Maximized heartbreak: 11 thoughts on the Elks’ most impressive loss of the season

Photo courtesy: CFL

Both teams tried on Saturday afternoon, but Montreal wanted to lose less.

In the end, the second-half scoring summary was a simple one: one pick-six and two-point convert for the Alouettes, and zero points for the Elks.

“You can’t make this up” was spoken by many an Elks fan as the team fell by a final score of 25-18 and dropped their 15th consecutive game at home.

Impressive

I’m coming in hot with the double meaning today.

First of all, it truly took an impressive collapse for the Elks to lose that game. They had a firm grip on it for most of the second half, holding an 18-17 lead until well into the fourth quarter as the Alouettes made mistake after mistake.

Then a Taylor Cornelius attempt was knocked up into the air by a defensive lineman, Tyrice Beverette took hold, and crossed the Elks’ goal line 100 yards later for the go-ahead points.

Edmonton drove right back inside the Montreal ten-yard line with help from back-to-back Alouette penalties, before three straight Kevin Brown runs failed to punch it in and resulted in a turnover on downs.

The Alouettes earned a bit of field position back, but a good return meant the Elks had another chance from Montreal’s 42-yard line. On the second play, a Cornelius pass slipped through Danny VanderVoort’s hands and was intercepted, after which the Als quickly ended the game.

However, there is a second part that needs to be acknowledged; that was genuinely a top three — or at worst top four — performance by the Elks this season. I apologize if that’s a depressing thought, but there were some good things.

Given the two weeks of strangely high optimism that followed their win over a self-destructing Riders team — the Elks are only two games removed from giving up 56 points to Calgary, after all — Edmonton lived up to expectations. They stayed in it against another not-great team and maximized the heartbreak.

Luck is worth something

The series of fortunate bounces that Edmonton experienced in the second quarter was quite something.

Cornelius threw a bad interception but got bailed out by roughing the passer. The Elks allowed Montreal’s fake punt to convert a third-and-two, but the Alouettes quickly fumbled and let Edmonton go the other way. Montreal’s next drive also saw a quick fumble and one pass interference later, the Elks scored their first touchdown to take the lead.

Montreal swiftly moved into Edmonton territory and threw a 34-yard touchdown to Reggie White with two seconds left in the half but, as commentator Matt Dunigan put it, Elks defensive back Jamie Harry “folded like a wet cardboard box.” The contact was exaggerated, yet the major was still wiped out by offensive pass interference.

As a result, Edmonton held a one-point, 18-17 lead at halftime, after being down 14-4. They were seeking not just their fifth win of the season, but their fifth win featuring a comeback from a double-digit deficit.

Unripe

Cornelius did what Cornelius does. This was, however, one of his worst games of the year.

He officially threw two interceptions. One of them — Vandervoort’s drop — was clearly not his fault and the other was punished about as strongly as a mistake can be.

Cornelius got as many as three other big breaks on turnovers, however. His very first pass needed to be knocked down by Derel Walker so it wouldn’t be picked off, though I loved the energy of an immediate deep shot; he had another interception negated by a roughing the passer; and late in the game, he threw a very dangerous pass on an undercut route that was dropped by the defender.

He hit the cycle on inaccurate throws — everything from high, to wide, to in the dirt — and once again completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes. 16-of-28 was only good for 57 percent and a respectable 273 yards.

Cornelius’s flashiest highlights were a pair of deep completions to Kenny Lawler and Dillon Mitchell, as well as one early play where he bought time before throwing cross-field to Vincent Forbes-Mombleau for a 34-yard gain. The two best plays might have been back-to-back second-down conversions, to Mitchell and then Derel Walker, late in the third quarter. They were uncommon cases of Cornelius making routine plays with the big effect of digging Edmonton out of a field position hole.

I remain concerned about either the Elks’ play designs or their personnel. While improvisation is a useful talent for a quarterback, especially in the CFL, plays like their second of the game on Saturday should not be such a frequent occurrence. With plenty of time to survey the field against a well-blocked rush, Cornelius managed no better than to shuffle around for a while before running for eight yards. Could no receiver get open or were they overlooked?

Cornelius needs to improve dramatically to be worth his guaranteed money in 2024. For me to believe in him, he needs to be way more accurate, and the offence he leads needs to move — and score — more reliably. Of course, his surroundings are relevant to that conversation, but playing for a bad team does not absolve him of responsibility.

O-perational

The Elks’ offence as a whole was flawed but generally competent. Ignoring their big mistakes for a moment, they matched the Alouettes in the first half with 7.5 yards-per-play to Montreal’s 7.7 — just four fewer total yards in the same 27 plays. Edmonton kept it up to a 6.9 final mark, with average production across the board.

Seeing Kevin Brown and Lawler get hurt on back-to-back plays was disheartening. Lawler hadn’t been very involved but it looks like he’ll be going right back on the injured list, which sucks. Brown looked every bit of his energetic self up to that point but was much less effective after halftime, possibly owing to his injury. He had six carries for 55 yards in the first half, then only 20 yards on eight carries after the break.

The Elks have been moving the ball somewhat better in the last couple of weeks but are still very much lacking precision, especially compared to their opponent. The quarterback matchup was a solid microcosm of the season.

