Stampeders crumble in West Semi-Final under bad decisions, penalties (and seven other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Calgary Stampeders

Sports reporting is an interesting business because it enables the writer to have a bunch of “I told you so!” moments when dissecting the decisions of the people who are paid to play or coach the game.

We live off the results of the decisions, knowing how it all turned out. We celebrate the successes as genius, and criticize the failures as terrible play calls.

So with that in mind, here is what I saw from my couch as the Calgary Stampeders imploded against the B.C. Lions, losing the West Semi-Final by a score of 30-16 on Sunday.

Penalties

B.C. had 11 offensive drives in this game and they scored on six of them. Of those six scoring drives, one came after an onside kick attempt at the end of the game, and four of them had punts turn into scores because of Calgary penalties.

The Lions’ first drive was extended by a pass interference call on Jonathan Moxey, turning what would have been a punt from just inside midfield into a field goal.

The second drive also culminated in a B.C. field goal thanks to an offside call on Mike Rose that allowed the Lions to get into field goal range. Rose jumped the hard count from Nathan Rourke on third-and-five, shortening what would have been a 58-yard attempt into a 41-yard attempt after another first down.

James Butler lost a fumble on the Lions’ third drive, but the Stamps took a roughing the passer penalty on their fourth drive to set up a B.C. touchdown.

Calgary got home for a pair of sacks to end the first half but all three of the Lions’ scoring drives were a direct result of a first down awarded by penalty, rather than a punt. The Stamps were simply not disciplined enough, a trend that continued into the second half.

Coming out of halftime, the Stampeders kept themselves clean for a series before another offside call extended a B.C. drive that finished with a touchdown on their seventh drive.

Drives eight and nine featured no Calgary penalties and both ended in B.C. punts. Drive ten was the first time the Lions were able to get down the field and score without the aid of a penalty as Nathan Rourke hit Bryan Burnham for a game-sealing 10-yard touchdown pass.

The final drive was the one that started and ended in field goal range as the Lions salted away the win.

Four drives for scores that accounted for 20 of B.C.’s 30 points.

It’s worth noting that the penalties weren’t undeserved, ticky-tack calls, either. All were well-earned. Calgary took the second-fewest penalties league-wide during the regular season but failed to remain discipled when it mattered most.

Overthinking the offence

Coming into the game, all anyone could talk about was whether or not the Stampeders’ rushing attack could be stopped by the Lions and the answer was, uh, kinda.

Ka’Deem Carey and Dedrick Mills averaged 5.9 yards per carry, a solid number even if it was down from their season averages of 6.6 and 6.9 yards, respectively. The issue is that the Stampeders abandoned the run while the game was still very much within striking distance, handing it off to Carey and Mills a combined 10 times.

For whatever reason, Calgary’s script did not necessitate throwing the ball as often as they did. There was rarely even the threat of play-action to draw in the Lions’ defenders.

After being the league’s leading rushing team in the season, the Stamps threw the ball much more frequently and often unsuccessfully. That may not have cost them if they didn’t decide to get too cute at times, which deserves a point all it’s own.

Overthinking the offence part two: turnovers boogaloo

Twice the Stampeders drove into Lions’ territory and twice they turned the ball over on downs in short yardage situations.

The first was an attempted end around, which was sniffed out quickly by B.C.’s defence, who smothered Malik Henry and took the ball away on Calgary’s second drive.

“We just missed a block at the point of attack,” head coach Dave Dickenson told the media after the game. “We had the front and the look we expected. It was one-on-one blocking. Sometimes you miss blocks, I get that, but we hoped to get out on that and get a big play off that. Last time we were in this building we were able to do that and we got the look we wanted.”

The Stamps have Tommy Stevens, one of the best third-and-short practitioners in the league, and instead hoped to catch the Lions sleeping (aweem away, aweem away).

Calgary’s next gamble came on third-and-two and, after trying unsuccessfully to draw the Lions offside, the Stamps elected to throw the ball to Reggie Begelton. Miscommunication ensued, which gave the Lions the ball back when the pass fell incomplete.

“I felt that ultimately it was the time of the game.” said Dickenson. “We were down low and I wanted to take a shot. They went with a zero hole coverage, an aggressive coverage. We got to win some one-on-one matchups and we weren’t able to do that.”

It seemed like the Stampeders were again the victims of thinking too much and not taking the simple option because it’s predictable. Stevens had proven to be near invincible in short yardage this season, only being stopped once headed into this game. It doesn’t matter if the other team knows what’s coming if they can’t stop it.

