Edmonton succumbs to the Ghost of Elks Past & eight other thoughts on losing to Ottawa

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Curse of Commonwealth™ continues, as the Edmonton Elks fell 25-18 to Nick Arbuckle and the Ottawa Redblacks on Saturday night.

Much like last week, the visiting team played to win in at least one half of action while the hosts struggled for long stretches. The story of Arbuckle’s vengeance started strong but faded along with the game’s entertainment value in the latter half.

Now for some thoughts.

Testing the waters

The game got off to a mild start. It was not for lack of trying, as both teams were firing downfield from the get-go.

The first notable moment came when Arbuckle stepped forward and launched a mid-air shot towards Ryan Davis, who had a step on Edmonton’s defence, but the connection missed by about a foot with the wind at their backs.

On the Elks’ first play after the ensuing punt, Kenny Lawler made a brilliant diving catch for a 54-yard gain, as Taylor Cornelius put the ball just at the edge of his range. That set up the first three points of the game.

Following a Redblacks’ two-and-out, Cornelius went deep again, finding a wide-open Dillon Mitchell for a 45-yard gain. It was into the wind but it continued a Cornelius trend of underthrowing likely touchdowns.

I respect Chris Jones’s choice to go for it on third-and-six rather than attempt a 43-yard field goal, but the checkdown decision from Cornelius was poor and failed to show understanding of the situation. Even if Ante Milanovic-Litre hadn’t dropped it, he was very unlikely to evade multiple defenders and achieve the first down from behind the line of scrimmage.

Ottawa took over, and Arbuckle started to cook.

He dropped an absolute dime to Nate Behar for 49 yards and followed it with a 24-yard hit to Darvin Adams, taking them to the one-yard line. Arbuckle punched in a sneak on the next play and gave the Redblacks a 6-3 lead after 15 minutes.

I do wonder whether the Redblacks gave him that chance for a personal revenge touchdown, given that Caleb Evans ran all the short-yardage plays after that.

QB1 vs. QB1

On Friday night, I happened to recall the 2021 edition of the Redblacks visiting the Elks. It was the infamous kickoff to a dreadful Elks season and it was lowlighted by the quarterback play of Matt Nichols and Trevor Harris. Nichols finished with 71 passing yards and his team with 94 total net yards, while Harris threw for 333 yards and three interceptions with zero touchdowns.

That was a tremendously low bar for 2022’s quarterbacks to clear. Arbuckle definitely managed to; if Cornelius did, it was narrowly.

Arbuckle didn’t light the world on fire, but he played a clean and fully competent game. Once he settled in, he was on point for much of the first half. A halftime stat line of 13-of-17 for 148 yards passing and the sneak touchdown is excellent. While he didn’t throw for any touchdowns, he led two other drives to the Edmonton one and two-yard lines, both finished by Caleb Evans.

The thing I noticed most was his poise against Chris Jones’ blitzes. According to my own stat tracking, he was six-of-nine for 64 yards against them. Contained in that were one drop and one clever hard count into a quick snap to catch the defence flat-footed. In all circumstances, he showed his intelligence as a quarterback.

By comparison, Cornelius was 6-of-17 in the first half — a 35 percent rate — for 190 yards and an ugly interception. He connected on a few deep balls to open receivers but that was about it. The turnover was from an unnecessarily forced throw and, in general, his decision-making was poor all night. As an example, his last three attempts were all checkdowns to Milanovic-Litre, totalling one-of-three for zero yards. Not close to enough when you need a touchdown within a minute.

Interestingly, Cornelius didn’t run until the second half, when he did so eight times for 39 yards and two touchdowns. One of those choices was distinctly ill-advised when on a third-and-ten he only got halfway to the first-down marker. Arbuckle, meanwhile, attempted only one run after his sneak, a zero-yard gain after exhausting his options.

Cornelius’ final stat line was 14-of-37 (38 percent) for 287 yards and an interception.

What stands out again is the yards per completion — he was bombing deep all game thanks to the luxury of time to stand in the pocket. Frequently, it was Edmonton’s offensive line getting the better of Ottawa’s defensive line and Cornelius found a lot of wide-open receivers as a result.

A couple of line breakdowns that did occur seemed to be the responsibility of first-time starter Andrew Garnett at right tackle. I’m not sure if it was performance-based, but by the end of the game Mark Korte had kicked out from guard to tackle, and Tomas Jack-Kurdyla filled in at right guard. Overall, Cornelius didn’t have to improvise very often.

That makes his stat-line more concerning, however. While deeper attempts naturally have a lower success rate, and there were a few drops, a completion percentage of 38 is truly terrible when you have time to go through your reads. Cornelius threw some no-chance balls at every depth.

This is not to say that Arbuckle will be amazing in Ottawa but a lot of people in Edmonton really disliked him based on his time here under defensive specialist Chris Jones. I suspect the Elks’ head coach is not the type to have many regrets but this would be an appropriate time for one.

