The Ottawa Redblacks lost to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by a score of 21-13 on Saturday night at Tim Hortons Field.
Here are all my thoughts on the game.
1) The football gods are cruel. That isn’t breaking news to any fan base, let alone R-Nation, but that cruelty was on full display once again in Hamilton.
Exactly one full year after Garrett Marino gutlessly dove into his right knee, veteran quarterback Jeremiah Masoli returned. 365 days of surgery, rehab, overcoming infections, and gruelling physical and mental preparation led him back to the field where he’d spent so much of his career.
His wife, daughters and mother were in the stands to cheer him on and witness his return. The fact that it only lasted a quarter and a half is devastating. On a routine passing play in the second quarter, Masoli stepped to his right to move around the pocket, his left leg buckled and he crumbled to the ground. Non-contact injuries are unforgiving and this was no different. The 34-year-old couldn’t put any weight on his left leg and was seen on the sidelines on crutches and in a boot.
Forget the bleak implications for Ottawa’s season, at this point, it’s not hyperbole to suggest Masoli’s career could be in jeopardy. Will he want to spend another six months to a year rehabbing? Even if he does choose to walk that path, he would be attempting to return after missing significant chunks of 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023. There’s no guarantee he can return to the level of play people expect from him, and would any team be willing to risk banking their hopes on him?
Everything about the situation sucks and you can’t help but feel gutted for Masoli, his family and his teammates.
2) I never imagined we’d see rookie quarterback Dustin Crum playing significant snaps in Week 5, yet here we are. Following Masoli’s injury, the 24-year-old was thrust into the game with Ottawa trailing 9-0.
The Mid-American Conference MVP in 2021 flashed some good things, but also demonstrated why he was behind Tyrie Adams on the depth chart. Crum’s mobility and willingness to take off and run caused serious headaches for Hamilton’s defence, but his three turnovers proved lethal in the one-score loss.
— CFL (@CFL) July 9, 2023
Crum finished the night by completing 14 of the 21 passes he attempted for 149 yards and two interceptions. He also rushed six times for 91 yards and a touchdown and fumbled the ball.
On some passes, Crum displayed great arm strength; on others, he was slightly off-target which led to tipped passes being picked off. More than anything, what limited his effectiveness was his indecisiveness. There were plays where it seemed if he had just decided to take off and run, something positive could’ve occurred. There were others where he held the ball just a bit too long before throwing.
That kind of thing is to be expected from a young quarterback seeing his first action. R-Nation will need to be patient as their season will once again depend on how quickly a young player develops into the lead role.
At the end of the day, you have to admire Crum’s effort in the loss. He came up just short.
Ottawa needed 21 yards. They got 19.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) July 9, 2023
3) Although Ottawa’s offence only mustered 276 yards, it’s hard to pin this loss on offensive coordinator Khari Jones. From the start of the game, it was clear Jones was easing Masoli back into action, and aside from one deep shot to Marco Dubois, he never had the chance to really unleash him.
After Masoli’s injury, Jones had to adjust his game plan on the fly, tailoring his play-calling to a rookie quarterback. The OC did a good job of walking the fine line between taking advantage of Crum’s mobility with RPOs and option plays, while also not unnecessarily exposing him to big shots.
— CFL (@CFL) July 9, 2023
Jones’ play-calling would’ve been helped if his offensive line had been a bit more effective in establishing the run, but it was a slog trying to open lanes for the running backs all game long.
What ultimately sunk the Redblacks was that despite averaging 6.2 yards per first-down play, they only managed 2.7 yards per second-down play. That’s not a formula for success.
4) A week after becoming the first Ottawa player to rush for more than 100 yards since Mossis Madu in 2019, De’Montre Tuggle struggled to get much of anything going versus the Ticats. Tuggle turned 11 carries into 30 yards, averaging just 2.7 yards per touch. Canadian Jackson Bennett was slightly more productive but was still largely bottled up, making five carries for 15 yards.
Given that it looks like Ottawa will be rolling with a rookie quarterback for the foreseeable future, the Redblacks will need more out of their 1-2 punch at running back.
5) On a night when the receiving corps had to adjust to a new face throwing them the ball, the group stood out more for their run blocking than their pass catching.
