Stampeders spoil Bo Levi Mitchell’s return to Calgary (& eight other thoughts)

Courtesy: Calgary Stampeders

The Calgary Stampeders came into McMahon Stadium on Friday night needing a win.

That may seem like hyperbole when talking about the first game of the 2024 season but given the results from 2023, a fast start was required for a team struggling to regain their identity as one of the league’s best.

Standing in their way was a very familiar face: Bo Levi Mitchell, holder of many franchise records and the only quarterback in team history to win two Grey Cups as a starter.

Due to a scheduling quirk that saw the Hamilton Tiger-Cats not make a trip to Calgary last season, this was the first time Mitchell had played at McMahon since being traded in November 2022. He was honoured by the hometown team during the first commercial break and threw for 300 yards and a touchdown on the day, but fell short as the Stampeders walked away with a 32-24 victory in front of 19,741 fans.

Here’s what else I saw from high in Section I.

Cool under not much pressure

Jake Maier came into the game with some questions of his own to answer, having quarterbacked the Stampeders to their worst record in almost 20 years.

He looked cool, calm, and confident in the opener, completing 21-of-26 passes for 252 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Even more encouraging for Stamps fans is how he got those yards and where the passes went. All of the six receivers averaged 10 yards or more per catch and the running backs combined for an eight-yard average as well.

Last season was a collection of short passes over the middle and screens for no gain, as series after series ended in disappointment. Though the Stampeders would have liked a few more touchdown drives in this one, their offensive tune has changed.

Calgary would score on eight of 11 drives, not counting a one-play kneel-down at the end of the first half, and cashed in on all of their first five possessions to build a 19-7 halftime lead.

Someone left the Barnes door open

Clark Barnes isn’t the most high-profile CFL receiver coming back after a season-ending injury last year, but he had about as good a return as anyone could have hoped for.

The sophomore Canadian made six catches on eight targets for a team-leading 61 yards. That included a 12-yard touchdown in the back corner of the endzone where he managed to shake his defender for the score.

Barnes is continuing to prove he belongs and in a game where the receiving depth was tested, he passed the test with flying colours.

Is there an Echols in here?

Cam Echols made the most out of an unfortunate preseason injury to Malik Henry and found himself with 160 yards in Winnipeg a week ago, earning a starting job.

He made an early impact in his regular-season debut, logging a 26-yard catch to set up a field goal on the Stampeders’ opening drive. He later found himself the recipient of the game’s first touchdown pass, a seven-yard toss from Maier early in the second quarter.

Unfortunately, Echols was forced to exit the game with an injury but was spotted on the sideline running later in the contest. Stampeders fans and coaches alike will be crossing their fingers that the rookie receiver isn’t out of the lineup for any length of time.

In the fourth quarter, fellow receiver Marken Michel was taken to the ground with a hard tackle that saw the back of his helmet whipped into the turf. He was down for a while before being helped to the sideline.

Given what happened to the Stampeders’ offence last year when the receiving corps dropped like flies, that unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach will probably last until the first injury update is released.

Houston, there is no problem at all

Possibly the biggest offseason signing for the Stampeders during free agency, Demerio Houston wasted little time endearing himself to his new teammates. He made seven tackles to lead the team and returned a Bo Levi Mitchell interception 24 yards.

Houston led the league in interceptions last year for Winnipeg and was targeted by the Stampeders for that exact reason. They thought last year’s DB group didn’t make enough of those game-changing plays.

Tre Roberson led the Calgary DB group last season with just two interceptions, while Cameron Judge grabbed five from his linebacker position. We can safely expect a few more from Houston in the coming weeks.

Speaking of linebackers

The CFL’s ratio rules are dumb. Or maybe I am too dumb to understand them.

Whichever it is, Micah Awe being listed as the third-string linebacker on the official depth chart when he led the league in tackles last season is ridiculous. There he was on Friday night, patrolling the middle of the field for the majority of the game as he did most of 2023.

I’m not going to say I did a snap count on Awe, who as a designated nationalized American can line up for 25 plays in place of National starter Micah Teitz or replace any other American for unlimited reps. Maybe he wasn’t out there as much as I thought given the success of the Hamilton running game, which slashed the Stamps for 156 yards. But in this instance, the tomfoolery is too much.

I don’t hate the concept of a designated nationalized American, where an American player who has played three years for the same team or five years in the league is rewarded. It incentivizes players to stick around in one place and show loyalty to the league, but the current version of the rule needs to go. It makes it nearly impossible for the casual fan to know who to expect to actually be playing the bulk of the game.

Paredes en fuego

Rene Paredes is a god amongst men. Strong winds were no problem for the greatest-to-ever-do-it as he went six-for-six, with three kicks from beyond the 40-yard line, and hit a pair of converts.

I’ve written about this team for six years and I may have run out of superlatives when describing the Stamps’ kicker.

Back to Bo

In the second quarter, I sent a message to my 3DownNation colleagues because something unusual was happening.

Bo Levi Mitchell was running.

No, that is not a typo. Mitchell would take off three times for a total of 36 yards.

You might not think that is a huge deal but Mitchell is starting his 12th CFL season and his 10th as a starter. His rushing numbers in the opener were higher than his totals for each of the last four season, plus 2017 to boot.

Both Mitchell and Ticats head coach Scott Milanovich were eager to downplay the idea that the veteran QB is suddenly going to be on the run, but they also suggested that he is in far better shape than he was this time last year. Mitchell also expressed that he feels as though the coaching staff is counting on him to take what is given.

Either way, for this long-time viewer of Mitchell in the red and white of Calgary, I felt a certain satisfaction watching him turn back the clock and get on his horse again. Or is it “get on his Ticat” now?

A milestone night

With the win, the Stampeders officially became the first CFL team to win 700 regular season games, moving them into sole possession of first place in that category.

Edmonton is just a game behind at 699, and Winnipeg isn’t far behind them with 696.

You have to believe both teams will get to 700 this season and provided they do it before the 11th game of the season, the Elks will be the fastest to hit the mark as they have played 10 fewer games in the accepted history of the club.

Looking for 701

The Stampeders head out on the road next week to face the B.C. Lions, a team they soundly beat in the preseason without many of the Leos’ rostered starters in attendance.

Come out with a win there and Calgary might just start to put the disaster of 2023 behind them.

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