Late game aggression pays off (& 11 other thoughts on Ottawa ending their season with a win)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

In their final game of the 2021 season, the Ottawa Redblacks played spoiler, upsetting the heavily favoured Montreal Alouettes 19-18 at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) A week after being benched, Caleb Evans returned to the field as the team’s starter. Evans was solid against Montreal, completing 18-of-29 passes for 173 yards while rushing ten times for 56 yards and two touchdowns.

More than anything he did against the Alouettes, it’s what he didn’t do that demonstrated his progression; he didn’t turn the ball over. Simply avoiding the big mistake, combined with his game changing mobility, Evans was able to do enough to keep the defence off balance. He missed a handful of throws, but for every pass that was a bit off target, there was a strike to a receiver in stride.

What mattered most is that with the game on the line, Evans met the moment, directing a 12-play, 89 yard drive. He not only scored the tying touchdown with 35 seconds left on the clock, but also completed a three yard pass to R.J. Harris for the go-ahead game-winning points on the two-point convert.

That’s the kind of drive that’s fundamental to the development of a young quarterback. It instils confidence in not only his own abilities, but demonstrates to the entire team that he’s capable of coming up clutch.

None of this should be read as anointing Evans as the future by any means, but given his play this season, he absolutely deserves to be the mix for the starting job in 2022. If this is what he accomplished taking over mid-season, let’s see what he looks like with a full off-season under his belt and a true training camp.

2) As I wrote last week, I didn’t like the choice to start Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Given Evans’ performance against Montreal, the decision makes even less sense.

If the idea was that Duck needed to see the field for the coaching staff to properly evaluate him, why did they not give him an extra game and the bye week to prep for his first career CFL start? That would’ve set him up for more success. Instead, starting him last week and then stapling him to the bench in Montreal shows a shocking lack of long-term planning.

If the goal was simply earn a win, Evans should’ve been the starter all the way through seasons’ end. He’s clearly the better quarterback of the two right now. If the goal was to develop Hodges or get a better look at him, he should’ve played last night. Yet he didn’t even take a snap.

Weird asset management to say the least.

3) The decision to go for two at the end of the game was not only a thrilling way to end an otherwise dreary season, but it was a rare moment of aggression from head coach and play-caller Paul LaPolice.

Time and time again throughout the season, LaPolice repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to be aggressive, typically favouring a conservative approach. The decision to go for the win should – and will be – lauded, but it should not overshadow the fact that for most of the night LaPolice’s play-calling was bland and his decision making too risk adverse.

Hell, on the game’s final drive, Ottawa called the EXACT same play four times in a row. You can argue Evans should make a different read after three straight completions on the same route, but shouldn’t the play-caller be the one mixing things up?

Plus, with 26 seconds left in the first half, and with the ball on Ottawa’s 44 yard line, instead of trying to get into field goal range for Lewis Ward, LaPolice dialled up two handoffs to Timothy Flanders to run out the clock.

And let’s not forget that the game winning drive and two-point convert never happens if linebacker Avery Williams doesn’t bail out LaPolice’s bizarre decision to punt on 3rd and 8 when down seven instead of trying a 47-yard field goal. For whatever reason, LaPolice chose to ignore the fact he’s got arguably the best kicker in the league and punted the ball away. Montreal immediately proceeded to go on an 8-play, 84-yard drive, chewing up over four minutes of clock. They would’ve made it a two score game with less than three minutes left if not for Williams’ forcing a timely fumble on Ottawa’s 14-,yard line.

Given the fact that Ottawa was 2-11 heading into last night’s contest, what did LaPolice have to lose by aggressively chasing points? Nothing. Players notice the message the coaching staff sends them, be it verbally or unspoken. The above-mentioned examples send the wrong message.

Overall, the Redblacks’ offence was underwhelming against the Alouettes. Despite the return of the dynamic Jordan Smallwood, having the bye week to scheme and an average starting field position on their own 40 yard line, Ottawa turned 13 offensive possessions into eight punts. Ten drives resulted in less than 30 yards. Eight drives resulted in less than 16.

LaPolice’s group finished the night with 273 yards of net offence and averaged 4.9 yards per play. The positives? They converted 50% of their second down opportunities – up from their season average of 36% – went 2/2 in the red zone, finally generated points off a turnover and broke a streak of four consecutive games with zero fourth quarter points.

4) Seems like running back Timothy Flanders saved his best for last. The 30-year old made ten carries for 62 yards, averaging 6.2 yards per rush. He also made four catches for 67 yards, with a big chunk of that yardage on a perfectly executed late game screen.

Flanders wasn’t very good for most of the 2021 season, but over the last two games against Toronto and Montreal, he took his play to another level, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. It remains to be seen if his late season surge in production is enough to earn him a training camp invite for 2022.

