Typically, the makeup of a team heading into the first preseason game of the year is pretty hazy.
The haze was more than just a roster outlook on Monday at McMahon Stadium, however, as the contest between the Edmonton Elks and Calgary Stampeders was delayed 30 minutes to allow for the smoke from the ongoing Alberta wildfires to dissipate to a safe enough level to allow the game to be played.
Once kickoff took place, both teams were looking to gain some clarity regarding their rosters and, given how the next several hours played out, I’m not sure they got any.
“I was a little more disappointed with our starting group,” said Stampeders’ head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson following his team’s 29-24 victory in front of an announced crowd of 17,942. “I didn’t think they did anything special at all. … In fact, I think (the Elks) basically took it to us early.”
Calgary played almost all of their projected starters early, while the Elks left most of their proven veterans at home, including their two top quarterbacks. This is why it was surprising to see Edmonton take an 11-10 lead into halftime.
While making no excuses for either team involved, the weather has done them no favours. Smoke has affected almost every practice day thus far through the first eight days of camp with practices being delayed, changed, moved or cancelled.
Adding to the challenges was the league’s schedule, which saw the two rivals battling it out five days sooner than any other team as the only game on this holiday weekend.
Maybe a sloppy result should have been the expectation going in. If not, a one-hour lightning delay at halftime certainly didn’t help, but more on that later.
Dickenson added a warning for his veteran players, some of whom may see the field again for the club’s preseason finale against the B.C. Lions on June 1.
“The young guys are coming and you’ve got to compete and go out there and show,” he said.
Rough first-half ride for QBs
This is supposed to be the season in which Jake Maier steps up and grabs control of the offence without looking over his shoulder at one of the CFL’s all-time greats on the bench waiting to regrab the reins.
While limited in his opportunities, leading just two drives, Maier only had a single completion for six yards and didn’t take the ball past the Elks’ 50-yard line. Both of his drives ended in punts with most of the team’s yardage for the quarter in which Maier was under centre coming from the running game.
It didn’t get much better in the second quarter as Tommy Stevens also had just a single completion in a full quarter’s work, albeit a 26-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Clark Barnes. A drive earlier, Stevens threw an ugly interception under pressure where there was clearly a miscommunication between himself and the receiver as there wasn’t a Stampeder within 10 yards of where the ball came down.
Stevens did have a few good runs, but given the club said that they wanted to see what Stevens could accomplish with his arm this season, this won’t be the tape that shows off what he can do best.
Back-up battle continues
While Stevens seemed to struggle, Logan Bonner, a CFL rookie fresh out of Utah State, came into the game in the fourth quarter and led the team to two touchdown drives, including a 31-yard score on his very first pass. He finished the day with three completions on six attempts for 71 yards and a touchdown.
“I told Luther (Hakunavanhu, the recipient of the pass) to just run. They were getting antsy out there all game, just reading my progressions and taking what they give me,” said Bonner. He also praised Maier and Stevens for helping him to adapt to the CFL game.
Bonner also led a 70-yard drive, by far the longest of the day for Calgary, which featured a nice catch-and-run from first-round pick Cole Tucker and ended in a rushing touchdown from Ryth-Jean Giraud, providing the eventual margin of victory.
In what may be a testament to his nerves, Bonner said after the game that he took a nap during the lightning delay that extended halftime by more than an hour.
“I learned that in college. Playing in Utah we would have some weather delays, so I just try and stay relaxed, so I took a nap and then got ready to go.”
Bonner indicated that he’s heard astronauts take 26-minute naps, which prompted Maier nearby to chime in with his eyes rolling. “You talking about astronauts over there?” he said, laughing. This ended the thought process for the rookie after a laugh of his own.
Chris Reynolds, a former standout at UNC Charlotte, played the third quarter and threw a team-high four completions for 59 yards. The team produced one field goal on his three drives.
It’s a running team
As much as we can speak to Calgary’s quarterback play, and will ad nauseam, this team is built to run the ball early and often.
Ka’Deem Carey told 3DownNation earlier this week that he expects himself to win Most Outstanding Player this year and post some gaudy stat lines. He backed that up in limited action with three runs going for a total of 36 yards, including a 20-yard scamper on the first play from scrimmage.
If Carey is able to see the field this well and stay healthy (along with his offensive line, of course), he could have a season that CFL fans haven’t seen since Andrew Harris and Jon Cornish were at their best.
“I’m excited that we got to make a statement,” Carey said as the team combined for 116 yards on 22 carries. He also praised his offensive linemen more than once.
While Carey stood out, Dedrick Mills and Peyton Logan didn’t exactly live up to the standard they set last season. Mills had an 11-yard run for a crucial first down to extend a drive, but a six-yard loss punctuated the day for Peyton Logan who had a total of minus-four yards on his three carries.
Late in the game, the team turned to Giraud, a former Montreal Alouettes’ draft pick, who rumbled for 46 yards and a touchdown on just six carries. Giraud knows how deep the depth chart is ahead of him, so despite being the only running back to score in the game, he will remain humble at film study this week.
“There’s a lot to work on, I’m learning so much from that running back room. I’m blessed and have to keep working,” Giraud said.
While staying humble in the room is likely smart, there is also a bit of a chip on the shoulder for the two-time conference all-star from the Montreal Carabins.
“I was drafted by Montreal but they sent me back to school. I felt like I could play, but I didn’t get my chance.”
When sent back to school, Giraud ended up playing safety for Lincoln University in Oakland, Calif. where he made 21 tackles along with two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Those skills were on display on Monday as he made the tackle on the kickoff following his touchdown.
Defence doesn’t dazzle
It was clear postgame that Dickenson felt his team didn’t tackle well enough, mentioning it on two separate occasions.
“I saw some guys working really hard. Ultimately, I thought we were just average,” he said. “They were working hard but sometimes just effort is just not enough. You can try really hard but we need to make sure we do the right things.”
The Elks were able to put up 336 passing yards on the day, including Jarret Doege, the younger brother of former Roughriders’ passer Seth Doege, completing 11-of-14 pass attempts for 136 yards. He looked like the best option for the Elks before he was replaced in the fourth quarter by Kai Locksley, who started the game.
Upon re-entering the game, Locksley took advantage of a pass interference call on Calgary to score a late touchdown and finish 15-of-22 for 158 yards on the day.
There were several young defensive backs who saw the field relatively early for the Stamps, including Dishon McNary who narrowly missed an interception.
He stood out for a different reason, however, as he wore No. 19, which used to belong to Bo Levi Mitchell. If McNary makes the team and keeps his number come the regular season, he’ll have fans doing double-takes all year long.