Ticats’ Scott Milanovich ‘encouraged’ by Bo Levi Mitchell’s performance in homecoming loss to Calgary

Photo courtesy: Hamilton Tiger-Cats

It wasn’t the storybook return to Calgary that Bo Levi Mitchell had envisioned but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats still believe things are looking up for the aging quarterback following their season-opening loss to the Stampeders.

“It was encouraging. Probably the most encouraging thing was what he did with his legs and getting out of the pocket,” head coach Scott Milanovich said when asked about his QB. “We talked about that a lot during preseason and he kept some plays alive, he ran for a couple first downs, he scrambled and made plays throwing the ball. There was a lot to build on, for sure.”

Mitchell completed 27-of-38 passes for 300 yards, one touchdown, and one interception during his McMahon Stadium homecoming, but couldn’t stave off his former team. Led by the man who replaced him under centre, Jake Maier, the Stampeders never trailed en route to a 32-24 victory.

The veteran pivot looked unusually sprightly on the ground in the loss, which marked the start of his 12th CFL campaign. He took off three times for 36 yards — surpassing his rushing totals from five of the last six seasons.

“It’s learning from Scott and learning to take what somebody gives me. If they’re going to give me a coverage that allows me to move then it’s my job to get out and escape the pocket,” Mitchell said.

“I think that’s kind of who I was in the past. I was able to get out and move and escape the pocket. I’m not necessarily a runner at all, but I’ve always liked my ability to make guys miss in the pocket.”

The 34-year-old credited his renewed mobility to offseason work with strength and conditioning coach Marcellus Bowman, which has helped him achieve a new level of physical preparedness. While the veteran gunslinger is unlikely to transform into a dual-threat option, his coach hopes a little more work with his legs will be part of a late-career resurgence.

“When the opportunity presents itself, right?” Milanovich said. “I think he’s in excellent shape. He worked hard in the offseason, I think he’s a better athlete than he was a year ago. They wanted to play a little two man early and nobody accounts for the quarterback. I thought he did a nice job extending.”

Running comes with some added risks, however, and Mitchell was briefly pulled from the contest before halftime by the injury spotter after absorbing a hellacious hit downfield from former teammates Cameron Judge and Mike Rose. He would return to start the third quarter after clearing the CFL’s concussion protocol and believes the blow helped him produce better numbers in the second half.

“(I was) slow to start. I didn’t feel super accurate in the beginning and then the hit kind of locked me in and got me ready to go in that second half,” he remarked. “I think there were good plays. There were some timing things that we’ve got to clean up but there are things that are easy to fix that we can go out there and fix if we work at it.”

Mitchell has struggled to stay healthy since winning Most Outstanding Player for the second time in 2018. A string of injuries over the following seasons prompted his departure from Calgary last year but the Katy, Tex. native was able to appear in just six games for the Ticats due to an adductor issue and a fractured leg. He completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 1,031 yards with six touchdowns and ten interceptions, posting a 2-4 record.

Those injuries held him out of Hamilton’s lone matchup with the Stampeders in 2023, denying him a chance to play the franchise where he spent the first 10 seasons of his career and won two Grey Cups. Calgary finally got the chance to honour their all-time leader in completions and passing yardage with a video tribute early in the first quarter on Friday, bringing the crowd at McMahon Stadium to their feet.

“I did (hear the ovation). I just gave the little small two-finger wave there. It was really cool of them to do that. That’s awesome,” Mitchell said. “I was just trying to stay locked into the game. Some of the boys in the huddle were watching it but we were pretty locked in.”

Unfortunately, the team wasn’t locked in enough to avoid the early mistakes which caused them to play from behind. A string of costly drops and a few near misses, including two in the endzone by all-star Tim White, proved to be the difference between the two sides, though Mitchell refused to criticize his receiving corps.

“I missed, off the top of my head, I can think of five easy passes that should be completed. So, no, I’m not going to call a guy out for a drop,” he said. “The sun’s in their eyes on some of them, some of them are just focus. Now, we see that on film, we learn from it, and we get better from it.”

For his part, Milanovich insists that the Week 1 loss was still a step towards the vision he has for both Mitchell and the team.

“Obviously, he’s gonna wish we had a different result today but that’s what I just told him,” he said. “We’re a young team. We’re not gonna make excuses for that, but we’ve got to continue to improve and I believe we’ll do that.”

The Ticats (0-1) will return to action on Sunday, June 16 when they host the Saskatchewan Roughriders (0-0) at Tim Hortons Field.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.