Ben’s Breakdown: Emilus’ high-point highlights highlight high point in Roughriders’ season

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The result of Saskatchewan’s 34-29 win over the B.C. Lions didn’t surprise me, having picked them to win and making them my bet of the week. It did, however, remind me how many variables determine the outcome of any given football game. A slip, a mental lapse, a flag, a spot — there were so many details in this game that helped generate the outcome.

One such detail did not happen by chance: Samuel Emilus’ ability to high-point the football.

High-pointing is when a player catches the ball at the peak of their jump. It’s the single most important skill when it comes to making contested catches. Every receiver knows they’re supposed to high-point a contested jump ball, but most receivers aren’t consistently good at it. It takes precision timing, elite body control and strong hands.

Some of the CFL’s best high-pointers like Geno Lewis, Juwan Brescacin, and Dejon Brissett were excellent basketball players. Emilus played high school basketball at Curé-Antoine-Labelle in Quebec, so it’s possible he learned the skill there and then reinforced it on the football fields of UMass, Louisiana Tech, and eventually Saskatchewan.

Jake Dolegala will get a lot of credit for Saskatchewan’s upset victory, which is appropriate as he played very well. But two of the team’s biggest plays started with a heart-stopping moment before Samuel Emilus turned them into highlights by high-pointing the football.

Play No. 1

Trailing 10-7 and facing a first-and-20 from their own 34-yard-line, Saskatchewan’s Jake Dolegala launched a ball deep down the right side to Samuel Emilus for a 46-yard gain.

Saskatchewan came out in their base formation with trips to the field side. Samuel Emilus lined up out wide opposite Garry Peters, one of the league’s best cornerbacks. As an interesting side note, the Lions are the only team in the CFL whose corners stay on the same side of the field, meaning Peters can always be found on the defensive left.

Jerreth Sterns, the inside receiver to the trips side, had a five-yard crosser to keep the linebackers from gaining too much depth. Kian Schaffer-Baker had a 15-yard dig tucked in behind the backers from the middle position, and Emilus had an inside-release vertical route.

With safety Quincy Mauger playing deep centre field for B.C., Dolegala’s read was simple: if Mauger drifted to help Peters, Dolegala would zip the ball to Schaffer-Baker. If Mauger came down to disrupt the dig, he’d go vertical. B.C. sent only a three-man rush, giving the quarterback plenty of time. Mauger came downhill a few steps, so Dolegala launched it deep.

Emilus blew past Peters, who initially appeared to be in a trail position as he was presumably expecting help. Dolegala’s read and timing were perfect but the throw was short, forcing Emilus to throttle down. Emilus high-pointed the ball perfectly, just out of Peters’ reach, then secured it just in time to absorb a huge hit from Mauger. The Riders scored a touchdown two plays later.

Play No. 2

Leading 24-13 on second-and-seven from B.C.’s 37-yard-line, Jake Dolegala lofted a pass down the sideline to Samuel Emilus, who snatched it out of the air and summersaulted into the end zone.

This was a mirror image of the formation from the first play, except Mitch Picton was in for Kian Schaffer-Baker. Jerreth Sterns had a post from the inside position, Picton had a 10-yard hook, and Emilus had a hitch-and-go down the sideline. This pass to Emilus should never have been thrown.

B.C. rushed three defenders and then added a painfully slow delayed blitz from David Menard, who was lined up as a linebacker. The secondary was in cover three cut, which means the corners had the flats, the safety had the deep middle, and the halfbacks had the deep sidelines.

A hitch-and-go is an unfortunate route to run against cover three cut, especially to the wide side of the field. Running sideline go routes into deep coverage is always a bad idea, but the hitch part of the hitch-and-go gives the field halfback, which in this case was Marcus Sayles, even more time to drift that way and either intercept the ball or obliterate the receiver.

To make matters even worse, Dolegala gently lofted the ball. Emilus was actually looking to settle his route in behind the flats defender when Dolegala released the ball. He saw the coverage and knew his best option was to sit in between zones pinned to the sideline, but when Dolegala launched it, he got on his horse.

I can only think Dolegala misread the coverage and never saw Sayles. Fortunately for Dolegala and the rest of the Roughriders, Emilus made an outstanding play. Sayles drifted over to put himself in position to intercept the ball but left the ground a split second early. Emilus undercut the defender and timed his jump perfectly, securing the ball just before it hit Sayles’ hands.

Emilus hit the ground in front of Quincy Mauger, who once again had a fantastic view, and rolled gracefully into the end zone. It was an absurdly athletic play.

The Roughriders now head into their second bye week of the season before hosting Winnipeg on Sunday, Sept. 3 in the annual Labour Day Classic.

Ben Grant is the radio colour analyst for the Toronto Argonauts. He has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years.