Elks get run over in loss to Argos (& six other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

Edmonton Elks fans are back in familiar territory.

For the third straight season, the Elks have started the campaign with three losses. The latest was a thrilling back-and-forth game that ended 39-36 for the Toronto Argonauts, but it wasn’t all bad.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Quarterback showcase

If you like CFL shootouts, this was the game for you.

Mcleod Bethel-Thompson put on a show going back to the place where he started his CFL career, putting up four passing touchdowns as part of his 342 yards and 73 percent completion mark. This was the reason he was brought in. He was able to make quick decisions and, for the most part, was given time to set up some longer throws. He spread the ball over seven different receivers and found Dillon Mitchell for three 30+ yard bombs. As has been the case though, the final drive ended in a two-and-out and set up the Argos with the opportunity to kick the winning field goal.

“It’s like a different chapter in the same story,” said MBT. “I need to hit Kurleigh on that last throw. He is wide open right down the middle and I put it a little bit high. I had slipped on the play before on that dumb astroturf they have but we need to find a way to finish. That’s what is haunting me right now. We are finding different ways to do it and we need to clean those up.”

Cameron Dukes had a game of his own, completing 85 percent of his passes with two touchdowns through the air and one on a rush up the middle. His top receiver only had 58 yards, but he had 10 receivers with a catch and moved the ball down to counter any punch the Elks had. When both QBs have a rating over 135, you know it was a fun game to watch.

Running game on a milk carton

Last year, we saw a step forward for Kevin Brown with a total of 1,141 rushing yards on the season. After three games this year, his total is 100 yards on the ground.

The running game just can’t seem to get going. He is seeing a lot less of the ball with an average of only eight carries per game, which could be part of the problem — he averaged over 10 per game in 2023. It seems the blocking is not as consistent either so when the runs don’t come early, the ground game is abandoned.

Edmonton did get both Brown and Javon Leake involved in the short passing game with 7 targets between the two of them, all of which were caught. It added 53 yards in what could be considered an extension of the running game but the balance will need to come up on the ground for long-term success.

Speaking of running…

Just like last week, the Elks’ defence was torched on the outside run. Ka’Deem Carey had 19 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown, backup Deonta McMahon had four carries for 50 yards and a touchdown, and even Canadian Daniel Adeboboye got in on the action with a carry for 19 yards. 186 yards and three touchdowns given up on the ground by the Green and Gold was the difference maker.

The front seven seem to do well with the runs inside the box — Nick Anderson led the team with nine tackles right in that area. The change from Romeo McKnight to supplemental draft pick Antonio Alfano may have hurt the team on one edge and the DBs were put to the test again after Montreal’s success last week. The result was similar.

“We did not tackle well on the perimeter today,” said head coach Chris Jones. “I think their game plan was really good to try to make our DBs tackle out in space and we didn’t do a good job of that.”

Defensive positives

In a game that had 75 total points, it’s a bit hard to find defensive positives.

The first drive for Toronto had two Elks sacks. National Noah Curtis had a good game in the middle of the D-line, posting three tackles with two sacks. He seemed to come free with pressure when the Argos were double-teaming Robert Nkemdiche.

Loucheiz Purifoy had an impact once again with an interception in the third quarter and an 18-yard return to the Argo 23-yard line. That turned into a Hergy Mayala touchdown to start the fireworks in the second half.

Leon O’Neal Jr. was, once again, all over the field with eight tackles. With his biggest game in green and gold, Elliott Brown showed his speed with 7 tackles and a sack. There are things to build on but I am left wondering how much of this defence is similar to the Riders’ post-Labour Day the last few years. It’s on Jones and Shivers to make it into a force as they used to.

Penalties at the wrong time

After the game, I was shocked to see the Elks only had seven penalties — probably because the ones that did happen made a huge impact.

In the second quarter, the Elks had tackled Carey for a six-yard loss on a second down. Marcus Lewis, the field side corner, lined up offside and gave the Argos a new set of downs — a brutal mistake that turned into a touchdown.

A 34-yard return by Javon Leake was taken off the board by an illegal block call. Another 35-yard return was eliminated by a holding penalty. It’s great to have a returner that can get some yards but the penalties keep losing all the field position.

In the fourth quarter, two egregious penalties were a big factor in the game’s outcome. After a seven-yard run by Ka’Deem Carey to the Edmonton 46, Kai Gray got into it with Makai Polk away from the play and was called for retaliation. The 15-yard penalty helped the drive turn into another Double Blue touchdown.

After the Elks tied the game back up from that mistake, they had Toronto kicking from their own 41. First-overall draft pick Joel Dublanko went in for the block and rolled up onto John Haggerty’s plant leg, drawing a contacting the kicker flag and new life for the Argonauts.

By my count, that is five of the seven penalties being massive to the outcome of the game. No wonder it seemed like more.

“It doesn’t look very big because you only have seven penalties,” said Jones. “But the penalties that we took kept us backed up. We need to learn to finish ball games. We took another undisciplined penalty and that’s three games in a row we took a post-snap penalty. There’s going to be repercussions for that.”

Silver lining

There are no moral victories in pro sports and the Edmonton fan base is long past cheering for those. That said, I wanted to see an improvement in competitiveness this year and, so far, I have seen that.

The Elks hung with what could arguably be two of the top teams in the league and lost by a total of six points. The road does not get easier as they face another top team, on a short week, with a trip out to Vancouver this Thursday. Maybe they can learn from their hockey counterparts and prove that losing three in a row is all that’s needed to spark a winning streak.

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