B.C. wasn’t conservative on third down and it resulted in Antonio Pipkin throwing a 45-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Keon Hatcher, who played brilliantly in place of an injured Lucky Whitehead. Their execution on third down only made Calgary’s gaffes look even worse.

Mitchell shines in late push

It’s safe to say that going 12-of-22 for 138 yards isn’t exactly how Jake Maier wanted his first playoff start to go, and it didn’t get any better in the last few minutes as Bo Levi Mitchell came into the game and marched immediately down the field.

The two-time M.O.P. finished 8-of-11 for 147 yards over two scoring drives in the final eleven minutes of the game, accounting for 10 of Calgary’s 16 points. In what is likely an audition for his next team, Mitchell came in and immediately began throwing bombs downfield to Malik Henry, which was reminiscent of his glory days as a Stampeder.

The question now is what might have happened if Mitchell had been brought in earlier. While it didn’t seem as though Maier and his receivers were on the same page, it wasn’t objectively clear before then where that responsibility lay.

Was Maier throwing to where his receivers ought to have been, or was the quarterback simply off-target in his throws?

“I think Jake played hard,” Dickenson replied when asked if he thought about potentially bringing Mitchell in sooner.

“I don’t think it was really on him. I just don’t think there was enough guys getting open and we didn’t have the ball long enough, and we weren’t protecting him well enough. The calls weren’t fitting well enough. It was a group effort. I want to make sure, I’m a big man, I want to take some of that off of those quarterbacks. I would have liked to have given him better options.”

Mitchell lighting it up late won’t instil confidence in Calgary fans about the future, though the Stampeders’ legend went out of his way to praise the man who supplanted him as the starter earlier this season.

“He did a lot of special things this year. Jake is going to be a hell of a quarterback in this league for a very long time. He’s a guy you want in your locker room, a guy you want leading your football team,” he said.

“You (have to) remember that the guy has played maybe 12 games. He’s going to get better and better the more he plays, which is scary because he is already pretty damn good.”

Orimolade and Thurman shine

A bright spot for Calgary was the play of Folarin Orimolade.

While he was responsible for one drive-extending penalty with an offside in the second half, the Stampeders’ defensive end also had six tackles, a forced fumble, and two quarterback sacks. Orimolade had Rourke going to the ground all day long and was consistently in the backfield.

Plagued by injuries early in his career, the man they call ‘Flo’ had an enormous game for Calgary and the Stampeders look to have a dominant defensive end heading into next season regardless of whether or not Shawn Lemon returns.

Jameer Thurman also came to play in this game, making nine tackles. He hit hard and often showed why he is one of the premier linebackers in this league. When it became clear the Stamps could either keep Thurman or Darnell Sankey last season, they let Sankey walk and Thurman delivered on those expectations.

A long off-season starts now

The Calgary Stampeders were already in their longest stretch of the past 15 years without a West Final appearance, and it will last at least another year. Since president and general manager John Hufnagel rejoined the club in 2008, the Stampeders had only missed being in the division final once before this current run of three consecutive misses.

“We’ve got to get over the hump., Dickenson said regarding the recent run of West Semi-Final losses.

“It’s disappointing, a 12-win season and you don’t make any noise in the playoffs. It’s disappointing. We’ll solve that. Huf and I will take a look tomorrow and solve it. You miss opportunities. I think we had a team that could win it. I do and that’s the problem I have with us not playing our best but, (B.C.’s) got a good team, too. They played well.”

The Stampeders have not won a playoff game since 2018 and with rumours swirling regarding everything from Hufnagel’s potential retirement to the possible sale of the club by Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, there is much to consider in Calgary.

Switching allegiances

Even though I am an unabashed and unapologetic Stampeders fan, I will find it easy to cheer for the Lions moving forward in their pursuit of a Grey Cup championship. They’re an exciting team with a young Canadian quarterback, I can’t think of a team easier to root for now that the Stampeders and Tiger-Cats, who have the league’s longest Grey Cup drought, are both out.

With that said, over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring Calgary’s pending free agent list, ranking the likelihood of destinations for Bo Levi Mitchell, and looking to the future of the Calgary Stampeders and checking my crystal ball for what may come.

As the season officially ends and the off-season begins in Calgary, I’d like to offer a heartfelt thanks to those who took time to read my thoughts on the games this season, and the entire team here at 3DownNation, without whom none of this would be possible.

Ryan Ballantine is a lifelong Stamps fan and host of the Horsemen Radio Podcast. He has been covering the team since 2008.