HOW THE REDBLACKS FADED TO BLACK
The latest Leader-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 gift-wrapped scoring opportunity.
Trailing 21-8 early in the third quarter, the Redblacks had a chance to quickly make it a onepossession game and enliven a sellout crowd.
On first down, Ottawa quarterback Trevor Harris threw a quick pass to Juron Criner, who was tackled 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. Ka-boom!
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-andfive. 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 ontarget and Ellingson was open at the Roughriders’ 10-yard line. Surprisingly, the usually surehanded 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, when the host Calgary Stampeders were the losing team.
Until this past weekend, Saskatchewan had not won a firstround 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.
Thigpen’s rushing total of 169 yards on Sunday was the fourthhighest by a Roughrider in a post-season game.
George Reed (who else?) set the standard of 204 yards in 1967.
Next on the list is Kory Sheets, who rushed for a Grey Cuprecord 197 yards in 2013. Sheets topped his outburst of 177 yards, registered in the West final one week earlier. Thigpen’s 169-yarder is next.
(Thank you to Roughriders director of media relations and football communications Ryan Pollock for providing the list of playoff single-game rushing leaders.)
REED ALL ABOUT IT
The aforementioned 1967 game requires elaboration.
Reed recorded the 204-yarder in Game 3 of the best-of-three Western Conference final, in which Saskatchewan defeated Calgary 17-13.
No. 34 exceeded the 200-yard mark while enduring considerable pain.
“I looked like a mummy,’’ Reed recalled in an interview for West Riders Best, my shamelessly plugged book on the 1966 Grey Cup champions.
“If you had walked into the dressing room, you would have seen both shoulders taped and my ribs taped. From my knees all the way down to my ankles was completely taped.’’
The tale of the tape included 37 carries by Reed — an enduring CFL playoff record.
“George has never, ever run any better,’’ Roughriders head coach Eagle Keys said on the first anniversary of the team’s 1966 Grey Cup victory, which is thoroughly documented in West Riders B... er, sorry.
One of the Roughriders’ most important possessions on Sunday did not generate a point.
After Johnson intercepted Harris on the Roughriders’ 29-yard line at 1:34 of the fourth quarter, the Roughriders devoured 4:48 of valuable time by moving 38 yards in nine plays, the last of which was a Josh Bartel punt that went out of bounds at Ottawa’s 11-yard line.
There had been a very real possibility of a two-and-out after Thigpen was trapped for a loss of four on the opening play of the possession. But then Kevin Glenn made a brilliant throw on second-and-14, finding Chad Owens in traffic over the middle for a 16-yard gain.
Saskatchewan churned out two more first downs, both on the ground, before Glenn threw back-to-back incompletions and Bartel punted. By that point, Saskatchewan had chewed up nearly one-third of the fourth quarter.
Comparably, the Roughriders consumed 4:41 of the third quarter without scoring. The key play was a chain-moving sneak by short-yardage quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. on third-andone-and-a-bit.
Adams barely gained the necessary yardage. If not for an inch or three, Ottawa would have had a first down on the Roughriders’ 45-yard line. Instead, Saskatchewan ran three more plays before a Bartel punt and a six-yard return by Spencer left Ottawa on its 14-yard line. A two-and-out ensued.
38 IS GREAT
Glenn was the first Roughriders quarterback to face Ottawa in a playoff game since Ron Lancaster, who was behind centre for Saskatchewan in the 1976 Grey Cup.
Glenn is 38 years old, as was Lancaster in the 1976 playoffs.
Now that the Roughriders have disposed of Ottawa, they are preparing to face a Toronto team that is quarterbacked by Ricky Ray. Ray is, of course, 38.
There’s more. On Sunday, the Roughriders notched their first post-season victory since the 2013 Grey Cup. One of Saskatchewan’s top players in that game was slotback Geroy Simon, who caught two touchdown passes — at 38.
Sure tackling by players such as Ed Gainey, left, and Kacy Rodgers II, right, helped the Roughriders defeat the Ottawa Redblacks on Sunday.