Squeaking out another one & eight thoughts on the Elks’ improbable win in Montreal

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

The Edmonton Elks took advantage of an unbelievable Alouettes collapse to overcome a 19-point deficit and win 32-31 in Montreal. 

The West improves to 13-1 against the East. While the Elks are fifth in the West Division Edmonton also sits fifth in the league with as many wins as all East Division teams combined. The standings may be starker than ever, but this is not a new phenomenon.

How on Earth? Part one.

A truly incredible combination of factors was required to pull it off. Per @et_stats’s win probability model, the Elks had as low as a one percent chance of a comeback.

Point at the penalties — Montreal had 16 flags for 193 yards, which requires an immediate discussion of Kenny Lawler’s game. His final stat-line of seven catches on 13 targets for 92 yards and one touchdown looks pretty decent, but on top of that he drew four pass interference calls at the expense of Wesley Sutton for a total of 118 yards. He’s challenging Greg Ellingson’s throne as the king of earning pass interference flags. 

The impact of flags was also very evident in the first few minutes, Montreal took a penalty on the opening kickoff to start at their own 10-yard line before earning two more on Edmonton’s following drive to help the Elks take a quick 6-0 lead.

After a too many men flag at the beginning of the second quarter, the Als actually didn’t take a single one as they built up their huge lead, until the seven-minute mark of the third quarter. 

The manner of the result undoubtedly drew a smile from the many who think Khari Jones was unfairly dismissed on the supposed basis of running an undisciplined team.

How on Earth? Part two.

The turning point. It could have been as early as Trevor Harris staring at Geno Lewis before throwing the ball straight to undercutting linebacker Adam Konar, allowing Edmonton to kick a late-first-half field goal rather than Montreal attempting one themselves. That meant a 24-12 halftime score rather than likely 27-9.

The critical moment was right after Montreal had scored to go up 31-12, and frankly embarrassed the Elks by recovering a surprise onside kick. An offside Reggie White caught a pass and lost control of the football without much help from Edmonton defenders. But the men in green and gold were ready to pounce on it, and the Alouettes never got back in gear. Montreal produced zero points and only 69 yards in the last 21 minutes, 27 of those were due to a pass interference penalty.

The end result was a one-point win for the Elks. 

How on Earth?! Part three.

Montreal’s offence stalled after the fumble. The biggest part of that was an extremely passive late-game plan coupled with a spot of inaccuracy by Harris. The Als started by gaining the interference yards with a deep ball, but then went six plays without a pass attempt more than one yard downfield up to a badly underthrown shot towards Kaion Julien-Grant, who would have been open and may have scored with a better-placed ball.

Ed Gainey swooped in and gave a big push to the turnaround. The Alouettes only got to run a couple more plays after that and still attempted no deeper than a four-yard pass, making Edmonton’s task a lot easier. Built into all of it is Lewis catching his first touchdown of the season in the second quarter and then going over 26 game-minutes without an official target. Go figure, his very next one earned 26 yards.

Danny Maciocia’s weak challenge must be mentioned as cost his team a crucial timeout late in the game. There was a clear grab-and-pull on the front collar of Lawler’s jersey, and the call indeed stood. I could understand it being borne out of disbelief that Lawler drew four such flags.

Round it off with an injury to starting running back Walter Fletcher late in the third quarter, which is unfortunate when defending a lead. His work for Montreal was effective, including a 42-yard scamper, and his energy is missed in Edmonton.

What are you doing?!

There were two absolutely baffling coaching decisions made by Edmonton, one much more severe than the other.

First was the Elks pass interference challenge attempt. It seemed Chris Jones forgot that you can’t challenge for illegal contact anymore, after the CFL realized what a disaster the fishing expeditions away from the play were. So while there probably should have been a flag thrown for illegal contact on Derel Walker originally, it couldn’t be interference because the ball was thrown to Lawler. As a result, the Elks’ challenge and a timeout were foolishly wasted.

But there’s more wrong with the choice. After being told he couldn’t challenge what he wanted, he consciously chose to burn both challenge and timeout by switching to a hopeless attempt rather than accept a delay of game penalty. A few yards would have made minimal difference in comparison given they were about to punt. Even if he had somehow won, the Elks took a procedure penalty of their own on that second down so the reward was a measly retry, not even a first down. Lots to be concerned and confused about.

The second error was choosing to hand off one more time with 57 seconds left and a running clock. There was zero reason to not take three knees, and while it didn’t end up having an impact, it was needlessly risky.

A third and more contentious error was punting on a third and five from the Montreal 45-yard line late in the first quarter. The risky reputation that going for it has is vastly overstated, especially compared to the average outcome of a punt. It’s not extremely difficult to get two to five yards, depending on the case, and if you do you’re in prime scoring position.

Edmonton got a below average punt that netted 21 yards, and incidentally the Alouettes went all the way down the field and scored a touchdown. Play to win, not to not-lose. Similarly, I didn’t like Maciocia punting on third and four in the last three minutes — you will notice they didn’t get the ball back, which is a significant risk.

