The resurgence of Trevor Harris & thoughts on the Elks’ Labour Day triumph

For the first time since 2011, when Ricky Ray was quarterback, Edmonton went into Calgary and picked up a win in the Labour Day Classic.

It’s a huge moment for a team that was facing a lot of uncertainty after an unplanned week off. Would they revert to their early season form, where they seemed to suffer more than most from no pre-season? No indeed – they showed little evidence of rust in an excellent performance driven by their quarterback shooting the lights out, and the Elks walk away on a 32-20 score.

It means they’ve done the hard job of ruling out an 0-2 Labour Day week early, and now the pressure lands on the Stampeders.

Sharp!

After the win the Elks retweeted a pregame tweet of the Stampeders that showed Calvin McCarty in his new black uniform, adding a caption: “At least [McCarty] is used to losing on Labour Day.” I thought it was ruthlessly funny yet self-deprecating, but unfortunately they chose to delete it.

The Roughing the Passer Bowl

The least savoury part of the game, I’m sure we can agree, was the leading sub-storyline of roughing the passer.

Edmonton took the first, pretty mild call on the fourth play of the game. In the second quarter Kwaku Boateng got dinged on a failed Calgary third down gamble with a flag, the validity of which depends on your tolerance with timing of contact post-release. A couple plays later, Calgary took one for an apparent hands-to-head hit on a sliding Trevor Harris, though on replay it’s possible it was a plain miss. And a drive later Edmonton challenged for a face mask/helmet grab, which I think was the least disputable of the night.

We got a long break after that, all the way until the first play of the fourth quarter when two Elks converged on Jake Maier. Mathieu Betts was in first and seemed to stay clean. As for the other – I think Jake Ceresna – it wasn’t late, it wasn’t violent (it looked clear he was trying to avoid Maier) and while you may be able to argue some head contact it was on a falling quarterback. In summary, I think the non-call was justified even after Dave Dickenson’s challenge but I fully understand the frustration, as pretty much all CFL fans do.

Briefly on pass interference. One Edmonton penalty negated an interception, and I’m honestly not sure Darius Williams made notable contact with the receiver, at minimum until after the flag was thrown (it was tossed quite early.) The other which Edmonton challenged, it wasn’t the friendliest call but it was in the region where there was zero chance it was being overturned. I can only complain that the Elks keep taking these flags on uncatchable balls, going back to the game in B.C.

Overall I don’t feel penalties were that wildly unbalanced – a bit more discussion in the next paragraph – rather the biggest ones happened to mostly (read: mostly, not all) favour Calgary.

And I’m actually extremely impressed by how good the command centre has been this year. I recall they may have had a rough start, but since week two or three they’ve been terrific. On top of the three coach’s challenges their Labour Day included adjusting a Markeith Ambles 11 yard gain to down by contact at the line of scrimmage, as well as overturning an absolutely ridiculous illegal block flag against Edmonton on punt cover.

More breaks than the U.S. Open

Calgary made a lot of early mistakes that helped Edmonton out to their early scoreboard advantage. I counted: a Ambles drop in Elks territory; an unnecessary roughness to Kamar Jorden on a second down stop when letting Edmonton’s objectionable conduct stand alone should’ve meant a Calgary first down; a James Wilder Jr. near-fumble that went largely unnoticed because an Elks lineman immediately fell on it; a near-interception of Harris by Branden Dozier; and another Stampeders drop, by Ka’Deem Carey in space.

That gets us to the second quarter and a 14-3 Elks lead, when that pattern took a 180° turn and suddenly it was Calgary getting all of the breaks. Their list includes the drive-extending roughing the passer, which was immediately followed by a non-call of holding on defensive lineman Cole Nelson right in the hole Carey was running through, and then a Mike Jones drop at the first down marker just before Sean Whyte put a 35 yard field goal off the right upright.

It regressed back when soon after Shawn Lemon got called for offside by an inch or so which ended up taking a defensive touchdown off the board for Calgary, though the Elks didn’t make anything of the second chance.

The result of all of that was 14-10 Edmonton at halftime, which I would suggest is pretty accurate based on both teams’ play.

Compare all that to the finish…

…where there were only two penalties called in the fourth quarter, both offside and one of them meaningless on a successful third and one sneak. Not likely a coincidence that Edmonton crushed it on the scoreboard.

On the rare occasions where Edmonton has done well at McMahon Stadium, fans are very used to seeing it fall apart with turnovers, penalties, and other general disasters. This time the Elks were able to keep it clean to finish it off.

Peak efficiency

In Montreal and Edmonton’s wins this week – plus to a lesser extent Hamilton – we saw samples of what an ideal CFL offence can look like. They featured dazzling passing attacks with plenty of big plays and long touchdowns, and running games that were less utilized but productive when needed.