Justin Hardy turned a game-high 12 targets into seven catches for 58 yards, but those totals would be higher if not for a pair of drops. Jaelon Acklin made four catches for 51 yards, Savon Scarver three for 23 yards and Nate Behar and Siaosi Mariner each had a pair of receptions.
6) The stat line of five sacks conceded looks ugly but Ottawa’s offensive line actually pass-protected quite well. Of those sacks, two were while Masoli was in the game — one came on a designed run, the other was him going down with his injured leg — and three came with Crum under centre. Of that trio of sacks, two were a direct result of Crum holding onto the ball too long and failing to get rid of it. It’s not the offensive line’s fault if the quarterback fails to throw it away.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) July 9, 2023
Still, the group will need to be better going forward, not only in terms of pass protection but in their ability to maul people in the ground game. Head coach Bob Dyce has preached physicality and with a young quarterback directing the offence, you best believe he’s going to lean into the run.
7) Barron Miles’ defence was opportunistic, generating three turnovers of their own, and largely bottled up the Ticats’ attack. In fact, if not for Alonzo Addae taking a poor angle and missing the tackle on a Tyreik McAllister screen, Hamilton’s longest play of the night would’ve been just 20 yards.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) July 9, 2023
In theory, when the defence generates a fumble, an interception, a turnover on downs, and holds the opponent to 0-for-3 in the red zone, your team should win. But Ottawa’s own offensive turnovers handicapped their defence. Of Hamilton’s 21 points, 12 came off of turnovers that put Miles’ defence on a short field.
Global middle linebacker Tyron Vrede had an excellent game and was constantly around the ball. The CFL official stats pack credits him with 11 tackles, but the TSN’s commentators repeatedly confused Gary Johnson Jr. (#48) with Vrede (#46), such as on the third-and-one play that led to a turnover on downs.
Linebacker Frankie Griffin continued his strong start to the 2023 season, making five tackles, with two of them for a loss. For all he did right, Griffin was pulled from the game late in the fourth quarter after being flagged for objectionable conduct. The broadcast caught Dyce chewing him out on the sidelines, which demonstrates why the Redblacks have been the least flagged team in the league to this point.
8) In terms of special teams, Ottawa’s kicking game was rock solid. Lewis Ward made both field goals he attempted and Richie Leone crushed six punts for 269 yards, but it was the Redblacks’ return game that let them down. Scarver started the night off as Ottawa’s main punt returner but after bobbling his second return of the night, he was benched in favour of Brandin Dandridge.
Unfortunately, after back-to-back games of 100+ punt return yards, Dandridge was totally shut down by Hamilton’s coverage unit, managing just 11 yards on three returns. Like Scarver, he also muffed a return but recovered the ball to avoid a turnover.
9) Masoli exiting the game wasn’t Ottawa’s only significant injury. Canadian free safety Justin Howell was shaken up and left the game in the second quarter and never returned. As one of the team’s best tacklers, the Redblacks can ill afford a lengthy absence from him.
10) With the loss, the Redblacks drop to 1-3 on the season. It’s much too early in the season to throw in the towel or hit the panic button, but what’s undeniable is that Ottawa’s season just got much more difficult. As things currently stand, the only healthy quarterbacks on the roster are Crum and Nick Arbuckle. That means general manager Shawn Burke will need to add someone, if only for depth, in case Ottawa continues to be bitten by the injury bug at the game’s most important position.
Up next for the Redblacks is a home date with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Ottawa already made history this week by using three different starting quarterbacks through their first four games, and next week they’ll add to that by having a fourth different quarterback starting in their fifth, with Crum likely to get the nod over Arbuckle or whoever is signed this week.
Dyce won’t allow his group to wallow in pity or feel sorry for themselves but for his team to pull off the upset, it’ll take a phenomenal week of practice to prep the rookie quarterback for a matchup against a deeply experienced Bombers’ squad.
11) Ottawa’s game against the Bombers offers plenty of compelling storylines but unfortunately, you won’t be able to read any of my thoughts on that game, as I’ll be travelling in an area with no wifi for a week. I’ll be back writing about the team as normal for the game against the Stampeders on July 23.