Duke of York rides again in Argos’ dramatic win over Edmonton (& 11 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

On Saturday night, the current Toronto Argonauts defeated the former Toronto Argonauts — better known as the Edmonton Elks — 39-36 on Pride Night at BMO Field.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson and a number of former Argonauts gave it all they could for the Elks, but despite the closeness of the game, the two teams continued to head in opposite directions.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Family Reunion

All in all, seven members of Toronto’s 2022 Grey Cup team now find themselves playing for the Edmonton Elks. McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Kurleigh Gitten Jr., Javon Leake, and Boris Bede are the most well-known, but offensive lineman Shane Richards, defensive lineman Sam Acheampong, and safety Josh Hagerty also wear green and gold now. And let’s not forget that quarterback Dakota Prukop and left tackle Martez Ivey, along with several members of the Edmonton coaching staff, including head coach Chris Jones, were once in Toronto as well.

The pregame warmup looked at times like a family reunion with many more hugs exchanged than usual. The fans at BMO Field gave all the former Argos an appreciative applause when their names were first announced by public address announcer Adam Gosse, with Bethel-Thompson receiving the loudest ovation.

In his return to BMO, Macbeth had one of the best nights of his career, despite being consistently under siege. He threw for 342 yards and four touchdowns, one of which was to his favourite target then and now, Kurleigh Gittens Jr.

The Duke of York

Cameron Dukes impressed everyone in Toronto’s opener, completing 78 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He played even better against Edmonton, completing an astonishing 86 percent of his passes, including two deep touchdowns.

He also has two rushing touchdowns this season and is the only starting quarterback in the CFL yet to throw an interception. He leads the CFL in passing efficiency with a 142.0 rating — the next closest quarterback is Cody Fajardo with a rating of 124.7.

In the locker room after the game, Dukes explained that both performances reflect who he is as a quarterback.

“I’m the kind of quarterback that I don’t want to force anything. I want to manage and put us in a good situation, so when they present themselves, I’m going to take a shot,” he said. “If a game doesn’t have a chance to present shots on the field, then that’s okay, I’ll take the underneath stuff.”

Dukes spread the ball around extremely well, connecting with 10 different receivers on the night.

Da Doo Run Run Run

One of the biggest differences in this game was how effectively Toronto was able to run the ball while limiting Edmonton entirely on the ground. The Argos rushed for 186 yards on the night averaging 6.4 yards per carry with three rushing touchdowns. These were monster numbers when compared to Edmonton’s 35 yards for an average of 3.5 per carry and one touchdown.

Toronto’s defensive line was relatively quiet compared to their production in the opener where they logged six sacks, notching only one this time, but their run-stopping effectiveness didn’t go unnoticed.

On the edge

One potentially serious problem that arose for the Argos was the play of their young cornerbacks, Benjie Franklin and Leonard Johnson. Franklin especially was targeted in the first half and he seemed to find himself a few steps out of position and late to react to the ball. I don’t believe it’s time to sound the alarm in Toronto, but the situation needs to be monitored.

Young American corners take time to acclimate to the Canadian game. The width of the field is a big difference at the position and that seemed to play a factor on at least one of Bethel-Thompson’s four touchdowns. Franklin also seemed to struggle anticipating the speed of Bethel-Thompson’s passes, reacting late to the ball coming in.

Both corners have pro speed, and unlike last week, there didn’t appear to be any busts in coverage, but their play will need to tighten up quickly if they’re going to have any chance of beating the Montreal Alouettes this coming week.

Trick or Treat

Ryan Dinwiddie called two plays that might be considered “trick plays” on Saturday night, both involving Deonta McMahon — one that went for a touchdown and one that resulted in an interception.

The first was a 44-yard touchdown run that was a risky play design in my mind, but also a thing of beauty. McMahon ran the ball left on a sweep, but the left guard and tackle to that side pulled to the right leaving no one to block for him. The brilliance of this play is that defensive linemen are taught to follow pulling offensive linemen, knowing they’ll lead them to the ball carrier. Linebackers are also taught to follow pulling linemen, so when left tackle Isiah Cage and left guard Ryan Hunter pulled right, most of the Elks defence went with them, leaving no one to tackle McMahon as he scampered down the field for a touchdown.