The primary matchup

Watching Mitchell and former Elk Nafees Lyon go head-to-head for most of the night was fantastic.

Mitchell was entirely shut down until just before halftime when he drew a pass interference call in the endzone. He had two catches for six yards at that point, before breaking out in the second half to finish with six catches for 98 yards. A chunk of that was against other defenders, but Mitchell had one massive won rep when he made a 44-yard catch on Lyon to set up Edmonton’s second late scoring chance.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see these matchups consistently with the live camera angle, though there were times you could see Lyon’s excellent coverage on replays. It remains true that he should not have been traded.

Beast mode

Jake Ceresna was a dominant force on Saturday. Not only did he have two sacks, but he also forced fumbles on back-to-back Alouettes plays to keep Edmonton in the game. Without those two plays, it likely would have gotten out of hand early, seeing as Edmonton was already down ten points and the Als were driving into Elks’ territory.

He had a noticeable impact away from the scoresheet too, most notably when Montreal’s right tackle and right guard both slid to block him, allowing Matthew Thomas a free rush for a sack.

Ceresna should be the unanimous nominee for Elks’ Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

D-ceiving

While they made some big plays, the defence’s outing was distinctly mixed. Four sacks and holding Trevor Harris to 180 yards is good; letting him complete 14-of-17 passes is not. Allowing 67 yards on 12 Walter Fletcher carries is middling, as is a 5.7 yards-per-play against, which dropped during Montreal’s clock-killing sequence and was well below their halftime number.

It was obviously a different game plan than the team ran against Saskatchewan. The Elks sent fairly frequent pressure, though the number of rushers didn’t seem to make much difference to leaving receivers wide open.

Not too many individual players stood out. Harry perfectly cut under a swing pass, but failed to close his hands on what would have been a quick pick-six for Edmonton. Ed Gainey’s grip on Geno Lewis’s right arm couldn’t stop Lewis from making a touchdown catch with his left.

For only allowing 268 net yards, somehow the performance felt underwhelming.

The little things

Neither head coach demonstrated strong game management in Week 17.

Starting with Danny Maciocia, Montreal had a third-and-two from Edmonton’s 48-yard line where he should have left the offence on the field. Third and less than five inside an opponent’s territory is the prototypical moment for aggression. He at least called a fake punt that was successful, so credit for not actually kicking.

He later elected to hand off on a second-and-six and compounded it by choosing to attempt a 56-yard field goal rather than go for a third-and-four from the Elks’ 48-yard line. Doing all that and complaining that the kicker missed is a ridiculous look.

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley has talked about how he knows well before it gets to the final down what circumstances he needs to have to go for it. That allows him to set up the gamble with certain play calls on prior downs, which Maciocia did the opposite of. In this case, if they weren’t going to go for it then the Alouettes absolutely should have attempted a pass to get beyond the sticks, when a run was unlikely to.

The Alouettes somewhat surprisingly chose to punt from their six-yard line in the fourth quarter. It was the correct choice, and Edmonton only started from midfield — ultimately seeing the worst possible outcome with Montreal’s interception and return.

Lastly, handing off for three and then zero yards with two-and-a-half minutes left was questionable. Attempting a pass on second-and-seven with a pretty hot quarterback would have been playing to win rather than not to lose.

Flipping to Jones, Edmonton’s first drive converted a third-and-two from their 52-yard line. Props to them for the aggression, which led to a field goal.

It seems like he finished another game with a timeout in his pocket. Jones elected not to use one just outside the three-minute warning and waited until the last possible moment before using one inside three minutes. For the former, there’s an argument he expected a stop on second-and-ten at Montreal’s two-yard line and figured that it would leave just the wrong amount of time for the Elks to score the tying touchdown while leaving the Alouettes enough to go back and win, though that would be rather unconventional.

The biggest Elks question goes to offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo. It was shocking that, on four plays from inside Montreal’s ten-yard line, the Elks didn’t give Cornelius a single opportunity to run. And it was deeply ironic that Harris, of all quarterbacks, got the call to run in Montreal’s two-point convert.

Personally, I would’ve handed off from the four-yard line on the first attempt, though I wonder about Brown’s health and ability to smash through. As for the second go, if you get zero or negative yards on two straight hand-offs, the blocking or blocking scheme is a bigger problem than the play call.

Having made fun of the Elks two weeks ago in an identical first-and-goal scenario for calling a quarterback draw that lost a yard — because obviously, nobody saw it coming — I’m not necessarily suggesting they should have done that again. At minimum, you have Cornelius roll out at least once and look for an opportunity. That’s always been when he’s at his best.

Other positives: the special teams?!

– Sergio Castillo was perfect, with field goals from 26, 32, and 36 yards, plus one convert.

– Christian Saulsberry looked as dynamic a returner as the Elks have had in a long time. His night started with a 51-yard missed field goal return and included, among other things, a 35-yard punt return to set up Edmonton’s last chance.

– It seemed like Jon Ryan had a solid night punting.

– Montreal wasn’t allowed a single big return, maxing out at 17 yards with an average well below that.

Next

Edmonton visits Winnipeg to take on the Blue Bombers next Saturday. Their margin for error is now negligible: if the Riders beat Hamilton on Friday — or win any other game — or the Elks lose, their vague playoff hopes will be officially quenched.

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.