head coach Jaime Elizondo to lose the locker room. After 18 days without a game — 10 of which were spent isolated — Edmonton looked crisper than any team in the league.

“I think it’s a credit to the players that we have, the character of those men. I said that earlier and I think everybody thought it was coach talk, but these guys never flinched. They stuck together, they believe in who they are and this is the standard that we expect,” Elizondo told reporters afterwards.

“This is what we’re supposed to be about, what we’re supposed to do. I couldn’t be more proud of this team, their resiliency, their character, their toughness, their mental toughness and they showed it today on the field.”

Even missing some starters still in protocol and with others fresh out of recovery, Elizondo said the viral outbreak had little effect on the team’s performance. Nobody experienced the lack of wind associated with COVID recovery. It was as if the outbreak never happened.

Coming into Labour Day, the Elks were a team with a lot of underlying conditions. As we are all familiar by now, that increased their chances of mortality against the Stampeders, but they beat the odds. That is a good sign for a CFL season that is likely to require a strong team immune system.

Sandlot Greg

Th Elks sealed the deal with a brilliant 52-yard deep ball to Canadian receiver Mike Jones, but afterwards the man on the receiving end of the touchdown turned the spotlight elsewhere.

“Shout out to Greg Ellingson, he called the play,” Jones told reporters. “We saw that they were jumping the bubble routes, so Greg drew up a play on the sideline. We just kinda pumped it and I ran by the field corner. He jumped the bubble and the rest is history.”

According to Harris, who stared down the bubble hard before flipping his eyes to a wide open Jones with deadly precision, the play had been discussed but wasn’t in the playbook until his all-star receiver called for it on the sideline.

“We talked about it a little bit during the week as possibly an adjustment deal and so I was glad that Greg came over and suggested it,” he said, praising the ad-libbed play call. “It just goes to show Greg Ellingson’s unselfishness. He suggested the play not for himself and that’s who he is.”

Ellingson had 65 yards receiving on a solid afternoon, but that moment of schoolyard football brilliance will ensure he goes down in Labour Day Classic history.

No dummy

There was a discussion at halftime from the CFL on TSN panel about whether James Wilder Jr. should have been classified as a dummy or a decoy in Edmonton’s pass heavy game plan, but with the game on the line he was clearly neither. The CFL’s leading rusher spent much of the evening getting Edmonton open passing lanes with heavy use in play action, but two plays in the fourth quarter were pivotal to victory.

Just as it looked like the Stampeders might make this a nailbiter, Wilder’s hard fought receiving touchdown after leaking out of the backfield flipped momentum back to Edmonton. If Jones’ touchdown was the dagger to Calgary’s heart, the 29-yard Wilder run that preceded it was at least a prison shank to the belly. You’ll hear me say often that running backs are a product of their run blocking, but that doesn’t account for someone dragging four defenders 25 yards on their back like some sort of unstoppable beast. That’s on Wilder and Wilder alone.

The massive back got the wind knocked out of him on that last play, but he’ll be alright according to his head coach. That’s good news, because the Elks have found the ideal way to use him. Making a running back the focal point of your offence is foolish, but using the threat of Wilder to scare the Stamps worked brilliantly. Then he delivered on that terror when it mattered most.

Showing up where it counts

They didn’t get home consistently throughout the night, but the Edmonton Elk’s defensive line built up the pressure as the game went on and ultimately had a meaningful effect on the result.

Jake Ceresna was the standout in the middle and had the team’s lone sack, but it was Mathieu Betts who caught my eye late. The young Canadian was held completely off the stat sheet, but embarrassed both Ucambre Williams and Nila Kasitati on pass rushes late in the game, getting a couple of meaningful hits on Jake Maier. The rookie quarterback was effected by it on a couple of throws and that is as good as any sack.

Sweet redemption

With Aaron Grymes out due to COVID, Darius Williams drew the start at halfback for the Elks and had himself a mixed outing.

Poor leverage caused the rookie to get beat by a struggling Markeith Ambles for a touchdown and he took away what would have been his team’s very first interception of the season with a pass interference penalty, but Williams redeemed himself in one of the game’s biggest moments.

With Calgary still in range for an unlikely comeback, Williams’ timing to break up an end zone shot to Colton Hunchak on third down was absolutely perfect. A second sooner or later would have resulted in either a touchdown or another penalty. Instead it was the play that iced the Stampeders.

Whyte washed

It was an uncharacteristically poor day from veteran kicker Sean Whyte on Monday, missing kicks of 48 and 35 yards before hitting a final 38-yarder. It ultimately didn’t matter to the result and his head coach is giving the usually clutch leg a clean slate, even with rookie Dante Brown waiting in the wings.

“Sean will be fine. I have all the confidence in the world in Sean, he’s been clutch for us at different times. He’s been a producer on offence a number of times when we weren’t scoring points,” Elizondo assured.

The importance of being Earnest

With several absences in their receiving corps, the Elks turned to a pair of CFL rookies in Earnest Edwards and Jalen Tolliver and both delivered with touchdowns on Monday. While each can be happy with their performances, it was Edwards who truly flashed.

The University of Maine has been home to a number of top Canadian prospects in recent years and in watching them, I also got exposed to Edwards. It was readily apparent that this undersized speedster had a skillset that would translate well to the CFL game and he showed it immediately on Labour Day, sprinting past 2019 all-star DaShaun Amos for a 45-yard touchdown.

It showed off the blazing speed Edwards possesses and his quickness and release was on display throughout the night. He finished with three catches for 56 yards and a touchdown — as well as another deep target that came painfully close to being a second long score — but the best is clearly yet to come from the rookie.

Next man up

Football is a next man up sport, but that rarely applies to officials. It did on Labour Day, when head ref Al Bradbury suffered a game-ending hamstring injury while officiating a Derek Wiggan fumble recovery touchdown near the end of the first half that was called back for a Shawn Lemon offside. Ironically, the call itself has become a subject of debate, though the TSN camera angles did not provide a definitive view of Lemon’s alignment.

I wish Bradbury a speedy recovery and I’m sure the CFL does as well, because they might be questioning their own depth more than the Elks or Stamps after this one. Justin McInnes had to step into Bradbury’s shoes on the fly, an unenviable position that resulted in some noticeable impediments to game flow.

Bradbury already gets a bad wrap with fans for over-officiating — I would argue sometimes unfairly — but his crew was much shakier without him and unfortunately this was far from the only game on Labour Day weekend where the refereeing was a subject of conversation. That’s a real shame given the quality of the games played.

Two-for-one

Labour Day bragging rights are all Elks fans care about right now, but Edmonton actually got two victories when the final whistle blew Monday.

One was obviously in the standings, but the other was off-the-field, where 3DownNation’s own Justin Dunk reported that the team had signed former Saskatchewan strong-side linebacker Derrick Moncrief for the remainder of the season.

Moncrief was waived by the LA Rams last month and was one of the CFL’s best defenders during his three years with the Riders. He’ll be a massive boost to the Edmonton secondary as soon as he gets on the field.

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