Redblacks’ season ends with a whimper (& 11 other thoughts on losing to the Ticats)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

For all the talk of playing with pride and wanting to avoid the ignominy of going winless at home, the Ottawa Redblacks were unable to finish their season on a winning note, falling by a score of 23-16 to the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats in front of 19,708 fans at TD Place.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) Making his first start since mid-August, second-year quarterback Caleb Evans had an opportunity to show growth and cement a spot at training camp in 2023.

Although his performance against Hamilton wasn’t awful, it certainly left something to be desired. Evans finished the night having completed 56 percent of his passes for 110 yards. He also rushed the ball seven times for 23 yards and added to his CFL record of most rushing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback.

Evans’ positives included using his feet well to buy time for his receivers, and for making good reads. His negatives included failing to put the ball in good spots at times and rarely pushing the ball down the field. In fact, he finished the game with just one completion of more than 10 yards. It’s tough to win CFL games when your quarterback isn’t forcing defences to back off.

2) Rookie quarterback Tyrie Adams was only inserted into the game with 10:46 left in the fourth quarter but the 25-year-old made an immediate impact, leading the Redblacks’ on a 10-play, 83-yard touchdown drive to pull within one score of the Ticats.

Adams went 8-of-12 for 98 passing yards while rushing three times for 30 yards in the three drives he led. The Western Carolina product is known for his speed and athleticism — both of which were on display — but what truly stood out was his ability to move around the collapsing pocket while still keeping his eyes down the field. More than once he navigated his way around pressure and threw a hard pass on a line to move the chains.

Most encouraging, Adams was decisive with his reads. He quickly went through his progressions and made a decision. That’s something that’s tough to coach so the fact that Adams looked so promising in his first taste of real CFL action is something that R-Nation should be excited about.

3) It wasn’t exactly a banner day for Will Arndt’s offence. The quarterback coach turned play-caller struggled to maintain any sense of rhythm, likely as a result of choosing to adopt a pass-heavy approach. Obviously, the Canadian game lends itself to passing the football but giving the ball to your running back just five times isn’t going to cut it.

Ottawa managed only 296 yards of total offence and 16 first downs against a Ticats’ defensive unit that was more concerned about staying healthy — having rested multiple starters — than it was keeping the Redblacks out of the end zone.

Of the Redblacks’ twelve possessions, ten gained less than 31 yards. Six resulted in punts and two in turnovers on downs. As has been the case the past few weeks, Ottawa’s trend of poor production in the second half continued against Hamilton, with the first first-down of the second half coming almost halfway through the fourth quarter.

4) Normally, fans in the nation’s capital are used to seeing former Gee-Gee Brendan Gillanders feature on special teams. But against Hamilton, the Canadian running back was given his first start of the season.

Unfortunately, just like Jackson Bennett in recent weeks, Gillanders wasn’t given much of an opportunity to strut his stuff, limited to just five carries for 20 yards. He also wasn’t targeted in the passing game.

Like Bennett, he blocked well, frequently identifying the blitz and picking it up. Even if it didn’t feature nearly enough carries, it was nice to see head coach Bob Dyce reward one of his core special teamers with a start at home in front of friends and family.

5) In theory, an underwhelming night from the quarterbacks means an underwhelming performance from the receiving corps, but a pair of American receivers stood out on Saturday for the right reasons. Darvin Adams had a game-high 95 yards, but most impressive was the fact that 49 of those yards came after the catch.

In the same vein, Justin Hardy continued his hot play, snagging six passes for 45 yards. Like Adams, he did quite a bit of damage after getting the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his 33 yards after the catch.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

As for everyone else, Canadian rookie Keaton Burggeling turned four targets into three catches for 33 yards, with two of those moving the chains on second down. Veteran R.J. Harris and rookie Siaosi Mariner each finished with a pair of catches, for 21 and eight yards respectively. Ryan Davis’ disappointing 2022 campaign ended with one catch for six yards.

