The sketchy ones count too: nine thoughts on the Elks’ win over the Riders

Photo courtesy: CFL

When the Edmonton Elks win, they win dramatically. 

All four of the team’s wins this season have required a double-digit comeback. Friday night was the smallest at ten points and also started the earliest.

Sergio Castillo had a hero moment, kicking a wobbly 47-yard field goal with 28 seconds left to put Edmonton ahead 26-24 — Castillo himself said after the game that he mis-hit it and thought it was going to hook wide left. As a result, the Elks held onto both the lead and their faint playoff hopes, as they now sit two wins back of the Riders with four games left each, having lost the tiebreak already.

Chris Jones’s comment after the game? “We did just enough to barely win the game.”

It would have been darkly funny if they’d managed to lose their own 23-14 lead, but this is not the time to complain about a win. If the Riders didn’t want it, the Elks will take it.

Is it that simple?

The biggest factor in the game was Saskatchewan’s disaster of an offensive line.

It’s hard to assess how much credit Edmonton’s defensive front deserves when everyone knows how terrible Saskatchewan’s protection has been. The two biggest indictments on Friday: Frankie Hickson managed a paltry 14 yards on ten carries, and the Riders allowed eight sacks. Several of those were against a three-man rush, including a backbreaking one to start their last-gasp final drive. I’m not sure the Elks ever rushed more than four.

Curiously, Hickson did just fine against Winnipeg the last two weeks, putting up 85- and 71-yard rushing performances. It’s not like the Bombers have a weak defensive line, while Edmonton’s run defence is not known for its sturdiness. The CFL is funny like that.

Meanwhile, Cody Fajardo did well when he was able to throw the ball. He finished 20-of-27 for 230 yards and two touchdowns while rushing six times for 47 yards. I expect there’s some selection bias baked into the passing numbers, but I also thought he looked good and was hitting tight spots when given the opportunity. Elks’ statistician Brian Desjarlais shared that all seven of his incompletions were marked as Elks’ knockdowns.

Seven different Elks scored a sack, with their best defender Jake Ceresna leading the herd with a pair.

D-istinguished members

Rookie Enock Makonzo had an active game. His night included an impressive tackle of Kian Schaffer-Baker in space, as well as one of Edmonton’s sacks — one play after whiffing on a similar opportunity. It seemed he got caught behind the goalposts on Brayden Lenius’s late touchdown, too. Only getting credit for two tackles doesn’t capture his full impact, which continued an upward trend.

Adam Konar was similarly visible, with one sack-and-fumble and also a tackle-for-loss on a Riders’ third-and-two run. He finished with five total tackles.

Matthew Thomas led the way with seven tackles. While he looked strong on takedowns, his coverage skills seemed lacking.

Lastly, Ed Gainey might just retire so he doesn’t have to deal with referees anymore. Two weeks in a row he has been dinged with a gross pass interference call. This time he stuck his arm into open space, and there was no grab of Kyran Moore, yet the call stood. A positive for him was breaking up a pass to Shaq Evans in the endzone later in the game, though I’m sure his favourite part of the evening was winning in Regina.

The only Rider receiver with more than three catches was Justin McInnis, who had four. Along with allowing just 262 net yards, that was an accomplishment by the defence against some dangerous opponents. Negatives included allowing a quick 10-0 deficit, as well as a late go-ahead Riders’ touchdown drive that was so effortless — 79 yards in 1:15 — that the Elks had plenty of time to go the other way.

Grainy

I regret to share that I was not impressed by Taylor Cornelius’s passing performance. Don’t get me wrong, there were highlights, but he is tremendously consistent in his inconsistencies.

Starting with the best, his touchdown throw to Dillon Mitchell hit the receiver perfectly in stride, and Mitchell trotted it into the endzone for a 77-yard touchdown.

Cornelius’ other top moment was an unbelievable 56-yard run — something that would not or could not be attempted by more than a couple of other quarterbacks.

There was more good than that but the problem is his effectiveness was carried, literally and figuratively, by his legs. He missed several passes, finishing 13-of-24 (54 percent) for 237 yards, and converted four-of-18 second downs. It’s fair to say there were drops — in particular, a pair by Derel Walker in the second half — however, neither of those two throws would earn more than half marks for their accuracy. Both times Walker had some room to work with, but was asked to make a play, which he failed to do twice.

There was also an underthrown pass to Mitchell down the left sideline which would have been a fairly simple touchdown with a better throw. That is becoming an unfortunate trademark of Cornelius. Otherwise, there were a few balls tossed only in the general direction of intended receivers. I also thought he didn’t use the play clock efficiently at the end of either half.

I’ve noted frequently that better things happen when he’s on the move. Cornelius has taken that further this season by adding yards on the ground — Friday set his career-high with 93 yards on eight runs, eclipsing his previous best of 86 yards against Saskatchewan in week 10 — but it applies to his throwing too. My concern remains that Edmonton’s play designs are failing and the quarterback has to improvise for them to have success.

Fortunately, Cornelius is a very capable improviser, however, in the second half, he stuck more in the pocket and was only 5-of-11 passing while taking two sacks. It seemed the Riders improved their containment, but it was still bizarre that he only ran once after halftime and the offence slowed down. The Elks were at an amazing 11.4 yards per play in the first half but dropped all the way to 8.6 at the end thanks to a 5.5-yard second-half average. They scored 17 points in the first half and only nine in the second half.

