Not even in a CFL Week 10 that contained every absurd thing you can think of could the Edmonton Elks produce a home win, as they fell 34-23 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday night.
Here are some thoughts on the game.
Sea of chaos
The Elks and Riders took the field at Commonwealth with high fan expectations following three wildly entertaining games around the CFL.
With help from a Nick Marshall misconduct penalty and a big uncalled hold on the next play, Edmonton took an early 7-1 lead on a surprise quarterback draw — Taylor Cornelius scoring a 10-yard touchdown on a called run was definitely an early indicator of strangeness.
It stabilized for a while, with the Riders holding a small lead until late in the second quarter, when Cornelius channelled his inner Ricky Ray on a 26-yard touchdown romp.
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In the spirit of chaos, Mark Korte got ejected on the ensuing convert due to a second misconduct penalty. Then the Riders returned the kickoff for a touchdown.
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And then there was a halftime thunderstorm delay — just what the game needed.
A quiet, punt-filled third quarter meant a 22-17 Riders’ lead going into the fourth quarter, which Edmonton soon erased with two field goals. The second came courtesy of a dubious Cody Fajardo attempt that was effortlessly intercepted by Nafees Lyon.
Finally, there were a few frantic minutes featuring a Duke Williams touchdown and celebration…
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…plus a grimace-inducing Cornelius interception, which brought it to the messy, unsatisfying close. A questionable third-down penalty gave Saskatchewan a first down and allowed them to put up a two-score lead rather than an eight-point lead, effectively ending the game.
I’ve suggested it since the first time I watched his highlights: Cornelius is at his best when he’s on the move, rather than sitting in the pocket. The Elks seem to know that, as they frequently script him to improvise. On Saturday, that included outright running — he finished with 86 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The good news is he was impressively productive with his legs. The bad news is that it was the only part of the Elks offence that worked.
The standard running game started strong, with Ante Milanovic-Litre and Maleek Irons combining for 50 yards on eight carries — a 6.3-yard average — in the first half. They managed just 16 yards on nine carries the rest of the way and dropped that average way down to 3.9-yards.
The passing game was amateurish. Cornelius finished 13-of-23 for 209 yards and 46 of those came in the last three garbage-time plays.
Kenny Lawler got a lot of praise from the broadcast for his excellent adjustments on back-to-back second-quarter passes but we can’t ignore that they were necessary because of errant throws, one well behind him and the other high. There were a couple of uncatchable balls in the dirt and the team’s biggest play should’ve been a Lawler touchdown instead of a 34-yard gain due to a severely underthrown pass.
Cornelius did have to deal with a fair bit of pressure, especially after Korte’s exit; Edmonton’s first two second-half drives ended with sacks, though against three- and four-man pressures they seemed as much the quarterback’s responsibility as the offensive line’s. In general, he showed his usual evasiveness, dodging rushers and getting in position to attempt something positive. However, I continue to be concerned about the Elks’ failure to make conventional dropback plays work.
In my tape review, I wanted to look closer at what seemed like a trend of bad things happening when Cornelius stayed in the pocket. I realized that he tends to be very slow to get rid of the ball, rarely firing quickly. Yes, there were occasions when he didn’t have time to do much, but he frequently held on too long and thus had to improvise. I wonder if that’s the cost of protecting the football, which he has generally done well this year.
When he did throw from the pocket, it was a total toss-up whether it would be good or bad; several of his worst throws came in those few attempts.
Finally, he was responsible for two turnovers. Cornelius fumbled once while pulling the ball from his running back inside the Riders’ five-yard line. Then, at the end of the game, it appeared he was focused on Lawler coming across and didn’t recognize that the defender underneath covering Arceneaux could slide back for the interception. Add one more to Edmonton’s season total of unwise throws in critical situations.
The Elks. Doing Elk things, in the Elkiest way possible. Just Elking it up.
— Jock Cartier (@JockCartier) August 14, 2022
The flip side
In contrast to Cornelius, Fajardo often seemed to have the time but not always the composure to stand in and make plays. The Elks certainly made him feel uncomfortable, though it’s hard to say how much that was actually because of them. A couple of times Fajardo stepped directly into Edmonton defenders and allowed a takedown when a little more poise was called for. Other times he did his thing, spinning and scrambling and making little pieces of magic.
