Ben’s Breakdown: how Jake Dolegala’s development led to Saskatchewan’s game-winning drive

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders/Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

I’ve been fooled by Jake Dolegala before, so I write this article with a degree of cautious optimism. However, I saw some things in Saskatchewan’s 32-30 Labour Day Classic win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers that I wasn’t expecting from the 26-year-old passer.

I’ve followed Dolegala’s career with considerable interest since he signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent. On paper, he’s every coach’s dream, and I fell in love with his skillset. He’s intelligent, has great size, huge hands, a rocket arm, solid mobility, and can throw on the run. I expected him to win the Bengals’ backup job and make a solid case to eventually replace then-starter Andy Dalton down the road.

He didn’t.

But that didn’t stop New England, Green Bay, and Miami from giving him a shot, and the Patriots and Packers even brought him back for second stints with the team.

So why didn’t it work out for him in the NFL? As far as I can tell, it’s because his passes were really hard to catch.

Dolegala mixed in the occasional touch pass, but too often fired fastballs regardless of the route, spacing, or coverage. Most throws looked like he held down the circle button too long on his Xbox controller.

It wasn’t just a velocity issue, though. While he wasn’t inaccurate to the casual observer, his throws were generally placed into the body his receivers. He didn’t lead his targets into open space or allow them to continue accelerating beyond their route.

Surely he could be coached up, I thought.

I was excited when he arrived in Saskatchewan in 2022 because I felt his needed development would be met with more patience than it was in the NFL. I was even more excited when Kelly Jeffrey was hired as the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. I’ve coached a few of Jeffrey’s former Mount Allison quarterbacks at the semi-pro level and they raved about his ability to teach as part of the coaching process.

So, what has Jeffrey done with Dolegala? The sample size is still small, but his timing seems to have improved. “Two-arc” throws, a term used to describe balls that drop in over the linebackers instead of blazing there directly, have also been added to his repertoire.

But what I saw from Dolegala that impressed me most on Labour Day weekend was confidence and competitive fire.

The Roughriders scored points on each of their last five drives, including the winning touchdown and two-point conversion in overtime.

On Saskatchewan’s game-tying drive in the final minutes of regulation, Dolegala sandwiched five consecutive completions between a dropped ball and a tipped pass by a free rusher. With the game on the line, he was clutch. He simply wasn’t going to allow the Riders to lose this football game, and that’s not something I’ve seen from him before.

The coaching staff clearly has confidence in him as well. On the above-mentioned seven-play drive, Saskatchewan called seven straight passes, five of which sent six receivers into the pattern. As a point of comparison, other young quarterbacks like Dustin Crum and Taylor Powell often work with a tight end or two who stay in and block. Alternatively, they flank the young quarterback with running backs on either side to help pass protect, which simplifies the quarterback’s read while also buying them extra time.

The play that impressed me the most on that crucial drive was a second-level sideline completion to Jamal Morrow for 17 yards on second-and-seven that put the Roughriders in field goal range.

A yard shy of midfield, Dolegala lined up with a tight end to his right, four receivers to the left, and Morrow next to him in the backfield. On the waggle, Dolegala sent Morrow out wide, and all six eligible receivers took off into the pattern.

Winnipeg originally crowded eight men in tight at the line of scrimmage, trying to show cover zero, but ended up rushing only four with split coverage downfield.

As soon as Morrow widened out just inside the numbers and linebacker Kyrie Wilson broke from the cluster to go with him, Dolegala knew where he was throwing the football. Even though he was technically out wide, Morrow’s lateral position meant that Wilson needed to be able to defend both in-breaking and out-breaking routes while also being mindful of a go route.

Based on Winnipeg’s alignment, there were always going to be options to the field side, such as Jerreth Sterns’ speed out near the sticks, but that’s a long and dangerous throw for little reward, and Dolegala must have liked Morrow’s matchup.

From the tight end position, Tevin Jones ran a flat route as part of the flood concept he and Morrow executed. Jones’ route glued Demerio Houston to the line of scrimmage and left Wilson alone downfield. Without help overtop against the speedier Morrow, Wilson got out of Dodge fast and couldn’t stop his momentum quickly enough when Morrow broke to the sideline.

With Jackson Jeffcoat inches away on the blind side, Willie Jefferson jumping with full extension in front of him, and Jake Thomas falling at his feet, Dolegala stepped confidently into the throw and guided a dime over Houston’s head into the waiting arms of Morrow, leading him safely to the sideline for a 17-yard gain that also stopped the clock.

With the game on the line and the pressure of Labour Day on his shoulders, Jake Dolegala played like the quarterback so many coaches over the years thought he could be.

Can he do it again?

Fans in Riderville won’t have long to wait as Saskatchewan travels to Winnipeg for a rematch with the Blue Bombers in the Banjo Bowl on Saturday afternoon.

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