Elks give away another victory to the Riders (& six other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

The 75th season of the Edmonton Football Club kicked off with a number of legends in town to celebrate the legacy of one of the CFL’s most successful franchises.

Unfortunately, the Elks were only able to live up to their recent history of finding a way to lose at home, dropping a 29-21 contest to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Generosity continues

It wasn’t as egregious as the games last year — not being able to push in from the one-yard line and giving away a rouge in a tie game — but the Green and Gold’s generosity in giving away points in the standings to the Green and White continues.

A comparison of the last five drives for each team is telling. The Riders went touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, fumble. The Elks went fumble, missed field goal, fumble, interception, missed throw to the endzone.

Although the score sheet will tell you that turnovers were even at three a piece, the Riders capitalized significantly more on the Elks’ blunders. After building the lead to 21-8 early in the fourth quarter, three turnovers — two fumbles and an interception — turned the tide of the game. The dagger came when a dropped handoff to Kevin Brown was recovered by Saskatchewan’s Jameer Thurman and was turned into the game-winning touchdown.

To add to the chaos of the turnovers, Boris Bede missed a 48-yard field goal just after the Riders had taken the lead. Mario Alford took full opportunity to scamper all the way back to the Saskatchewan 45-yard line and keep Edmonton from getting any positive momentum.

Adding to the gifts was the return of a lack of discipline, resulting in 11 penalties for 101 yards. An unnecessary roughness call against Robert Nkemdiche late in the fourth quarter stood out as the score was only 22-21 at that point. You can’t give a full field of football away in a tight game.

Offence — the good

Mcleod Bethel-Thompson was brought in to help move the ball downfield and, for the most part, he did just that. Eight different receivers were targeted on his 42 attempts and 33 of those were completed (78.6 percent) for 336 yards. On the two touchdown drives, both to Hergy Mayala, he looked sharp and had time to spread the ball amongst the receiving corps.

“You see the potential,” MBT said after the game. “It comes in spurts and stops but it’s not flowing for the whole game. I wasn’t in rhythm early. I don’t think we can be stopped when we are rolling. There’s so much out there. That’s the exciting part but that’s also the frustrating part.”

Dillon Mitchell continued his bounce-back play from the preseason, catching all seven of the passes thrown his way and leading the team with 93 yards receiving. Geno Lewis saw six targets and was able to haul in the game’s biggest reception for 52 yards. The steps forward in the passing game are there.

Offence — the bad

For all the progress in the passing game, the strength in the run game that the Elks had last season was nowhere to be found. There were only 11 rushing plays called and one scramble from Bethel-Thompson. Edmonton was held to a 3.3-yard average on the ground.

Kevin Brown and Javon Leake both saw action in the backfield, but neither was able to find any space to break through. For all their improved pass blocking, the O-line’s run blocking was hindered throughout the game.

One major blunder came on a failed handoff where all MBT could do was run back and fall on the ball for a 12-yard loss. There will be a lot to work on in the run game this coming week.

Speaking of not running

The Double E front seven needs to be commended for their improvement in stopping the run. A.J. Ouellette came in at number 13 on the CFL top 50 list for the season and has feasted on the Elks in games past. Not so in this game, as he had a total of 40 yards on 18 carries.

Edmonton was led by middle linebacker Nyles Morgan and newcomer to the strong side, Leon O’Neal Jr. For a team that regularly gave up more than 100 yards on the ground last year, this was a massive improvement.

The defensive line helped with the run-stopping but was not able to put significant pressure on Trevor Harris. Nkemdiche broke through for a sack but otherwise, Harris seemed to have a lot of time in the pocket and did not need to scramble out very much. I had expected more push from that group based on what I saw in camp.

The secondary was also up and down for this game. The absence of their leader Loucheiz Purifoy was notable in the late stages. When the Riders started to pick apart the zone coverage, there was little done to reset the group and get back to the early success.

2023 Most Outstanding Rookie nominee Kai Gray had a great interception in the third quarter. Halfback Darius Bratton stretched out for an interception at the end of the first half. There were some bright spots for the group, but the zone defence fell apart late and could not recover.

Kicking for field position

I know I say this a lot but Jake Julien is a really fun punter to watch. His directional punting outside the numbers has improved this year and he added almost seven yards of net average compared to last season. When Mario Alford only has an average of four yards per punt return, you know the hang time was also there for the cover team to get downfield. It was a really impressive start for Julien.

Boris Bede made his Elks regular season debut and went two-of-three on field goals. Granted, the one he missed was from 48 yards, but it was tough timing. An average of 69 yards on kickoffs was negated with Saskatchewan averaging 33 yards on returns. I would like to see more height from those kickoffs in an attempt to win back some field position.

Both teams had return touchdowns taken off the board due to penalties. Javon Leake took it 75 yards only to have it called back on an illegal block. Alford had a 91-yard return taken off for the same reason. Two other holding penalties for Edmonton took decent return yardage away in the second half and resulted in a difference of almost 15 yards in average return length for kickoffs.

“I was very disappointed special teams wise,” head coach Chris Jones said. “We took too many penalties. Unfortunately, the special teams, we lost the field position battle.”

On to the next one

The Elks have little time to worry about their first result, as they are back at home against the defending Grey Cup champs next Friday night. Montreal comes in after winning their first game in Winnipeg and will be a tough out for Edmonton.

“You don’t win for potential, it still counts as a full loss,” said Bethel-Thompson. “It’s going to be a great challenge. Maybe this is what we needed. Are we going to say ‘Here we go again’ or are we going to step up to the challenge and see the potential and step up this week? We’ll see what kind of men we have in this locker room and how we bounce back.”

Andrew Hoskins is a lifelong Edmonton resident and the host of the Turf District Podcast.