CHAMPS DO THEIR PART
Redblacks’ botched opportunities to make a play had as big a hand in semifinal result as anything the Riders did ... Deja vu for 2006 West semi ... Recalling Reed’s big game
OTTAWA — The latest post-mortem is more applicable, thematically, to the Ottawa Redblacks.
The Redblacks’ season is over as a result of Sunday’s 31-20 loss to the visiting Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL’s East Division semifinal.
Saskatchewan, which took the crossover route to the playoffs after finishing fourth in the West, proceeds to the East final against the host Toronto Argonauts.
Members of the Redblacks are left to wonder what went wrong with an Ottawa-based Grey Cup game approaching.
There were some obvious breakdowns by the Redblacks, such as a 75-yard touchdown run by mercurial Marcus Thigpen. More than half of the Redblacks’ defensive players tried to catch him, and all failed.
But some of the differencemaking moments in Sunday’s game did not appear on the highlight reels.
Consider what had transpired just before Thigpen’s spectacular sprint.
The Roughriders’ Christion Jones had fumbled on a punt return — on his team’s 19-yard line.
Just like that, Ottawa was in the red zone, with a giftwrapped scoring opportunity.
Trailing 21-8 early in the third quarter, the Redblacks had a chance to quickly make it a one-possession game and enliven a sellout crowd.
On first down, Ottawa quarterback Trevor Harris threw a quick pass to Juron Criner, who was tack- led by Kacy Rodgers II after a five-yard gain. On second down, a short flip to tailback William Powell fell incomplete. The Redblacks settled for a 22-yard field goal by Brett Maher.
Thigpen scored on the very next play. Kaboom!
That was one display of excellent timing by the Roughriders, who surrendered 457 passing yards but reliably repelled the aerial attack at crucial junctures.
Most memorably, Ottawa marched to Saskatchewan’s 10-yard line before Harris was intercepted by linebacker Samuel Eguavoen. The pick cost Ottawa at least three points.
In the fourth quarter, Ottawa advanced to the Roughriders’ 22 before gambling on third-and-five. Harris then found Diontae Spencer ... for four yards. Turnover on downs.
Earlier, Spencer had manoeuvred his way behind Rodgers for completions of 56 and 33 yards, with the longer gain producing a touchdown. However, it was Rodgers who crucially tackled Spencer one yard shy of a first down with 4:10 left in the game.
Ultimately, Rodgers more than counteracted the two explosive plays by limiting Criner to five yards and Spencer to four.
The failed gamble was a questionable tactical move by Redblacks head coach Rick Campbell, whose team trailed 31-14 at the time. Ottawa required two converted touchdowns and a field goal to tie. Why not take the field goal at that point and make it a two-possession game?
Ottawa, remember, did score a subsequent touchdown when Harris hit Criner from five yards away with 1:47 remaining.
Plus, the Redblacks did get as far as the Roughriders’ 22-yard line in the final seconds. That proved to be garbage time because Ottawa was trailing by 11. Now, if Campbell had opted for the field goal ...
One more what-if moment: Early in the second quarter, Harris looked deep for the East’s premier receiver, Greg Ellingson.
The pass was on-target and Ellingson was open at the Roughriders’ 10-yard line. Surprisingly, the usually sure-handed Ellingson did not make the catch. (Complicating matters, Ellingson suffered a knee injury on the play.)
On second down, Harris threw a short pass to Criner, who was felled by Jovon Johnson for a five-yard gain. Punt.
The tackle by Johnson was indicative of the manner in which the Roughriders performed on Sunday.
Whether it was Rodgers hauling down Criner or Spencer, or Johnson stopping Criner, the Roughriders’ tackling was virtually flawless.
Numerous times, Harris looked to receivers on underneath routes and, with few exceptions, the ball-carrier would be wrapped up for a short, insufficient gain.
Eventually, the Roughriders were able to put the wraps on the game as a whole.
There are striking similarities between last Sunday’s game and the 2006 West Division semifinal.
For starters, the scores are virtually identical. Saskatchewan won 31-20 on Sunday and 30-21 on Nov. 5, 2006, over the host Stampeders.
Until this past weekend, Saskatchewan had not won a first-round playoff game on the road since disposing of the Stampeders 11 years ago.
In both games, the Roughriders erupted for a long touchdown run on their first offensive play of the second half.
Kenton Keith took off on a 76-yarder after Dominique Dorsey’s 22-yard kickoff return in the 2006 game. On Sunday, Thigpen crossed the goal line at 3:13 of the third quarter.
Thigpen produced Saskatchewan’s first one-play, 75-yard scoring drive in the post-season since Nov. 26, 1989, when Kent Austin found Jeff Fairholm on a scoring bomb in the 77th Grey Cup game.
Riders’ Willlie Jefferson (7) and Ed Gainey celebrate after stopping Redblacks’ William Powell during Sunday’s victory.