Edmonton lived on the big plays, and there were plenty of them — in the first 30 minutes, their three scoring drives contained a 56-yard run, a 36-yard run plus a 30-yard completion, and a 77-yard pass, respectively. In the latter 30 minutes, two scoring drives included a 41-yard completion and finally ‘just’ a 20-yard completion.

In Cornelius’s favour is connecting three times with Walker for 38 yards in crunch time to set up the winning field goal. He stood tall in the moment.

Skill

Very similar to last week, the Elks’ offence was entirely driven by Mitchell, Walker, and Kevin Brown. Walker led the receivers this week with five catches for 109 yards, 56 of which were after the catch. One incompletion to him came when he made a nice move to get open near the goalline, but the throw set him in a vulnerable position and a big hit broke up the play.

After Walker, it was Mitchell’s two catches for 87 yards, and then it dropped to Vincent Forbes-Mombleau at 14 yards — his second straight week in third place.

Brown looked awesome again, taking 14 carries for 109 yards. Hitting triple digits in his third career game matches Mitchell’s accomplishment. He and Jalin Marshall both get credit for a strong blitz pickup in the second quarter that enabled a big gain.

Weirdly, Mitchell didn’t have another catch after his second-quarter touchdown, nor did Riders receiver Shaq Evans after his own early touchdown.

The 2022 Elks are not a deep team, though having a healthy Kenny Lawler would give them an excellent start to the playmaker group thanks to their midseason additions.

[censored]

For the third week in a row, the Elks had a punt blocked. Four weeks ago, they also had a field goal blocked. It’s incredible how Edmonton’s special teams find new ways to lower the bar.

Returner Christian Saulsberry was mostly positive. His best official play was a 31-yard punt return, though he had an 80-yard kick return negated by a somewhat suspicious illegal block. He also fumbled once but recovered it.

On the flip side, the Elks prevented Saskatchewan from getting anything going on their returns. Both Edmonton kickers were doing strange things; Castillo had more deliberately short kickoffs, one of which went out-of-bounds, and Jon Ryan punted on the run multiple times, for reasons I can’t explain.

We don’t have a separate positives section today, so more on Castillo: technically he wasn’t perfect, but he made two converts and field goals from 23, 13, 43, and 47 yards. I thought his 51-yard miss was perfect, as a conclusion to a chaotic first half that also included a ‘doink’ off the upright from his counterpart, Brett Lauther.

Little things (including four-leaf clovers)

Full respect to Riders’ head coach Craig Dickenson for going for it twice on third downs. The first third-and-two from Edmonton’s 42-yard line paid off brilliantly with a 42-yard touchdown, while the second ran Hickson into nowhere.

On Edmonton’s end, there’s not much to note beyond Jones’s challenge, which was entirely reasonable. You’d like to not use it so early, but 40 yards is a lot and it wasn’t a friendly call.

On the lucky side, the Elks fumbled four times but managed not to lose any of them. One ball was knocked directly out of bounds, two were fallen on quickly, and one requires a deeper discussion in a moment. Saskatchewan had one fumble of their own, also recovered by themselves.

More than a grimace

It was not a good night for the officials, in every direction. There were flags thrown that shouldn’t have been, flags not thrown that should have been, and both teams got jobbed often, especially in the first half.

With that said, Edmonton mustered a laughable attempt at discipline. There are too many blunders to list, so I’ll stick to the highlights, deserved and undeserved.

The Elks got dinged for an early roughing the passer, but the contact was neither late nor forceful. I know low hits are a sensitive topic with Saskatchewan especially but last I checked, football allows you to tackle by the legs.

J-Min Pelley took a 15-yard roughness penalty on a convert, forcing Edmonton to kick off from their 15-yard line. They were offside on the first go, so it ended up being from the ten.

Tobi Antigha took an irresponsible roughing the kicker penalty to extend a Riders’ drive. His pleas earned nothing more than a strong reaction from Coach Jones.

The most impressive error was sending Walker back onto the field before his injury-required three plays were up. I don’t fault him, given his attention was spent on getting quick treatment rather than the action, but obviously someone should have stopped him from going back on the field. The Elks lost out on a 20-yard Brown reception and ultimately hit the upright on a field goal attempt.

The greatest embarrassment of the night occurred when Cornelius fumbled on a sneak from the one-yard line. The ball popped out early and rested on the pile of limbs just behind him. There were four Riders in arm’s reach and one Elk reaching a single arm in towards it. Astoundingly, the referee standing right on top of where the ball was somehow didn’t assess the Riders possession — it was ruled that Cornelius miraculously recovered it from his ankles, despite linebacker Darnell Sankey emerging with it — and the command centre failed to adhere to any semblance of logic. Edmonton got a massive break that more than made up for the ones against them before that point.

The Elks earned 133 penalty yards on ten first-half flags but, either due to fortune or their coach’s halftime fury, held it to 25 yards in the second half.

Next

The Elks are on a bye week and will return to Commonwealth Stadium to face the Alouettes on Saturday, October 2nd. It’s the easiest game remaining on Edmonton’s schedule.

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.