The Calgary Stampeders had plenty of reasons for optimism heading into their game against the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field on Friday.
After all, they were the only team to have beaten the defending Grey Cup champions and they had never lost at BMO Field, boasting a decade-long Toronto road winning streak. They were also coming off of a performance against another of the league’s heavyweights where they were just wide of a victory, losing by a single point to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Then the Stampeders did what they have done so often throughout this maddening season full of frustration and disappointment, losing another close game to a top team.
Here’s what I saw from my living room in Calgary.
Passing touchdowns galore
It’s been no secret that the Stampeders’ passing attack has struggled of late, as Jake Maier had been held to under 200 yards in all of his last three starts and hadn’t thrown for a touchdown in four consecutive contests. Calgary’s entire offence hadn’t found the endzone since the last time these two teams met in early August and they’d scored just one touchdown since losing to Ottawa in overtime more than a month ago.
You can imagine the collective surprise of everyone in attendance and watching on TSN when Maier and the aerial attack suddenly roared back to life, finishing with four touchdowns as part of a 387-yard effort.
On the other side, M.O.P. candidate Chad Kelly would end his day 20/31 for 361 yards, three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.
Maier went over the top frequently, in stark contrast to the last game these two teams played where his average depth of target was just 2.6 yards.
Drops, drops, drops, drops, drops….Everybody!
For the second straight game, the Stampeders suffered from ill-timed drops from receivers that snuffed out opportunities.
I understand not every pass can be completed, but the old adage remains true: “If it hits him in the hands, he should catch it.”
I’d love to tell you where the Stampeders’ drops rank from a league perspective but that isn’t tracked. As such, I reached out to CJOB’s Derek Taylor. While the Blue Bombers play-by-play man isn’t completely up to date with this season’s numbers, dropped passes are apparently a Calgary tradition!
When considering all team’s seasons between 2015-2022, comprising 63 individual team results, Calgary has seven of the top 19 highest number of drops. That includes five of the top ten season totals.
Last week, it was Luther Hakunavanhu and Tommylee Lewis who were the guiltiest parties, and this week we saw Markeith Ambles, Dedrick Mills, and Reggie Begelton all have at least one fall out of their grasp.
While this Stampeders offense seems to moving in the right direction, pass catchers learning to collect uncontested balls that are on target is an essential piece of that process.
Squeaky Clean Kelly
The Stampeders’ defence was held without a sack in this game, the first time that has happened since Week 1 against the B.C. Lions. In the nine contests between then and now, the Stampeders brought down opposing QBs 32 times, or more than three times a game to lead the league.
Stamps defenders put Kelly down with some heavy hits on a few occasions but for the most part, the Toronto pivot was able to escape the pressure being brought.
The lack of sacks was magnified somewhat by the Argos’ Folarin Orimolade, who was signed away from the Stampeders this past offseason. He took down Jake Maier three times, including on a back-to-back sequence to snuff out a drive and kill the offensive momentum that Calgary had been building all game.
After the game, Stampeders head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson told reporters that inconsistency continues to plague his team.
“One area of our team that is good, the next week isn’t, and until we can put three phases together we aren’t going to win against great opponents like these guys.”
Coming into the game, the Stampeders’ defence was second in the league in fewest 30-yard pass plays with 11 total. They surrendered three on Friday, a few where the player was so open they’d still be running if the endzone didn’t stop them.
The Stamps also allowed a 29-yard pass that won’t get on the stat sheet in that column but feels like it should.
A week after holding the Bombers offence to just 257 yards, allowing 475 has to be seen as a letdown.
Reggie breaks out
It is a disservice to describe a performance from Reggie Begelton as a breakout, given the career he has already put together, but nine catches for 203 yards and a pair of house calls sure seems like the type of performance that the Stampeders have been looking for all year.
Begelton was targeted 13 times in the game and brought down catches in tight spots, making some incredible plays as part of a performance that included three catches of more than 30 yards, and 68 yards after the catch.
After the game, Jake Maier told reporters that the bond between him and his receiver is continuing to grow.
“I talk to Reggie as much as I can during the week. He is such a competitor and a warrior and one of the best teammates I’ve ever had in my career,” he said. “It was cool, being in the hotel together last night, just talking about life and getting closer together and leaning on each other in a way. ‘I’ll support you, you support me’ and we’ll just cut it loose and see what happens. I’m proud of him and the effort he had tonight and he’s the reason the game was close.”
The 203 yards was a career-high for Begelton, who remained humble following the loss.
“Everybody in our receiving corps can do it and we know that. So we continue to support and anytime anyone makes a play, we continue to celebrate and that’s the biggest thing. It might be my week this week, and someone else’s next week and we show grace and gratitude for those opportunities.”
Better late than never
Last week in this space, I criticized Luther Hakunavanhu for dropping a sure touchdown pass that could have made the difference in a game against the Bombers. It’s only fitting to celebrate his score here this week.
Hakunavanhu was only targeted once in the game but made the most of the opportunity, taking it to the endzone for an 18-yard score with two-thirds of that distance coming after the catch.
Best when used sparingly, Hakunavanhu has found his spot in the offence, making one or two big plays a week while being otherwise ignored from a target-share perspective.
If he is able to turn those one or two looks in a game into scores, that only helps the rest of the offence get free and open.
Punt return kills Calgary again
The Calgary Stampeders have now given up four return touchdowns this year, almost half of the league’s total.
That’s somewhat baffling to people who have followed this team closely over the years, given the typical proficiency of the team’s special teams cover units under long-time co-ordinator Mark Kilam.
Javon Leake took a Cody Grace punt 86 yards to the endzone to provide the winning points for the Argos. That seemed to rattle this Stampeders team, which tends to fall apart following statistically unlikely results.
Whether it be the pick-sixes previously thrown by Maier or this rash of return touchdowns allowed, plays such as this seem to kill the Red and White’s chances of success from a confidence standpoint.
Dickenson referred specifically to the return TD as a “backbreaker.” The next offensive drive was the one that featured the back-to-back sacks from Orimolade to put Calgary substantially behind the eight ball from a time management perspective.
Labour Day Looms Large
Despite the team having a 3-8 record, all hope is not lost as the Stampeders prepare for their annual home and away series with the Elks around the Labour Day weekend.
The Stampeders are two games back of Saskatchewan, who face the Bombers over the next two weeks, and are tied with both Hamilton and Ottawa in the win column, although both those teams have games in hand.
Sweep the Labour Day Classic and rematch while counting on the favourites winning in the other games during that timespan and you could find the Stampeders very much in the playoff mix, with two bye weeks remaining to get healthy.
A loss in either game to the Elks could spell the end of those hopes entirely.