6) The last game of the season for Mike Benevides’ defence was the same as so many other games in 2022. The unit played hard, had a couple of great individual efforts — Ottawa wound up with five sacks —  and did their part in ensuring they kept the offence in the game.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

And yet, as has been the case so many times, poor tackling and soft coverage extended drives, which led to points. Look no further than the fact that 142 of Hamilton’s 261 passing yards came after the catch. That speaks to the fact that receivers were either running wide open or shoddy pursuit angles and weak arms tackles led to big gains that should have been cut short.

Of the Ticats’ eleven possessions where they were trying to move the ball and not just kneeling down, six resulted in punts, two in touchdowns and three in field goals.

Canadian linebacker Adam Auclair led the way with seven tackles and a sack. Defensive back Money Hunter made six tackles. Canadian defensive end Kene Onyeka notched six tackles and a pair of sacks.

7) Thanks to his fourth-quarter sack, Lorenzo Mauldin finished the season with a CFL-high 17 quarterback takedowns. Not only are those 17 sacks the second most in Ottawa history — spanning the Rough Riders, Renegades and Redblacks franchises — Mauldin also becomes the first Ottawa player to league the league in sacks since Angelo Snipes had 20 in 1992.

In a season where so much went wrong and where a number of free-agent signings failed to pan out, the inking of Mauldin back in February turned out to be one of the best moves made by general manager Shawn Burke.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

8) I could talk about Lewis Ward going three-for-three on his field goal attempts to finish the season with a respectable 86 percent rate. I could also talk about punter Richie Leone smashing six kicks for 291 yards, with an average field position flip of 43.2 yards per punt thanks to five different players chipping in with special teams tackles. Or I could mention another game of Ryan Davis not doing much of anything as a returner.

Instead, I’d like to focus on Leone’s pass to veteran Antoine Pruneau.

The 23-yard strike moved the chains but it was also a nice tip of the cap to one of the last remaining original Redblacks. Pruneau has been with the team since being selected fourth overall in the 2014 draft. During the 122 career games he has suited up for, Pruneau has been everything from an impact play-maker to, more recently, a reliable veteran special teamer.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

At 33 years old and coming off a season in which he failed to start a single game for the first time in his career, it’s fair to wonder if R-Nation has seen the last of him wearing red and black. Perhaps Pruneau is content to return in his current role — Ottawa is home now after all and he does have deep community ties — but maybe there’s a team that still covets his experience, has a spot for him to start and is willing to pay him that kind of money.

If yesterday was the end of an era, giving him the first reception of his career on a trick play was a simple salute to someone who constantly worked hard and never complained.

9) By failing to beat the Ticats at home, the Redblacks went winless in the confines of TD Place for the first time in franchise history. Digging back through the records, it’s the first time in decades an Ottawa team has gone without a victory at Lansdowne.

That’s the kind of history you don’t want to be making. Huge kudos to all those fans who trudged out for a meaningless game to once again show their support.

As much as you can talk about how poor the on-field product has been, the same cannot be said for fan support. R-Nation has always shown out, through thick or thin.

10) With the loss, Ottawa finishes the year with a 4-14 record. That’s tied with Edmonton for worst but thanks to the head-to-head tie-breaker, the Redblacks are technically last place and, as such, own the first overall pick in the 2023 CFL draft.

Yet another one-score loss — the team’s ninth — closes the page on an extremely dissatisfying season. After two seasons of floundering in the East Division basement, 2022 was supposed to be the year that the Redblacks returned to contention and relevance. Instead, the team finds itself right back where they were at the end of 2021.

The roster has some nice pieces — see Hardy, Mauldin, Avery Williams, Shaheed Salmon, Auclair, Onyeka, both kickers, etc. — though it still needs to be significantly overhauled in the off-season.

But as this past February showed, simply adding players isn’t enough. In what will prove to be his most important decision to date, Burke must nail the hiring of a head coach. He must also figure out if he’s willing to put his faith in a 34-year-old quarterback coming off major knee surgery in Jeremiah Masoli.

11) On a personal note, just wanted to send out a quick thank you to everyone who has read my stuff this season. Without you, dear reader, none of this is possible. Even if the Redblacks year has come to an end, mine certainly hasn’t. Stay tuned for plenty of Ottawa off-season content.

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).