Twice in the fourth quarter, the Elks got very lucky with imprecision. First, there was a six-inch underthrow deep to Williams, who got behind Lyon before watching the defender get a couple of fingers on the ball for a knockdown. The second was the two-point convert attempt, where Fajardo overshot a wide-open Tevin Jones. Those plays were possibly the result of an unsettled passer.
One other notable play was a blitz on a big second down that forced Fajardo to wildly throw a ‘hope’ ball — I liked the call and it was intercepted, but Duron Carter took a needless pass interference penalty to allow the Riders to continue and score a touchdown on the next play.
I also enjoyed the familiarity of seeing Williams make a brilliant catch in the second quarter and it being immediately followed by a Jason Maas special: the running back swing pass for negative-four yards.
A tale of two halves
Lawler caught all five of his first-half targets, but then didn’t get a sixth until midway through the fourth quarter. He finished with six catches for 105 yards, which is a quick thing to point to when explaining the Elks’ second-half offensive struggles.
At the 30-minute mark, they were sitting at an excellent 9.4 yards per play to Saskatchewan’s 5.9. The Riders dropped slightly to a 5.3 final number, but Edmonton was down to 7.5 within ten minutes and finished all the way down at 6.4 yards per play.
The short answer is that while quarterback scrambles are fun and cool, they aren’t a healthy, reliable way of producing offence. 23 points is just okay production and that will often happen when you have almost as many team rushing yards (156) as passing yards (209).
On a related note, Jamal Morrow had six first-half carries for 41 yards and seven second-half carries for five yards. That didn’t seem to help the Elks very much, even if it’s a good sign for them.
Return it for a refund
The Elks’ return game issues have become infamous, especially for their longevity. Because of their inability to field a successful unit, I’m reluctant to pick on the returners but Charles Nelson continues to make suspicious decisions and generally be unproductive.
This time, he had to turn and run back for a kickoff going over his head and he chose to return it from the goalline rather than let it bounce, possibly through the endzone. Edmonton started from their 14-yard line.
An average punt return of three yards and an average kickoff return of 13 yards don’t come anywhere close to the league leaders, and the season-long totals for Edmonton aren’t much better. Fans keep having to watch other teams do what Mario Alford did, without daring to dream that it could happen in their favour.
Come on, man
The league is spending real money on the enforcement of pyramiding penalties. It is a disaster, with two ridiculous calls in high-impact moments this weekend. Hamilton was able to overcome theirs, while we’ll never know if Edmonton could have climbed out of an eight-point hole late.
Even so, both teams had legitimate discipline issues in the Elks game, with Edmonton being worse — 13 penalties for 140 yards to Saskatchewan’s nine penalties for 100 yards.
On the playoffs
With this result, four West teams would be sitting in first place in the East division. Further, all four have a positive point differential with the Lions leading the way at +120, while all four East teams are firmly in the negative. Even Edmonton is undefeated against the opposite division.
It is long past time for a change when everyone, including the TSN panel, is cracking half-jokes about 2-6 or 1-7 teams still having a chance strictly because of the division they’re in.
A few more positives
– The Elks’ defence wasn’t beat by the Riders’ offence. Jake Ceresna specifically was impactful, with a performance that included two sacks and a forced fumble. Overall, Saskatchewan only managed 256 net yards, with Fajardo going a measly 11-of-20 for 130 yards passing. Only Williams was above 25 yards receiving for the green and white, with 80 yards on four catches.
– Manny Arceneaux showed off a strong lower body to put Edmonton in position to convert a second-and-14 with a sneak on third down. It was a big play in a big moment, down five points late in the third quarter.
– Sergio Castillo was perfect, making two converts and field goals from 38, 44, and 46 yards.
– Sean Whyte was perfect, with four converts and field goals from 19, 38, 23, and 25 yards, the last of which secured the single-point win over the Stampeders. Once an Elk, always an Elk — especially when beating Calgary.
The Elks will be in Ottawa on Friday night to take on the fellow cellar-dwelling Redblacks, who may or may not be led by a certain Nick Arbuckle. Edmonton’s best game this season is still their Week 3 loss in Calgary, which incidentally was the last one before they decided on major personnel changes.