5) You know the game plan was run heavy when no receiver finishes it with more than four catches or 26 yards. Ryan Davis hauled in three passes for 22 yards. R.J. Harris had four for 23. In his first action since Ottawa’s third game of the season, Smallwood turned three targets into a pair of catches for 23 yards. Kenny Stafford snagged three of the five balls thrown his way for 26 yards. Nate Behar and DeVonte Dedmon finished with a single catch each, good for seven and five yards respectively.

6) Using 14 different offensive line combinations through 14 games has to be a CFL record, right?

For their regular season finale, the Redblacks once again had a brand new combination of men in the trenches. From left to right they lined up Mark Korte, Jakub Szott, Andrew Pickett, Jaylen Guthrie and Ketel Asse. As an interesting aside, it was the only time in 2021 that the Redblacks started an all-Canadian group.

All things considered, it was perhaps the best performance from the position all season. Context matters; they weren’t asked to pass pro much – many throws were quick drops – and Montreal came into the game with just a single sack over their past two matches, but still, the Canadians held their own.

They paved the way to 121 yards on the ground and although they conceded four sacks on 29 drop backs, one was the result of a low snap and another is on Evans for holding the ball too long.

More than any other position on the team, look for there be massive change within this group during the off-season.

7) Another strong effort from Mike Benevides’ defence. Montreal racked up stats – Trevor Harris completed 76 percent of his passes, the Alouettes gained over 100 yards on the ground, they generated 23 first downs and averaged 7 yards per play on their way to compiling 373 yards of offence – but Ottawa’s defence was opportunistic with timely turnovers.

In modern football, be it the CFL, NFL, U Sports or NCAA, the rules are set to favour the offence. Teams will (or rather should) move the ball, what really matters is keeping points off the board and forcing turnovers.

Of Montreal’s eleven possessions, six drives went for more than 30 yards, but only four ended in points; a pair of field goals and touchdowns. Five drives ended in punts and two in fumbles

No turnover was more crucial than William’s late game forced fumble. The turnover was – at minimum – an 11-point swing. He prevented Montreal from attempting a field goal and set the stage for the offence to march down the field, score a game tying touchdown and go for two to steal the win.

Ottawa’s nominee for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award finished the night with six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Other notable defensive performances were Randall Evans’ six tackles and Davon Coleman’s two tackles, sack and two fumble recoveries.

8) In an interesting footnote, the Redblacks have swept their 2021 games against Trevor Harris, emerging victorious both times they faced him. He didn’t dress for the Week 9 Elks loss at TD Place, but that was another Ottawa win.

9) Didn’t take Lewis Ward long to shake off last week’s poor performance and get back on track. A week after missing three consecutive kicks for the first time in his career, Ward nailed the only field goal he was asked to make, a 44 yarder. As mentioned above, he probably should’ve had a few more opportunities to do his thing.

Richie Leone’s punting stats might not jump out on paper, particularly because his net field position field was only 34 yards – down from his season average – yet he repeatedly pinned the Alouettes inside their 20 yard line. Sometimes you need your punter to finesse kicks, not simply smash them for rouges. Leone put on a clinic in directional punting in Montreal.

As for the final piece of Ottawa’s special teams holy trinity, although DeVonte Dedmon didn’t take one to the house, he was still a threat each time he fielded a kick. Dedmon averaged 14 yards per punt return with his longest of the night going for 28 yards.

10) 11,297 is a pretty poor crowd for Montreal given that the team is playoff bound and needed a win to lock up a home playoff date. Doubly so given that it was a Friday night game and that Montreal had beaten Ottawa in six of their last seven meetings.

11) In the 182nd meeting between football teams from Ottawa and Montreal since 1946, the Redblacks played spoiler and the result forces the Alouettes onto the road for the East Semi-Final.

The Redblacks deserve full credit for the victory, as it would’ve been easy for players to check out when it was 18-3 at the half. Instead, they battled back, scoring 16 unanswered points and shutting out Montreal for the game’s final 30 minutes.

The win was Ottawa’s first coming off a bye week since 2018; they were previously 0-5 following a bye in 2019 and 2021. It also snapped their six game losing streak.

It was an exciting end to an otherwise monotonous season for R-Nation. In a year where so much was supposed to be different and better than the disaster that was the 2019 season, it was largely the same, if not worse in some aspects.

The team’s lacklustre performance has already resulted in a firing at the general manager position, and there is plenty more change on the horizon. Going 3-11 and missing the playoffs will do that to an organization.

Be sure to check in with 3DownNation next week for my full postmortem on the Redblacks’ 2021 season. It will be thorough. It will be painful, but it will be necessary for R-Nation to finally put the season to bed.

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).