Argonauts get out-Fajardoed in first loss of the season (& 10 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

On Friday night at BMO Field in Toronto, the Argonauts dropped their first game of the season, a 30-20 decision to the defending Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes. On a night when perhaps the franchise’s greatest quarterback was honoured at halftime, the Argos couldn’t get quite enough out of their current offence.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Out-Fajardoed

I’ve said at numerous points since the Chad Kelly suspension that Cameron Dukes would need to win games for the Argonauts the way Cody Fajardo does for the Alouettes.

The similarities between the two quarterbacks go far beyond them both starting their professional careers in Toronto in the shadow of a Grey Cup winner. They both had question marks about their arm strength and their physical build for mobile quarterbacks and though they both put up huge stats in college, there were doubts their games would translate to the next level.

Fajardo has certainly had success in the pros. His leadership, accuracy, and ability to risk-assess on the fly and take what the defence gives him is what puts him over the top. Coming into Friday’s game, Dukes led the league in completion percentage at 82.1 percent, passer efficiency at 142.0, and was the only starting quarterback not to have thrown an interception, showing some of these Fajardian traits himself.

Unfortunately for Dukes, those numbers all took a hit. He threw his first pick — an uncharacteristic overthrow to DaVaris Daniels — he completed only 69 percent of his passes, and his quarterback efficiency was a mere 72.3. Fajardo threw a pick as well, but he was more accurate, more efficient, and found the way to get the ball into the end zone.

I saw the sign

Coming into the contest, the Argonauts had scored touchdowns on every single trip to the red zone this season. Against Montreal, the red zone may as well have been a big red stop sign. The Argos managed three trips inside Montreal’s 20-yard-line, and each resulted in a Lirim Hajrullahu field goal.

Staying grounded

The Argonauts continued to run the ball well, even against Montreal’s stingy defence. The Argos came into the game leading the league by a mile in rushing yards per game and pounded out another 103 yards on 17 carries.

Montreal, meanwhile couldn’t run the football at all as Toronto’s defensive line continued to be stifling. The Alouettes finished the game with 12 carries for 25 yards, 10 of which came on the game’s final play before Montreal kneeled the clock out.

Immovable object vs stoppable force

Coming into the game, the Argos boasted the CFL’s best offence in terms of points-per-game, while the Alouettes led the league defensively in that category. Montreal’s defence was dominant on this night, keeping the Argos out of the end zone until the final minute of the game, at which point the result was no longer in question.

Montreal did a great job of generating pressure without blitzing, forcing Dukes to throw off his back foot all night, and blanketed Toronto’s receivers deep downfield.

Bend but sometimes break

After two consecutive weeks of aggressive football, the Argos returned to an often-used strategy during the Corey Mace era: “bend-but-don’t break” defence. It worked well for the most part, and the defence certainly can’t be blamed for the loss, but they did suffer two major breakdowns.

The first came on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Fajardo to Tyson Philpot. Just prior to the snap, Cole Spieker crossed the stationary Philpot on his waggle, which put cornerback Leonard Johnson and halfback Mason Pierce in conflict. They should probably have initiated a banjo call, where Johnson would have stayed outside with Pierce to follow Philpot across the field, but that wasn’t communicated in time, and Johnson lost his footing when Philpot cut inside. Fajardo found him wide open in the middle of the field and he turned towards the end zone for the first major of the game.

The defence’s second “break” of the game came on a third-and-one situation. Having stopped Caleb Evans on his first quarterback sneak attempt, forcing a turnover on downs, Toronto’s defence was poised to stuff the middle of the field once again. Evans instead stepped back and aired out a deep ball for Spieker, who waltzed untouched into the end zone from 44 yards out.

The defence allowed a third touchdown, but that was following a Cameron Dukes interception that was run back deep into Argo territory.

Double dribble

It was a bit astonishing to me that the Argos allowed Jeshrun Antwi to flawlessly execute and recover his own two-yard dribble punt on second-and-20. That’s Antwi’s trademark “finishing move.” On the Argos radio broadcast, as soon as Antwi stepped on the field in that situation, Mike Hogan and I pointed him out and started talking about defenders being alert for that play.