Missed connections

No Elks’ receiver caught more than 50 percent of their targets on Saturday. At the bottom were Kai Locksley, who caught two of six, and Derel Walker, who caught one of six. In Walker’s defence, one was a clear throwaway and on another, he took a direct, violent headshot from Avery Williams. I don’t know how there wasn’t a flag.

Still, that makes it a three-week stretch where Walker has caught five of twenty passes from Cornelius — remarkably bad.

It was concerning enough that the receiving corps was effectively Lawler, Walker, and three random guys coming into the game. Then Lawler left somewhere in the fourth quarter, making it Walker and four random guys. But if Walker isn’t even an effective weapon… Edmonton needs to find playmakers.

I hear Jalen Tolliver is still available.


Earlier this week, I was thinking about the simplicity of yards per play. It’s a good starting point, but far from an all-encompassing stat. Most importantly, a high number indicates setting oneself up to score but a team still has to put the ball in the endzone.

Edmonton and Ottawa were both at 7.2 yards per play at halftime, but a score of 20-3 indicates one team managed to finish while the other didn’t. Notice that the Redblacks dropped to a final number of 5.2 as they only scored three points on offence after halftime. Arbuckle was an unexciting 8-of-15 for 71 yards in the last 30 minutes, with 219 yards total.

The shift in philosophy was crystal clear and Glen Suitor even commented that Ottawa was “playing not to lose.” Indeed, their only try beyond 11 yards for 25 minutes of the second half was a 17-yard target to Darvin Adams, which was broken up with a hit that left Adams shaken up.

The Redblacks curiously decided to take two more shots with just under five minutes left, one incomplete to Adams against pressure, and a second that was called a catch for Jaelon Acklin but overturned to incomplete on a challenge. As many viewers noted, Paul LaPolice probably would have won a pass interference challenge of his own, as Nafees Lyon got a hand in Acklin’s facemask.

As for Edmonton, it’s hard to say if their “chuck-it” strategy was intended coming in or a quarterback’s decision based on having so many opportunities to aim at an open man. Cornelius was four-of-ten on passes over 20 yards, with multiple throws costing his team opportunities. Recall Winnipeg at Edmonton in Week 7 for a winning version of that formula, when Zach Collaros was 7-of-16 for 188 yards.

It’s also discouraging to note ten throws to Milanovic-Litre. That is far too many for any running back. The run game with him wasn’t any better either — seven carries for 18 yards.

Tactics/little things

Despite Ottawa being known to run aggressive short-yardage plays, the Elks’ defence got caught sleeping and gave up a 33-yard Evans to Behar strike on a second-and-one.

One consistently executed plan was avoiding freshly signed returner DeVonte Dedmon at all costs. Edmonton’s punts were as close to the sidelines as they could get and they even willingly sacrificed air yards on kickoffs, resulting in defensive lineman Kene Onyeka returning multiple kicks. It seemed reasonably effective but we don’t need coaches finding more ways to suck the excitement out of games.

Finally, it seemed like both teams did a poor job of managing the clock in the endgame. Ottawa did worse, failing to make use of several opportunities to use the full play clock, while Edmonton lapsed into laxness despite needing to score.

The little things

Jones won two challenges, one for pass interference and another for an incompletion. I mentioned his early third down call into the wind. He correctly went for the two-point convert first, down 25-16.

An underrated plus was Cornelius spiking the ball with nine seconds left in the first half. I’ve mused about that lots before and it was the perfect scenario — 20 yards is a good range for taking one endzone shot and if it fails, you’re kicking the field goal anyways. Normally spending a down isn’t worth it but with that little time left, it’s fine and beats using a timeout.

Unfortunately, Jones did concede a safety once rather than punt. It worked okay this time, but one would think Jon Ryan with a tailwind should mean Ottawa doesn’t start far into Elks’ territory.

Jones also finished with a timeout in his pocket, having chosen not to use one with the Redblacks punting around the four-minute mark. That was one case where the Redblacks only used about eight seconds on the play clock, rather than the full 18 or 19 they should have.

Other Positives

– Lawler made not one, but two incredible catches and finished with a bizarre stat-line of three receptions for 146 yards.

– The defence held up in the second half. Rookie Enock Makonzo was among the most active players, with seven tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.

– The Elks only took six penalties for 38 yards, and only two of those had a notable effect.

– Dillon Mitchell broke one big 33-yard return that stood this week, though Dedmon still had the better night despite having very few opportunities.

– Sergio Castillo made a 33-yard field goal and a convert. No fault to him for the blocked field goal, as Davon Coleman broke through the protection almost untouched.


It’s Labour Day. You may remember the Elks beat the Stampeders in the 2021 edition, on the back of Trevor Harris torching McMahon. They’ll be facing Jake Maier for the second year in a row but Edmonton is in tough to stay within double digits, much less go back-to-back.

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.