Miracle Maier mounts comeback as Stampeders win Labour Day Classic (& six other thoughts)

Photo: Larry MacDougal/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Calgary Stampeders channeled the great Mark Twain on Monday as they hosted the Edmonton Elks for the Labour Day Classic in front of 26,741 fans.

Trailing by 15 points heading into the fourth quarter, there was buzz among fans and pundits that Calgary’s season was officially going off the rails and the longest active playoff streak in North American professional sports was finally going to end after 18 years.

As it turns out, much like the legendary American author who had to dispute media reports that he’d died, the rumours of the Stampeders’ demise were greatly exaggerated.

Calgary scored three fourth quarter touchdowns to steal victory from the rival Elks and improve to 4-8 on the season. Here’s what I saw from high in Section I.

Maier makes magic

Jake Maier has taken a lot of criticism this year, and even he would agree much of it has been warranted.

This week, however, Maier continued to show signs of improvement as he completed 27-of-34 pass attempts for nearly an 80 completion rate and 315 yards with one interception.

“That’s two in a row that are really good games,” said head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson, referencing Maier’r four-touchdown performance from the week before. “(I) just feel like he’s moving around in the pocket, he’s seeing the windows and driving the ball. He’s confident his receivers are going to go where they are supposed to go.”

Maier’s teammates were obviously excited to get back into the locker room after the game and give the young quarterback his flowers.

“I think the greatest compliment you can get, and it’s not necessarily about the stats or the winning and losing, the greatest compliment you can get as a quarterback is when your teammates respect you, when they revere you in these types of situations,” said Maier. “When you see a large group of men, guys who played their ass off, that is the greatest reward for all this.”

When asked for how his teammates showed him that respect, Maier offered a stark reminder of how football differs from most professional workplaces.

“There was some chest bumps, some ass slaps, and some high fives,” he said. “All of the above.”

That’s Awe, uh huh, uh huh, we like it!

Micah Awe continues to pile up the stats in the middle of Calgary’s defence as he collected another eight defensive tackles.

Awe could break the Stampeders’ single-season franchise record of 123 tackles, which was set by Alex Singleton in 2018. He now has 85 defensive stops through 12 games, putting him on pace for 128.

Considering he was in competition with several players deep into training camp for the starting job at middle linebacker, Awe has outperformed expectations in the middle of a defence that has continued to improve.

Awe made a critical stop on a goal line stand in this game and nearly had a second one in the same spot one play later. In addition to leading the league in tackles, Awe also has one sack, one forced fumble, and two interceptions.

The Stampeders had a miserable time corralling Tre Ford as he recorded a CFL single-game Canadian quarterback record of 135 rushing yards. However, he was also limited to only 137 yards through the air, making it a respectable performance fro Calgary’s defence overall.

Run it in, run it in

Jake Maier may not have found the end zone through the air on Monday but he did get the team into close range, allowing for a trio of rushing touchdowns.

The first came from Maier himself, scampering in from six yards out. The play was remarkable not just because Maier scored but because he ran at all. Through 12 games this season, the third-year quarterback has just 20 carries for 79 yards and three touchdowns.

Maier said it was a read of the coverage from the Elks that led him to take it in himself.

“I saw they were confused on the backside of the play. They ran a guy out there late, so there was nobody there. They were trying to get lined up in their coverage and I saw a big opening,” he said. “I felt like I ran about 30 yards, but it turned out to be a six-yard touchdown. In my mind, I ran for 25 yards, took a hit. It was a lot cooler in my head than it ended up being.”

Maier was also part of the go-ahead touchdown as he moved towards the end zone with Dedrick Mills, who scored the final points of the game. Like most quarterbacks who suddenly find themselves as a lead blocker, Maier didn’t exactly move a bunch of defenders out of the way.

“I’m a bit of a fraud for that,” said Maier. “I didn’t touch anybody, but I felt like I helped. I knew once Mills bounced it (towards the sideline), I was like, ‘I’m here, but I don’t think he’s going to need me.’ And he got in the end zone pretty easily.”

Tommy Stevens also made the most of his only play under centre, taking a one-yard plunge into the end zone with just over three minutes remaining in the game.

Spreading it out

Back when Bo Levi Mitchell was at the helm, Calgary’s offence was at its best when you didn’t know where the ball was going. Mitchell would routinely have games in which he completed passes to seven or eight different receivers.

Against the Elks, Maier was able to emulate the future Hall of Fame passer as he connected with eight different pass-catchers.

Recent reacquisition Markeith Ambles saw the most targets, catching seven of the ten passes Maier threw in his direction, with none bigger than a five-yard catch on third-and-four that got the Stampeders a first-and-goal to spark the comeback.

The game began with a long pass as well as Maier found Marken Michel for a 52-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage to set up a field goal on the opening drive.

Reggie Begelton also made a spectacular sliding 25-yard catch that needed to be reviewed by the CFL command centre before being confirmed on a third down during the final drive. The catch came on a free play as Edmonton had jumped offside, though that didn’t appear to make any difference to Maier.

“(Begelton) was getting the ball whether they were offside or not,” Maier said after the game. “We got a good matchup in man coverage, and there is not a lot of players that can cover him one-on-one. When you get that opportunity, which is rare, you have to take advantage of it. He’s going to make the big play when it counts. He always will.”

Three other Calgary players had a catch of at least 20 yards, which is again a sign that the offence is continuing to build confidence as the season goes on.

“I think you have to build it week to week,” Dickenson said after the win. “I know offensively they are feeling like they are doing some things better than they did earlier in the year. Special teams took a step. I think defensively we had some good looks, but [Tre Ford] is fast.”

“If we can put two or three wins in a row together, then you start growing something. If you just plant the seed every now and again, we haven’t been able to water it yet. We haven’t taken a second step at all this year. It will be a huge challenge to do that in back to back games.”

Airshow grounded

The smoke that continues to hover over Calgary due to wildfires in the area was to blame for the cancellation of the F-18 flyover that is as much as a part of the Labour Day Classic as tailgating.

While the Stampeders kept fans apprised throughout the day of the status of the game and whether or not kickoff would go ahead as planned, the decision to cancel the flyover happened just minutes before the game.

I spoke with Jay McNeil, the team’s vice president of business affairs, about the decision and he said that the Stampeders were informed just five minutes before the flyover was to be cancelled due to low visibility and smoke in the area.

McNeil was unaware of who made the final call as the Calgary Airport and air traffic control are also involved in the decision in conjunction with the pilots and other military personnel. The jets were in the air and on their way when it was called off.

The pilots of the aircraft were still presented to the crowd in the fourth quarter, so we know they got close enough to land and be driven to the stadium. They were just a few of the over 300 members of the armed forces in attendance as the game doubled as military appreciation night.

McNeil also mentioned that the conditions, which featured a forecast of 11 degrees and rain, killed walk-up sales for the game with just 70 people buying a ticket at the gate. That number typically exceeds 1,000 patrons, which would’ve got the game that much closer to selling out with capacity at just over 30,000 with the covered corners at McMahon Stadium.

Let’s do this again sometime

The best part of the Labour Day Classic ending is the knowledge that in five days we get to do it all again as the Stampeders and Elks will face off at Commonwealth Stadium. The team will host fans for a free (but ticketed) watch party at McMahon Stadium where patrons will be allowed to watch the game on the big screen from field level.

If Calgary wins next week and Hamilton loses to Ottawa, the Stampeders could find themselves in a crossover playoff spot.

Ryan Ballantine is a lifelong Stamps fan and host of the Go Stamps Go Show Podcast. He has been covering the team since 2008.