The second trick play was a failure and it happened deep in Toronto territory. McMahon took a toss to the right and then tried to loft it to Tommy Nield down the sideline on a running back option. Nield was wide open but the pass sailed a bit short and Loucheiz Purifoy came all the way over from his safety spot to make the interception.

Dinwiddie blamed himself for putting the defence in a bad situation.

“We thought we had it. The corner bit, but Purifoy was over the top,” he explained. “It wasn’t the right call at that time, and I told those guys I put us in a bad position, so that’s on me.”

Dinwiddie has high expectations for his players and they hear about it when mistakes are made. It goes a long way for players when they see their head coach take accountability for his own mistakes like this.

Just for kicks

Global punter John Haggerty averaged 56 yards on six punts, which now brings his average on the season up to 52.1 yards per punt. For the second week in a row, he boomed one late in the game that died at the one-yard-line. With the score tied at 36, this was a real turning point that led to the Argos getting the ball back with great field position, setting up the game-winning field goal on the final play.

After missing two extra points last week, Lirim Hajrullahu was perfect on Saturday night, hitting all four of his conversion attempts and connecting on his only field goal of the night –- a 37-yard game-winner.

Man down

One of the most impressive things about this win for Toronto is that they did it with nine players on the six-game injured list, and without leaders DaVaris Daniels, Folarin Orimolade, and Jonathan Jones.

Rookie Makai Polk played well in Daniels’ stead, but there was a noticeable drop-off from the outside pass rush without Orimolade, and the consistency of Jones’ play was missed with Fraser Sopik and Muddy Waters rotating into his vacated weak-side linebacker spot.

It’s been a challenge

For the first time in his career, Ryan Dinwiddie has a .500 record on challenges in a season, going one for two so far in 2024.

As good as Dinwiddie is as a coach, he’s had no manner of luck whatsoever when it comes to challenges. Coming into Saturday’s game, Dinwiddie had won just three of his previous 23. His successful challenge on this night was a difference-maker, enforcing a huge pass interference call against Edmonton that led to a Toronto touchdown a few plays later.

“We were just laughing in the locker room,” said Dinwiddie in his postgame press conference. “This is the first time I’ve ever had my flag in my pocket leaving the game.”

Home field advantage

The Argos have now won 11 straight regular season home games, with Ryan Dinwiddie improving to 22-5 at home since he took over the head coaching duties at the start of the pandemic.

There is undoubtedly a home-field advantage for Toronto given that they’re the only team playing on natural grass and the stadium features unique wind conditions, but these were still factors in 2019 before Dinwiddie’s arrival when the team could barely win a game anywhere. Toronto has been a good team in general during this span, winning the East Division each year, but the head coach clearly has his team playing at a higher level when defending their home turf.

In his postgame press conference, he downplayed the streak, saying instead that they should win their home games.

“We should win every home game versus a Western opponent,” said Dinwiddie. “They’ve got to fly all the way out here, I mean, we should win those games.”

Pride

The Argonauts have gotten better every year at putting together their Pride Game festivities. From rainbow fireworks to Pride-themed Argos merchandise, 2SLGBTQ+ performances, special guests, and digital experiences, this didn’t feel at all like a token nod to Pride, the way events like this sometimes do in professional sports. This was an all-out Argos Pride Game celebration that started before the gates even opened, spilled out into the Shipyard, and continued into the night.

Blame it on the…lack of rain

This game looked destined to include at least one lightning delay or at the very least feature some sort of extreme weather event. All week long, and right up until kickoff, the forecast warned of severe thunderstorms, and yet somehow not a single drop of rain fell either before or during the game at BMO Field.

Given the anticipated conditions, no one could have been expecting these two teams to score a combined 75 points. The conditions to start the game were so perfect and still that it took almost ten minutes for the smoke to clear from the fireworks display that opened the game. The wind picked up significantly in the fourth quarter but never seemed to impact the play on the field.

Next up

The Toronto Argonauts (2-0) get set to host the Montreal Alouettes (3-0) in a battle of the East’s two unbeaten teams at BMO Field on Friday night. On their last visit to Toronto, the Alouettes upset the heavily favoured Argos in the East Final, so the Boatmen will be looking for payback.

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