Coach Jones had a busy game, so two more notes:

– Going for two points down 31-18 is absolutely correct, regardless of failure. Trying to be down 31-20 or eight plus three is a no-brainer.

– I was surprised that Jones chose to punt out of their end zone to end the first half. Conceding a safety would still have left Montreal a good chance of adding three more points to the free two, and the Elks even got rewarded for their choice with a huge Alouettes error.

The latest starter

It was not an encouraging opening by the Elks offence. Their first quarter earned a pitiful 3.5 yards-per-play, and there were frequent times then and later where quarterback Taylor Cornelius looked like a fourth-stringer. In fact, he went over a full quarter without a single completion, between 11:10 of the first quarter and 9:52 of the second. That led to an 8-of-17 first half.

Edmonton managed to battle back and put up some points, especially in the fourth quarter, even as the two touchdowns were set up by 38 and then 50 of the pass interference yards. Their final yards-per-play was an improved but still-unimpressive 5.4, which is once again right in line with their full season but in this case somewhat unkind given the penalty gains. His final line: 19-of-31 for 230 passing yards and one touchdown plus interception is reasonable, noting the coveted game-winning, fourth-quarter drive.

The best thing about Cornelius is that his arm strength encourages him to throw downfield. Even though he only completed one pass beyond 20 yards — a 35-air-yard ball to Walker — there were multiple in the 10 to 20 range plus the pass interference draws. It helped that he generally had protection and was frequently throwing on the run by design.

His total average depth of target was a pretty tame 8.5, per etstats, but his two main targets Walker and Lawler had an average depth of 13.0 and 11.4. Those two earned the vast majority of Edmonton’s passing yards, with Walker securing 71 yards up to his late third quarter injury and exit.

Edmonton’s offence resurged as the Elks got aggressive late in the first half. A 4-of-5 string with air yards of 10, 6, 18, and 12 on the completions got them to the red zone before a nasty overthrow of an open Walker and tight coverage on Lawler forced a field goal.

Confirmed on re-watch, Cornelius’s expected accuracy problem was definitely present in the game. For instance, I counted four clear occasions of throwing enough behind the receiver where they had to adjust, two of which resulted in incompletions despite having windows. There were also a handful of clear overthrows and balls at his receivers’ feet, but he balanced it with a lot of well-timed strikes. That includes two spot on game-sealers to Lawler.

There was a virtual absence of egregious decisions. His one interception was a poor throw at short range, but also still went through Kai Locksley’s hands a la Dane Evans a couple weeks ago. 

A few more concerns

– Edmonton loves ‘establishing second and long’ — that is, running for small gains on first down and making life harder on themselves. Sherman Badie scored his first CFL touchdown, but totalled 39 yards on 10 carries. 

– Defensive back Jalen Collins is making a habit of getting burned for deep gains. He was completely responsible for Julien-Grant’s 42-yard reception to set up Montreal’s last touchdown. At the moment, it’s hard to see Collins still having a spot in the secondary if or when the Elks’ injuries eventually resolve, although there were plenty of other instances of leaving Alouette receivers wide open.

– The drama was necessary because the defence allowed 31 points in two and a half quarters, albeit with a pair of difficult field position starts.

– Charles Nelson had some more return difficulties. He allowed Edmonton to be pinned inside their 10-yard line despite a very awkward-looking Joseph Zema punt and almost fumbled the game away on the Alouettes’ last punt.

– Another batch of injuries, most importantly Walker and new linebacker Tre Watson.

A few more positives

A better list than we’ve seen:

– Not the kickers, in a surprising twist. Sergio Castillo made 21 and 46-yard field goals but missed from 48 yards and went 2-of-3 on converts. Matt Mengel had the 21-yard punt and otherwise nothing special.

– Cornelius channeled his inner Tre Ford on a huge second down play with six minutes left, evading three defenders and hitting Mike Jones for a 17-yard gain. That is the type of play that will win him many admirers and cause them to overlook mistakes.

– The defence forced three turnovers in key moments. There were multiple gifts, but you still have to take advantage and they count the same. That’s one difference from last year’s team: while they have plenty of struggles, they’re at least making some big plays too.

Where does it go from here?

Until the Elks show they can win against a non-struggling team and without needing to make up a 13-or-more point lead, it will be hard to trust their capabilities. 

At 1-5 and three games out of the playoffs, it would not have been a wise place to spend major assets on a short-term fix — especially as the organization has been firm about building for long-term success. Yet ironically at 2-4, maybe the argument suddenly becomes: ‘We need to give our guys a shot instead of making moves.’ And they will hold off on a Vernon Adams trade.

There’s already been a bit of weirdness with trying to work both short and long, in particular starting a rookie Canadian quarterback in game four. One would think allowing Ford to learn for a while longer before thrusting him into the spotlight would be conventional wisdom, yet they went to that well on the basis of needing to save the season at 0-3.

I’m heavily in favour of innovation — if a guy is ready and capable, no matter his age — but it conflicts directly with the notion of ‘stability’ being important to success.

Mike Ludwig enjoys math, chess, and football, all of which are kind of related. He lives in Edmonton and does not endorse Rod Black's metaphors. Follow him on twitter at @CityOfChamps14.