The Kene Onyeka hat trick is born (& nine other thoughts on beating the Elks)

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Ottawa Redblacks hung on to defeat the Edmonton Elks by a score of 25-18  in front of 21,787 fans — many of whom were apparently dressed as chairs — at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.

Here are all my thoughts on the game.

1) Hockey has the Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, an assist and a fight — and now the CFL has their own version thanks to Kene Onyeka’s unique contributions to Saturday’s game.

The third-year defensive lineman notched a sack, had a special teams tackle and returned a kick. Technically, he returned two kicks for 18 yards, but for purposes of this moniker, we’ll just count one.

From this day forward, let such a uniquely CFL stat line be known as the Kene Onyeka hat trick.

2) Two and a half years after originally signing with the Redblacks, Nick Arbuckle finally made his first start for the team. The journeyman quarterback started slow, with his initial pass nearly being picked off and had a couple of other inaccurate throws that stalled drives.

Yet a pair of deep completions in the second quarter led to touchdowns and opened up the middle of the field, which he proceeded to work the rest of the game.

Arbuckle’s final stats are somewhat underwhelming, he completed 21-of-32 pass attempts for 219 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. It looks even less impressive when you consider that 73 of those yards came on two passes, meaning the rest of the way he completed 19 passes for 146 yards. And yet, that 7.6 yards per completion was enough — at least in the first half — to keep drives alive.

The 28-year-old went through his reads quickly and saw the field well, placing the ball where it needed to be. He also did a wonderful job of navigating around the pressure in the pocket as it collapsed.

Arbuckle’s performance wasn’t overly flashy but it got the job done. Frankly, that’s all Ottawa needs.

3) It was a tale of two halves for Paul LaPolice’s offence in Edmonton. In the first 30 minutes, LaPolice’s play-calling had the Redblacks’ attack rolling. There were screens to the running back, good use of play-action and a handful of deep shots pushing the ball down the field.

In the second quarter, Ottawa even managed to score touchdowns on three consecutive possessions, a feat they had failed to accomplish since the 2018 East Final. Shoutout to Chris for providing that info.

But over the game’s final two quarters, Ottawa’s offence disappeared. After putting up 20 points in the first half, LaPolice’s attack managed just a field goal in the second. The safety was a gift from excellent special teams and defensive play.

If any half-time adjustments were made, they certainly didn’t show themselves on the field. Not counting the final drive, which was kneeling in the victory formation, the Redblacks had seven second-half possessions. Six were punts. Five gained six yards or less.

Up by one score and given two possessions in the game’s final four minutes, Ottawa managed to do nothing but immediately go two-and-out — twice. Both possessions featured odd coaching decisions as well.

On the second down incompletion to Jaelon Acklin, he was clearly face-masked. Although it’s not possible to challenge for that specifically, had LaPolice challenged for defensive pass interference, it’s very likely he wins it. The ball would’ve moved up 35 yards, putting the Redblacks into scoring range to make it a two-score game and chew more time off the clock. That LaPolice chose not to challenge was baffling. Almost as baffling as the Command Centre choosing not to pipe up on such a blatant infraction, but who knows what criteria they need to get involved?

On Ottawa’s second-last possession, the decision to march Caleb Evans out on first down with 1:27 remaining in the game only to have him hand the ball off, yet on second down, bring out Arbuckle, who was then sacked, made no sense. It’s one thing to use Evans, but why trot out a more mobile quarterback only to not use that skill set? Keeping Evans out on second down and dialling up a run option would have put Edmonton’s defence under a ton of pressure. Yet again, it just seemed like LaPolice was overthinking things.

Even if the Redblacks ultimately hung on to win, it certainly wasn’t because the offence suddenly got right. Issues remain although perhaps that second-quarter explosion is something that can be built off of.

4) Making his second consecutive start for the injured William Powell, American running back Devonte Williams was excellent. I say that not because of his stats — 12 carries for 58 yards — but because so much of what a running back contributes in the CFL is how they play without the ball in their hands.

It’s well known that Chris Jones likes to bring pressure with his defence and Williams did a great job in terms of picking up the blitz and helping out in pass protection. When you help keep the quarterback off his back, you’ll continue to get playing time.

