Revenge is a dish best served cold and 10 other thoughts on the Argos beating B.C.

Photo courtesy: CFL

It could have been a statement-making, blowout win for the Toronto Argonauts. It also could have been a crushing, collapsing defeat. Instead, it was a feel-good, come-from-behind Toronto victory that featured a three-play, 70-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes, and ended, as so many games at BMO Field seem to, with a missed field goal.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Revenge is a dish…

The last time the Argos played the B.C. Lions, they were absolutely crushed. That 44-3 loss back in Week 3 remains an odd blip on the radar for what has otherwise been a consistently competitive Toronto team. They’ve been in every game in the fourth quarter this season. Even last week’s 29-2 embarrassment in Calgary was a tight game until midway through the final frame. But that loss in B.C. was the kind that wakes you up in the night.

Toronto defensive end Ja’Gared Davis was asked postgame if that loss was on the team’s mind coming into this one. He paused, as veterans know to.

“It was,” he said, smiling. “I mean, when you play such a high-powered team, as B.C. is, you want to give your best shot. And when we went out there the first time, we definitely didn’t give our best shot. They gave us theirs and it showed. They went out there and put 40-something points on us. So, we took it upon ourselves to where we’ve got to come and perform.”

To me, the smile was the real answer. This game was about settling a score — literally and figuratively.

Getting defensive

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team undergo so many personnel changes from one week to the next in a meaningful game. There were changes on offence — which I’ll get to — but the defence was completely different from last week.

Jonathan Jones, who hasn’t dressed since July 31, replaced injured Most Outstanding Defensive Player candidate Wynton McManis at the weak-side linebacker spot, while Canadian defensive end Robbie Smith started for former first-round NFL Draft pick Shane Ray, who also suffered an injury last week. In total, seven defensive starters in this game either didn’t play last week or started at a different position — the most unusual of which was Chris Edwards, who played field corner.

Edwards has only played the strong-side linebacker position in his two years with the Argos. He’s got great versatility, so it’s not unusual to see him playing deep middle in rolling coverage or even returning punts, but seeing him at corner was unexpected  — especially since Toronto’s regular field corner, Tarvarus McFadden was healthy and has been playing well.

Interestingly, instead of being a disadvantage for the Argos, having this many players in new positions actually seemed to create more difficulties for Lions’ quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. B.C. opened the game with four two-and-outs in their first five drives and the only drive that wasn’t punted ended with a fumble on the third play.

So, why did all these changes have such an impact on Adams Jr.? At practice, defensive scout teams typically wear numbered pinnies to designate specific players the team is preparing to face. If you’ve spent all week repping plays against and reading coverage with No. 6 (Edwards) as strong-side LB, No. 43 (Hoyte) as the weak-side LB, No. 1 (Richardson) as the boundary halfback, and No. 8 (Amos) as the field halfback and suddenly none of those numbers are where they’re supposed to be, it’s going to cause problems.

Alphabet soup

Much like the Argos’ defence, none of McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s starting receivers were in the same spot they were last week. DaVaris Daniels and Damonte Coxie suffered injuries in Calgary, so rookie Jeremiah Haydel got his first start at ‘X’ for Coxie, and Markeith Ambles started for Daniels at ‘W’.

Ambles played a bit of boundary slotback earlier in the season and looked as comfortable as could be, which makes sense since he played that position almost exclusively last season in Calgary in a very similar system. Ambles had his best game as an Argonaut, bringing in eight balls on 11 targets for 121 yards.

When Daniels returns, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ambles stay at ‘W’, allowing Daniels to go back to ‘X’ on the outside where he seems most comfortable. Bethel-Thompson targeted eight different receivers, but it was telling that half of his targets were directed at Ambles and Kurleigh Gittens Jr., the receivers with whom he’s spent the most time.

Riverboat Ryan

Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie has been criticized by some — myself included — for being a conservative head coach and play-caller. Saturday, he silenced those critics, at least temporarily, by electing to roll the dice three times in the first half on third-and-two or longer with a 100 percent success rate.

To be fair, B.C. jumped offside on two of those three plays, but the dice were rolled, nevertheless.

I asked him if he planned to be aggressive in this game coming in or if it just happened organically, and the coach said it was part of Toronto’s strategy against B.C. He went on to confirm he approached play calls in situations like second-and-five in B.C.’s end as though he had two downs with which to work.

Further adding to his new risk-taking image, he had short-yardage QB Chad Kelly take a deep shot downfield on second-and-inches from the Toronto 23-yard line. The pass fell incomplete, but Kelly converted a sneak on third down.

Risk-taking like this will create opportunities for Toronto’s offence going forward. Predictable offences allow defences to be aggressive. Aggressive offences force defences to be predictable.

No running

After rushing for almost six yards per carry last week, the Argos experienced a regression to the mean, averaging only 3.8 yards per attempt on the ground.

