Canada Day stage not too big as homegrown rookie Tre Ford rises to occasion in first Elks start

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

It was a Canada Day script so good, it would have taken home the Gemini Award.

Earning his first career start on the national holiday, rookie Canadian quarterback Tre Ford stepped onto the field for the winless Edmonton Elks and rose to the occasion. There were growing pains and plenty of mistakes, the type of things you expect to see from a 24-year-old pivot straight out of the U Sports ranks — not that there is much precedent for that situation — but in the end, he emerged victorious over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“That’s a big stage for a young kid. To have to step into that role on the road, 15 minutes from your hometown and 0-3, that’s a big, big stage and I thought he did well,” Elks head coach Chris Jones told team broadcaster 630 CHED post-game.

“He didn’t play perfect, for goodness sake, he did plenty of things he needs to improve on, but he did a lot of things that were good to help us keep the ball and move the sticks and do the things necessary to win the game.”

Ford’s final passing stat line was respectable, 15-of-26 through the air for 159 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He added 61 more yards on the ground, leading the team in rushing thanks to his trademark escapability. However, what impressed most was the calm and poise with which Ford operated as his team clawed back from a 22-9 second-half deficit in hostile territory.

“That man in the huddle, he carried it like a vet. He came in there and he demanded excellence, nothing less,” leading receiver Kenny Lawler said from the locker room, after having hauled in the rookie’s first career touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to tie the ball game.

“He spoke up when he needed to. If it wasn’t there, he used his feet and he just played an overall good game. Yes, he made some mistakes but that’s what rookies do. You make mistakes but it’s all about how you learn from them. Now we’re about to get in that film room and try to make him an even better quarterback, learn from the mistakes and just be a better overall team.”

The Elks appeared to be a better team with Ford at the helm than they had been with Nick Arbuckle, who was demoted from the starting role he won in training camp after an 0-3 start to the season. The reigning Hec Crighton Trophy winner’s electric running ability kept drives alive and he protected the football when it mattered most, unlike his Ticats counterpart Dane Evans.

Edmonton’s defence notched two second-half interceptions off the turnover-prone Hamilton quarterback to spark the mini-comeback before Canadian safety Scott Hutter finished the day of patriotism with a bang. The Wilfrid Laurier product punched the ball out of Evans’ hands with 1:47 remaining and defensive back Jalen Collins scooped up the loose pigskin for a game-winning score.

Soaking up the 29-25 victory in his debut start, Ford was quick to direct the attention to those he felt deserved it more.

“Big shout-out to our defence. They played super well tonight, creating turnovers, putting us in a position to get points,” he said.

“I thought our o-line did fantastic as well today, protecting me. I didn’t get pressured a ton, but I was still able to use my leg to run and our receivers did a really good job too. I do have to make some better throws to make easier catches because I put them in some tough spots.”

With the first notch finally in the win column for the second Chris Jones era, none will be complaining about a few errant tosses from the first-round pick out of Waterloo. He becomes the first Canadian university quarterback to start and win a CFL regular-season game since 1985, setting a new example for kids across the country.

Nevertheless, Ford’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground and so are his Elks teammates’.

“The guys are super happy but we’re not complacent,” he insisted following the historic night. “We’re not just satisfied with this win. We know we’ve got to keep grinding and get out there and compete next week as well.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.