Redblacks lose more than a game & 10 other thoughts on a rough night in Regina

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

If there was something they couldn’t afford, it was that.

Falling to the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 28-13 at Mosaic Stadium on Friday night to drop to 0-4 was bad enough, but watching star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli being carried off the field was even worse.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) The injury sustained by Jeremiah Masoli when defensive lineman Garrett Marino dove at his knees in the fourth quarter is devastating. Period. Not only did Masoli need to be carried off the field, after the game he was on crutches which doesn’t bode well for his short, medium or long-term availability.

Losing their veteran quarterback to injury didn’t cost the Redblacks the game — they were already down by 15 points when he got hurt — but it does make their life much more difficult from here on out.

Although Masoli hasn’t played particularly well in recent weeks — after starting the year by throwing for 711 yards against the Bombers, the 33-year-old only mustered 162 last week vs BC and was at 210 last night before being hurt — he’s by far their best option under centre.

It’s not as if Masoli’s arm suddenly regressed but for whatever reason, Ottawa’s aerial attack has sputtered. In the first two games, Masoli’s averaged 9.9 yards per pass. Over the last two weeks, he’s averaged 6.9. That’s a significant difference, especially for a guy known to enjoy pushing the ball deep.

Regardless, the sense of optimism that still faintly clung to the team despite their poor start has now vanished. Until Masoli returns — if his season isn’t miraculously over — Ottawa will need to tread water with sophomore Caleb Evans, rookie Tyrie Adams or someone new. That’s not what anyone in the nation’s capital planned for.

2) Masoli’s injury is the headline but it shouldn’t overshadow another poor offensive performance. Yet again, head coach/offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice’s attack had no rhythm or consistency. Explosive plays were nowhere to be found.

The final stats aren’t awful, 318 yards generated, 17 first downs, a 55% completion rate on second down and nearly 30 minutes of possession, and yet only one of twelve drives ended in a touchdown. Only three lasted more than five plays.

Too often drives seemed to be a run on first down and Masoli drifting out of the pocket to his right on second down, looking for someone popping loose in coverage, scrambling for a short gain, or throwing the ball away.

Even the simple things seem difficult. Issues continue to plague Ottawa in short-yardage situations that should be gimmes. Jaelon Acklin — the team’s no. 1 receiver — didn’t have a target until the start of the fourth quarter. That’s beyond bizarre. It doesn’t matter who is covering your top receiver, effective scheming finds a way for them to get looks.

LaPolice earned a reputation as a savvy and creative play-caller during his time with Winnipeg but since joining the Redblacks, we have yet to see it. Given that it’s not likely LaPolice misplaced his decades of CFL experience, it does beg the question of why, even with an undisputedly more talented roster at his disposal, his team struggles to string drives together and get into the end zone.

Could it be that in pulling double duty as head coach and offensive coordinator, he’s simply too busy during the week to fully devote the attention he needs to the offence? Should general manager Shawn Burke consider bringing in someone to help him with the offence, perhaps having the newcomer create the game plan while LaPolice retains play-calling duties on game day? With the coaching salary cap, is the team even able to go that route if they wanted to?

3) If you want an idea of how things can’t look going forwards, there is no better example than the series and a half Caleb Evans played after entering the game for Masoli.

His first pass hit Darvin Adams in the hands but was dropped. On his second snap, he held the ball too long and threw an incompletion into space, and on third down, he was sacked, seemingly as a result of having too few receivers actually running routes. To underscore that point, Acklin didn’t run a route even though Ottawa was down two scores and facing 3rd and 10 on Saskatchewan’s 15-yard line. Instead, he stayed in the pocket as a blocker.

On Ottawa’s final drive, Evans’ first pass was again dropped by Adams, his next two were caught by R.J. Harris and Shaq Johnson for gains of 23 and 35 yards respectively, and his last pass of the game was picked off.

Thrust into the starting role, the 23-year-old will need to immediately show significant improvement and growth from last year. This is where, in theory, his eight games of experience from 2021 should pay off in spades but he’ll need help.

His teammates need to catch passes that hit them in the hands. His coach needs to call the plays he’s most comfortable with and that are tailored to his strengths. Otherwise, it’s going to be ugly.

4) William Powell’s “revenge game” against the team that let him walk in free agency last season was fairly subdued, mainly because Ottawa struggled to establish and stick with the run.

Powell was handed the ball 11 times and responded by averaging 5.3 yards per carry.   It felt like one of those games where had he been given more opportunities to wear down the defence, he might have sprung a few longer runs. Instead, he only had one run of 10+ yards. Congrats to him on moving into the top 50 in CFL history for rushing yards.