To my eye, this is the norm and last week was the anomaly. While Calgary was content to stick to a five-man box against Toronto — regardless of how much they ran — B.C. seemed interested in making the Argos one-dimensional, as most teams have since Ottawa shut down Andrew Harris in an upset victory at BMO Field over two months ago.

This remains a serious concern as the weather changes for a team that believes themselves to be capable of winning a Grey Cup. Toronto is last in the league in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per carry.

Electric returns

Averaging 24.3-yard per kickoff return and 8.6-yards per punt return may not sound like much but Javon Leake had Argos fans on their feet on Saturday, though not always for the right reasons.

Leake showed some promise in the return game earlier this season, but injuries have kept him sidelined since August. He was not only explosive against B.C., he was able to get to the edge, something that has eluded Toronto’s other returners. On one return, he hurdled a would-be tackler and was a step away from taking it the distance.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all laurels for Leake. In the fourth quarter, Leake misplayed a punt, stepped out of bounds, then returned to pick up the ball, earning an illegal participation penalty which backed Toronto up to their own one-yard line and could have been catastrophic.

If only Toronto had a return specialist like Mario Alford or Chandler Worthy… oh wait.

Truthfully, Toronto’s return woes have been more an issue of being incapable of slowing down gunners, but the electricity Leake provided was a welcome change from the three-yard returns fans are used to seeing.

Game-saving punter

Toronto has been spoiled this season with both a kicker and punter who are incredible athletes. Boris Bede is constantly getting in on tackles downfield, and John Haggerty, a former rugby player, has made a number of touchdown-saving tackles in his first CFL season, while also leading the league with 48.4 yards per punt.

Haggerty’s heroics were on display once again against B.C. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Lions ahead 17-16, Terry Williams took a punt back 35 yards and had only Haggerty to beat, but the six-foot-five Australian rugger played the angle perfectly and made the potentially game-saving tackle.

Dr. McLeod and Mr. Hyde Thompson

If you look at the numbers, McLeod Bethel-Thompson had a great game. He passed for over 350 yards and didn’t throw an interception. Why some fans continue to find him frustrating is that as well as he generally plays, he seems to make one disastrous error per game.

Against the Lions, it was a terribly-timed fumble. On the first play of the fourth quarter, ahead 16-10 at the B.C. 29-yard line, MBT tried to make a play as he was being hauled down by Ben Hladik and lost the ball. Jordan Williams scooped it up and took it all the way back to the Toronto 31-yard line. One play later, the Lions were leading 17-16.

After the game, Bethel-Thompson expressed frustration with himself at that turnover, acknowledging he was trying to make a play. Early in the game, he took a sack that knocked the Argos out of field goal range and he wanted to avoid that happening again. It’s true. On that first sack, he should have thrown the ball away but there are times when the correct play is to take a sack, and that time is when a giant middle linebacker has you in a bear hug.

Yet this was another redemption story for Bethel-Thompson. Down by four, with time ticking down, he made the play of the night. As he hurried players to the line, he recognized B.C. was playing Cover-0 and called an audible. With the middle of the field open, he checked to a play where Tommy Nield had a post route. This would normally be Cam Phillips, with whom Bethel-Thompson has much more of a rapport, but Phillips took himself out earlier in the quarter, so it was up to the young Canadian receiver. Lined up against Marcus Sayles, he attacked his technique then cut back inside and separated as he waited for the deep pass to hit him at the goal line.

It was funny to hear both Nield and Bethel-Thompson talk about the play post-game. MBT has been in this position many times and walked through it very calmly. Nield, on the other hand, who had five career receptions and no touchdowns coming in, couldn’t wipe the smile off his face as he recounted the seconds that led to his first career touchdown.

“I won’t lie,” he said, “when I saw it coming down it felt like it was forever before it got into my hands. I did bobble it a little bit, but thankfully steered it in and trusted my hands.”

Bethel-Thompson obviously trusted Neild’s hands too.

The yips

I don’t know what it is about BMO Field, but visiting kickers have had a nightmare of a time converting relatively routine field goals with the game on the line.

With a chance to tie the game on their final drive, Lions’ kicker Sean Whyte, who was 26 of 28 on the season, knocked it off the left upright from 41-yards out. In Toronto’s home opener earlier this year, Montreal kicker David Cote missed a 21-yard field goal that would have won them the game. Last year, with a chance to win the game on the final play, B.C. kicker Jimmy Camacho missed a 37-yarder, and Hamilton kicker Michael Domagala missed an extra point at the end of the game in a one-point loss.

Passionate fans

I have to tip my hat to Argos fans. There may not be many of them compared to other teams around the league, but they’re as passionate as they come.

Up against a Blue Jays playoff game, with a Maple Leafs preseason game later in the day, there was concern around the CFL that the Argos’ game should be moved. If Toronto could only draw 11,623 fans on a beautiful Saturday night against Hamilton, who would make it out to BMO Field on this cold fall afternoon against B.C.?

It turned out not to make a difference, as 11,089 fans watched the Argos win their fifth game in the last six.

Ben Grant has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years. He has covered the CFL and the Toronto Argonauts since 2019.