Here we go again: eight thoughts on the Edmonton Elks’ loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders

Photo: Timothy Matwey/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Edmonton Elks’ new season opened much like it ended a year ago: with a loss at home, as the club fell to the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 17-13. Though it wasn’t all bad, fans might be starting to wonder if this team is sponsored by Limahl (I’ll explain the reference later). Here are my thoughts on the game.

One amazing play

Geno Lewis didn’t take long to bring some of his magic to Commonwealth Stadium. As the second quarter started, the Elks were buried deep in their own territory at the eight-yard line. Taylor Cornelius dropped to his goal line and then launched a pass towards Lewis, who was isolated in coverage to the field-side.

45 yards downfield, Lewis went up over Riders’ defensive back Jeremy Clark, brought the ball down, and scampered for the 108-yard touchdown. It was the most electric play of the evening for the Elks and accounted for 42 percent of their total offensive output.  

You get a flag, you get a flag! 

The Elks found a way to commit five penalties on the first twelve plays of the game. Edmonton was playing with three rookies in the secondary, two of whom — Darius Bratton and Kai Gray — got called for pass interference with the latter moving the ball to Edmonton’s four-yard line. The Riders capitalized as Trevor Harris found Derel Walker to generate an early 7-0 lead.

The penalties got a little bizarre, too. With 25 seconds left in the first quarter, Jake Ceresna sacked Harris for an eight-yard loss and went right into his celebration somersault, colliding directly into head referee Tim Kroeker. The official was seen laughing as Ceresna helped him up, though the flag was thrown for objectionable conduct moments later.

The league has a new rule strictly forbidding contact of any kind with an official, which makes perfect sense. This, however, seemed a little “letter of the law” to me and not in the spirit of the new rule. Ceresna clearly learned from the mistake as he checked on his next sack for a clear path before rolling into his celebration.

Defence improves 

Despite the early penalties, the Green and Gold defence improved dramatically as the game went on. Gray and Nyles Morgan both tallied interceptions, while J-Min Pelley had a tackle for loss and a pass knockdown on second-and-short. As mentioned, Ceresna had two sacks, while Enock Makonzo was all over the field, ending the night with seven tackles.

The run defence was great until the final couple of drives when Jamal Morrow rattled off a few big runs. Saskatchewan won the time of possession battle by six minutes, so one has to wonder if Edmonton’s defence was running low on gas late in the fourth quarter.

Speaking of offensive

Taylor Cornelius had a difficult game, completing 52 percent of his passes for 202 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.

“He didn’t play very well, he knows it,” said head coach Chris Jones postgame. “It’s one of his worst games that he’s played.”

The Elks only converted only 22 percent of their second down attempts with four drives ending in sacks. Cornelius looked rattled as he under-thrown a number of passes or simply held onto the ball for too long. One pass even went off the leg of Dillon Mitchell in full flight.

The third-year passer didn’t get a lot of help from his offensive line. Josiah St. John struggled at the right tackle position with holding off the fierce Saskatchewan pass rush. The Riders ended with five sacks and two tackles for a loss on the night. It’s hard to get comfortable in the pocket when the rush is always on.  

The play-calling did not contribute to success, either. Kevin Brown only saw the ball five times in the first half, which is far too low for such a talented player, and ended the game with eleven carries for 59 yards. I had said that the running game would be a strong suit for the team this year but that’ll only be true if they use it.

The struggles in the running game culminated in the Elks having three cracks from Saskatchewan’s one-yard line and failing to score with six minutes left in the game. Not one of those carries went to Brown or Cornelius, who was the team’s leading rusher last year. There’s lots to point out from the loss, but this was a particularly disappointing sequence for the home side.

Kicking delight

One of the biggest concerns going into the season was the kicking game, which ended up being fine on Sunday. Dean Faithful went two-for-two on field goals, including one from 42 yards that could have gone from almost 60 and his kickoffs averaged 66.5 yards. It was a great debut for the 36-year-old rookie.

The punting has also significantly improved. Jake Julien, who just joined the team the week before after being cut by the Ottawa Redblacks, averaged 49.6 yards on his nine punts. His towering hang times were immediately noticeable and gave the cover teams a chance at success. After watching the season-opener, kicking has fallen down my list of concerns. 

Saulsberry tribute 

The pre-game started with a very heartfelt and emotional tribute to the Christian Saulsberry, who was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn. in December 2022.

Kevin Brown, Christian’s roommate and good friend, led the team onto the field with a flag bearing a giant “25,” which represented Saulsberry’s number. The late running back’s family was in attendance and were at midfield for the tribute video. It was beautifully done as it included a voiceover from Saulsberry and interviews from some of his closest friends from the team. There were not a lot of dry eyes in the stands.

Free game

If you were wondering about the reference from the start of the article, Limahl created the song “The Never Ending Story.” The Elks lost at home, again, and that means some fans will get a free ticket to the next home game.

With an announced attendance of 32,233, things off the field are starting to turn around for the franchise. Tailgating has grown, creating an amazing pregame atmosphere. The in-game experience in the stands has improved as well and the noise from the crowd was palpable. The home losing streak, now 18 games, might seem “never ending,” but the trend is bound to end soon.

Next up

The Elks (0-1) will now travel to face the B.C. Lions (1-0) on Saturday in what is sure to be a hostile environment on the west coast. There will be lots for the club to look at and fix in the next six days.  

Andrew Hoskins is a lifelong Edmonton resident and the host of the Turf District Podcast.