5) Saturday was a good day for Ravens. Not only did Carleton win their season opener, but alum Nate Behar had a career-high in receiving yards, finishing with four receptions for 101 yards. Three of those catches came on second down and moved the chains. The only downside to his performance was a pair of fumbles, one of which resulted in a change of possession.

As for the rest of the receiving corps, Darvin Adams made four catches for 53 yards but also had a pair of drops. Ryan Davis caught four passes for 27 yards. Shaq Johnson had one for nine yards. Jaelon Acklin finished the night with four catches for 39 yards but never truly felt like a factor. Given that he was lined up against Duron Carter — not exactly anyone’s definition of a shutdown corner — it’s puzzling that LaPolice wasn’t able to scheme up more targets for him.

6) It was a pretty solid game from the big boys up front. Ottawa’s offensive line did an effective job of providing Arbuckle with a clean pocket to step up into, as reflected by the fact that the Redblacks conceded just two sacks on 33 attempted passes, with one of those coming as a result of the quarterback holding onto the ball too long.

As good as they were in pass blocking, they need to get more push in the ground game. As a team, Ottawa averaged merely 3.7 yards per rush and yet another second-and-short situation was stuffed for no gain. Paul Charbonneau needs to help his group improve at firing off the ball in such situations because, as I’ve harped on repeatedly this season, converting those plays should be automatic.

7) Mike Benevides’ defence had a dominant, but strange outing.

The good was forcing five turnovers — three on downs, an interception and a fumble — along with holding the opposing quarterback to a 38 percent completion rate and limiting Edmonton to 78 yards on the ground.

The bad was being shredded by Kenny Lawler. Any time you give up catches of 50, 54 and 42 yards to a receiver, it’s safe to say he’s having his way with your defence. Rookie Canadian safety Alonzo Addae, in particular, was repeatedly victimized.

With Justin Howell on the six-game injured list, it’ll be interesting to see if Addae is given slack to work through his rookie growing pains or if the coaching staff chooses to go the veteran route and slide Antoine Pruneau back into the starting lineup.

Aside from Lawler’s monster game, Ottawa’s defence was stout. Led by middle linebacker Avery Williams’ eight tackles, interception and a huge hit to force a late-game incompletion, Benevides’ unit ensured that of the Elks’ 15 possessions, 13 drives lasted five plays or less.

Patrick Levels also had an impressive showing, making five tackles, a sack and catching William’s pitched interception to scamper for an extra 22 yards of field position.

8) It took exactly one punt return for DeVonte Dedmon to remind the league why he’s so special.

Although the Elks did their damnedest to walk him like a baseball team’s best slugger, Dedmon took off for a 43-yard rumble to midfield the first time he got the ball into his hands, only being tackled by the last possible man to prevent a house call. The 5-foot-10 speedster finished the game with three punt returns for 70 yards.

As for the rest of Bob Dyce’s units, Richie Leone smashed nine punts for an average field position flip of 40 yards. Lewis Ward missed a convert but still finished 2/3 on the night and made the only field goal he attempted, from 28 yards out.

Marco Dubois led all coverage units with a game-high three special teams tackles. Ottawa’s special teams also took three points off the board thanks to Davon Coleman’s left hand.

9) When it came to earning their second victory of the 2022 season, the Ottawa Redblacks made sure to make it as hard as possible on themselves. Whether it was coaching not to lose or mismanaging the late game clock, the Redblacks made sure to create as stressful an ending as possible for R-Nation.

With the win, Ottawa finds itself in the odd position of having more wins at Commonwealth Stadium than the Elks over the past two seasons.

They won’t earn any style points with the victory but what the two points do provide is a bit of pressure on everyone else in the East. Of their eight remaining games, seven of the Redblacks’ opponents are division rivals. Given that each of those games can be four-point swings and that, absurdly enough, LaPolice’s squad is only four points out of a playoff spot, Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton could suddenly find Ottawa breathing down their necks.

Up next for the Redblacks is a Friday night road game in Montreal where they’ll try to stack back-to-back wins for the first time since June 2019.

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).