5) After his torrid start to the year, Jaelon Acklin has been almost an afterthought on the field. Could it be that he’s playing out of his preferred position?

Last season with the Ticats, Acklin made two starts at wide receiver and 12 (including playoffs and the Grey Cup) in the slot. With Ottawa, he’s been lined up at wide receiver.

Even if he had success early, finishing a game with three catches for 48 yards as he did in Regina isn’t maximizing his talents. Maybe a shift back into the role he’s most comfortable with would boost his production?

As for the rest of the receiving corps, Darvin Adams was targeted six times but finished the night with no catches thanks to the above-mentioned drops. Terry Williams had a team-high six catches for 51 yards, with the majority of his receptions coming on screens and hitch passes designed to get the ball in his hands quickly and allow him to make people miss. Canadians Nate Behar and Shaq Johnson had another strong showing, making four catches for 45 yards and a touchdown and three catches for 75 respectively.

6) Considering that coming into the game, Saskatchewan boasted a league-high 21 sacks, Ottawa’s make-shift offensive line held their own. Randy Richards was solid replacing Ucambre Williams at left tackle and when left guard Hunter Stewart was a late scratch, it meant rookie Cyrille Hogan-Saindon got his first career start. The 11th overall pick in the 2022 CFL Draft held his own in a tough environment.

As a whole, the unit only conceded two sacks, but part of that is a result of Masoli’s ability to move around the pocket and use his legs to buy time.

Still, what people will be talking about is how right tackle Dino Boyd’s hit away from the play injured CFL sack leader Pete Robertson and may have sparked Marino to go at Masoli’s knees (which is still inexcusable).

7) Yes, Mike Benevides’ defence is banged up and missing a number of key starters. But anyone on a CFL field needs to be able to make a tackle. Unfortunately for the Redblacks, too many of their defenders haven’t been playing fundamentally sound football and have been sloppy in their tackling technique. Part — but not all — of that is a direct result of the lack of hitting allowed in practice.

Still, Ottawa must be better. Not only did Saskatchewan average a full seven yards per carry, but of their 231 passing yards, 138 came after the catch. It’s one thing to allow a catch, it’s another to fail to bring the guy down until he’s run for a first down. Kian Schaffer-Baker in particular seemed to just want it more every time the ball was in his hands, requiring multiple defenders to bring him down.

Despite limiting Saskatchewan’s attack to just a 38 percent conversion rate on second down, the Redblacks gave up 6.6 yards per play, 20 first downs and 371 total yards.

What Ottawa repeatedly struggled to handle was when Fajardo would throw swing passes to the flats, hitting a running back or receiver in full-stride. It was almost always good for a first down.

Defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike had a whale of a game, making seven tackles, notching a sack and repeatedly collapsing the pocket. The same goes for Lorenzo Mauldin, who had three tackles and a pair of sacks.

In their first career starts, linebackers Douglas Coleman and Adam Auclair were notable for the right reasons, making seven and six tackles apiece.

8) No matter what else happens, you can always count on Ottawa’s kicking game to be rock solid. Lewis Ward made both field goals he attempted and Richie Leone was once again stellar, smashing five punts for 261 yards and averaging a net field position flip of 48.8 yards.

In terms of the return game, Terry Williams continues to establish himself as a threat every time he fields a kick. The five-foot-nine speedster averaged almost 30 yards per kickoff return and upon his exit with an injury in the 3rd quarter, there was a clear drop-off in the return game. Hopefully, his injury isn’t too serious.

9) I’m not going to waste a lot of time or space writing about Marino’s antics after diving into Masoli’s knees. It was a gutless play to begin with and to follow it up by flexing as he walked off the field and pumping his helmet into the air only reminded fans and players across the league how much class he lacks.

He should get the book thrown at him. He won’t because the Players Association has a duty to protect its own. But you best believe every single offensive line will be paying him lots of extra attention for the remainder of the season.

10) Yes, the Redblacks have had a tough schedule. Yes, they are dealing with injuries. But so what? Other teams can complain about how good their opponents are too and other teams are also dealing with injuries.

The point is, that good teams find ways to win. Ottawa hasn’t yet. And now the task will be much taller as they sit at 0-4 facing the prospect of their star quarterback being out with some kind of knee injury.

Even if they lost two close matches to the defending Grey Cup champions to open the season, R-Nation could take solace in the fact that the team was playing with confidence. In recent weeks, that swagger has evaporated.

Perhaps all it takes is a win for the floodgates to bust and things to click into place, but with their next three games coming against Eastern opponents, it’s time to put up or shut up.

It’s easy to talk of flipping the script and how things will be different this year but until it actually happens, it’s nothing but hot air.

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).