Montreal actually appeared to run two versions of the dribble punt, but the first was blown dead just before the play officially started with Antwi leaking out into the left flat. The teams huddled up again, and this time Antwi lined up on the right, motioned inside as though he were helping out in pass protection, released into the right flat, caught the pass, and tapped it off his foot. Jonathan Jones, the closest Argo defender, was 13 yards away when Antwi caught the pass.

It’s good

After missing two extra points in the season opener, Lirim Hajrullahu has settled down nicely. The veteran kicker has connected on all eight of his field goals this season, including going four-for-four against the Alouettes on Friday night.

While this is all well and good, it’s hard to win in the CFL without scoring touchdowns, and through 59 minutes, Hajrullahu was responsible for every single one of the team’s points.

Great Scott

With under two minutes remaining, quarterback Bryan Scott came in to relieve Cameron Dukes. Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie made it clear after the game that Dukes wasn’t being benched, but rather, with the game feeling out of reach, he wanted to get Scott some live action.

Scott responded beautifully, albeit against a passive prevent defence. He completed all five of his passes including a gorgeous touchdown toss to rookie Makai Polk for 40 yards. Scott correctly led Polk inside on his seam route, away from danger, and the exciting rookie receiver fully extended to make the catch and rolled into the end zone for both his first touchdown and Scott’s. I wonder who got to keep the football.

Flags on the play

The Argonauts played an undisciplined brand of football on Friday night, committing 11 penalties for 120 yards. Two of those penalties needlessly extended Montreal drives with Caleb Evans in the game after Fajardo was briefly shaken up.

The first was a careless facemask on Robbie Smith as Evans was being sacked on second down, and the second was a late hit on Jake Ceresna after Cole Spieker was stopped short on second down and long. Toronto only committed six penalties in each of their first two contests.

Play it again, Sam

One of the potential long-term concerns for the Argonauts in this game was the injury of Quincy Mauger. The SAM linebacker was slow to get up on three occasions, colliding twice with teammate Jonathan Jones, and once after taking an awkward hit as a gunner on the punt unit. Mauger ultimately had to be helped off the field, seemingly unable to put pressure on his right leg, and he was seen after the game on crutches.

Jonathan Edouard filled in initially for Mauger but when he also was hobbled with an injury, rookie Tyshon Blackburn came in at safety while Royce Metchie moved down into the SAM spot.

The strong-side linebacker position is such a unique spot to play in the Canadian game, and the Argos had issues finding an adequate replacement for Adarius Pickett last season when he went down briefly with an injury. Already light in the defensive backfield, the Argos will almost certainly have to sign at least one DB leading up to their Thursday night clash with the Roughriders.

Legends of the Game

Even with dozens of professional athletes on the field, perhaps no one moved more quickly all night than my broadcast partner, Mike Hogan, who was hosting the All-Time Argos induction ceremony at halftime that saw Ricky Ray, Lew Hayman, Pete Martin, and Bob O’Billovich enshrined. After the final play of the half, Hogan ditched his headset, sprinted to the elevator, descended to field level, navigated a complex series of corridors, and made it to the podium, without a hair out of place, before the players had even cleared the field.

Ricky Ray’s career achievements and his success as an Argonaut have been well documented on this site. He spent an hour signing autographs before the game and received perhaps the biggest ovation of the night following his speech at midfield.

Hayman, Martin, and O’Billovich were all inducted as builders. Hayman, who also co-founded the Alouettes, won three Grey Cups with the Argonauts in the 1930s as a head coach and spent 1955-1983 with the club as a senior executive. O’Billovich is well known for being the winningest coach in Argos history, and Martin is a legend for having served brilliantly for 34 seasons as the club’s radio colour analyst following eight seasons as a linebacker with the Double Blue.

Somewhat poetically, all three builders had a role with the team in that fabled 1983 Grey Cup-winning season with Hayman in the front office, O’Billovich at the helm, and Martin calling the games on the radio.

Next Up

The Toronto Argonauts (2-1) now travel to Saskatchewan (3-0) to take on the undefeated Roughriders on Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. EDT in their first road game of the season.

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