Harris led everyone, going 31 of 41 for 398 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a massive performance considering what we’ve seen so far from this team in 2021 and on one of the highest pressure stages. He and the offence did have some struggles in the middle two quarters, when it seemed like Calgary was generating better pressure, yet they still avoided any sacks.

In total both teams had 26 first downs and a nearly identical high 50s second down conversion rate, but the difference was the Stampeders managing 6.6 yards per play to Edmonton’s 8.4, which was actually the same for the Elks in the first and second halves.

That came from deeper targets. Harris was pinpoint accurate on multiple bombs, including two of the touchdowns for 45 and 52 yards. The Elks also had a 42 yard completion to Mike Jones and a 41 yarder to Derel Walker. None of that happens without the offensive line earning time for the receivers to get downfield and the quarterback to take aim.

What I particularly noticed was how much the Elks used play action, possibly game planning for Calgary to be overly wary of Wilder Jr.’s abilities. By the way, he seems to be OK:

Thinking back to the 2019 East semi-final too, I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if an amazing performance is Harris’s thing after a week off with extra film study. In-game, I’m also starting to look for how often Edmonton is tempted into following a successful run with another run.

Predictably unpredictable

The only thing I was confident in saying about Edmonton’s receiver group was that it would be unpredictable. They ended up with four different players scoring a touchdown, none of whom were Derel Walker or Greg Ellingson. Spot on!

New guy No. 1 Earnest Edwards set the stage on fire early, flying past DaShaun Amos for a 45 yard touchdown. New guy No. 2 Jalen Tolliver added to it a couple drives later. Fast forward to the mid-fourth quarter where Wilder Jr. also beat Amos to the pylon, followed by Mike Jones taking a kill shot to the house right at the three minute warning.

I was wondering why Jones and Ellingson were so close together. Brilliant stuff.

Monday’s performance is very encouraging, regarding the unit’s depth without two Nationals in Shai Ross and Tevaun Smith. The five receivers were spaced out between 48 and 107 yards, while Wilder and Terry Williams chipped in with 16 and 12 yards, respectively, including a key moment each late in the tremendous 12 play, 75 yard go-ahead touchdown drive.

Not quiet, but not loud

If the defence had a main issue, it felt like it was not generating consistent pressure without a blitz. They only managed one sack, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but did come up with a few strong moments at much needed times.

The cover guys were a mixed bag, where on some occasions Calgary receivers were wide open – in part, see the above point – and others they were step for step up to a knockdown, including Darius Williams on the clincher in the endzone. 328 passing yards against doesn’t look great, though it’s not as bad when you factor in that it took 46 attempts to get. Ambles stands out here: nine catches for 78 yards and a touchdown is pretty darn good, but with 15 targets you’d expect even better.

I thought safety Jordan Hoover was visibly good for the Elks, and certainly more impactful than his one tackle would indicate. On the flip side, rookie linebacker Malik Clements made nine tackles filling in for Keishawn Bierria.

And the Stampeders did what they often do, which is mostly abandon the run game even when it’s doing fine. Carey only had two rushes and one catch after his touchdown, and Ante Milanovic-Litre had negative success in rotation. I’m not sure whether or not that should be counted as a positive for Edmonton, whose run defence has been generally great through four games.

Lastly, 20 points against despite 161 penalty yards is a clear checkmark.

A rare off-night

For Sean Whyte, who missed from 48 and 35 yards while making from 36 and hitting four converts.

It was good to see the cover teams successful, especially on Labour Day where their historical units haven’t been.

The little things

I would have been in favour of the Elks going for two after the last touchdown, with the score at 30-20. If you make it, the lead becomes twelve points, or two touchdowns. If you miss, the relevant scenario of touchdown plus field goal involves Calgary needing a single point to tie instead of two, which is not as significantly different. Probably they wouldn’t have the cojones to go for the win at 30-29, pending convert, nor would they go for two with a touchdown first, at 30-26. Although, that would be very fun.

It worked out great that the Stampeders conceded a single in the end zone on the next kickoff.

The picks

We the 3DownNation writers chose Calgary 10 out of 10. I think it was logical, given the Elks’ last two weeks, but I would still like to say that I have had Edmonton above or tied with Calgary in the power rankings every week, including now – “Calgary lost” is much more than a silver lining this time!

If Edmonton can take the Rematch – I’m sure they’ll earn more than zero votes – the Stampeders will be in a massive hole at 1-5, being 0-3 against their nearest competitors Edmonton and B.C.

And another thing…

 

Derrick Moncrief is a superb addition to an already excellent Elks defence. One thing the unit hasn’t done is come up with game-breaking plays; this is a spectacular attempt to do something about that. The strong side linebacker spot has been held by Brian Walker, who the team likes enough to have signed through 2024. But even really good players can be upgraded on.

I’m guessing Moncrief won’t be available this Saturday, so expect to see him in green and gold for the first time either against Winnipeg the week after, or in Ottawa after a half-week bye.

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