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View From The South: Who can predict the wacky CFL?

This column typically starts off with some bitchy grousing about how badly yours truly did in picking the winners of each week’s four CFL games. This season (as in the first half of last year), I’ll nail two on a good week … if no ties happen.

But you know what? It’s OK to be wrong and surprised – I promise I’m not just saying this because my favored Montreal Alouettes turned in the most stunning result of the week. Hell, I’m not crazy enough to wager real money on this wacky unpredictable league, so all I lose is a little face on Grueling Truth podcasts. Hey, I’ll certainly trade that face for the compelling games we’ve already seen in the CFL in 2016

You think the narrative shifts dramatically week to week in the NFL? Ha! Just look at how the entire CFL picture changed in week 6…

Winnipeg Blue Bombers 30, Edmonton Eskimos 28. So much for quarterback controversies. After Matt Nichols’s performance on Thursday (26-of-33 for 304 yards with one TD and zero interceptions plus the demonstrated ability to throw longer than 15 yards), we can figure we won’t be seeing Drew Willy for a while. The only questions is just how much this win was about the reeling Eskimos…

And speaking (writing?) of those Esks, in two short weeks (and two losses), the narrative on the defending champions has gone from optimism to realistic worries as to whether this team is in trouble. Week six showed us that the Eskimos are in fact feeling the effects of Chris Jones’s offseason pilfering of the coaching staff as well as the departures of seven starters from that Grey Cup-wining team. Edmonton still boasts plenty of talent and the season is far from over, but the Eskimos’ road to the finals now runs uphill.

Montreal Alouettes 41, Saskatchewan Roughriders 3. So … where has *this* Alouettes team been all season? Duron Carter actually looked like more than a desperation option for Kevin Glenn this week, with 11 targets (and just one in the garbage-time fourth quarter), hauling in eight for 115 yards: Quite a contrast to last week’s six targets (three in garbage time). And Nic Lewis also made a nice contribution with eight mostly mid-range catches.

Additionally, the formerly vaunted Montreal D lived up to its weight on paper, showing no fatigue from the short three-day break between games, keeping Mitchell Gale to a lowly 27-of-41 success rate while shutting the Riders offense out of the end zone. On special teams, nothing could be done about hapless placekicker Boris Bede’s continued woes on FG attempts – but this lone black mark for the Alouettes in this game was overshadowed by some impressive return work by the busy Stefan Logan running up 173 total yards on nine returns.

On the other side, well … is the worst the Roughriders have looked all season? (Purely a rhetorical question there.) In what was the year’s biggest reality check to date, simply nothing worked for Saskatchewan. Call it an off day, a trap game or whatever you like; this loss was most definitely a speed bump indicating that the Riders aren’t ready to cruise through even seemingly winnable stretches of schedule just yet…

Calgary Stampeders 44, BC Lions 41 (OT). In this matchup between the CFL’s best teams, the main X-factor going in was the consistently inconsistent Jonathon Jennings. And while the young quarterback turned in a wild and exciting stat line (26-of-41 ffor 374 yards and three TDs against two interceptions), he wasn’t perfect on a night when he needed to be to top the scary-looking Stamps.

Jennings in fact was two plays short of getting his BC Lions the win (or at least a tie) in this one, perhaps both indications that Wally Buono is just slightly more confident in the 24-year-old than he might. The interception with under two minutes to play in the fourth quarter gave Calgary the field position – just 32 yards out from paydirt! – to tie the game, and Jennings’s frankly bizarre end-zone toss in overtime killed the game. In both instances, the conservative option (running again then punting on 3rd down and running then kicking the game-tying FG) would’ve kept the Lions in advantageous position.

Far be it for us to criticize Buono after the job he’s done this season, but these are a couple of decisions he may want back coming down the stretch this season.

Or maybe we can just credit Bo Levi Mitchell and his offense for their awesome never-die attitude. If one team reaffirms the old CFL cliché “no lead is safe,” it’s these Stampeders. After being harassed to the tune of four sacks (the Calgary OL has given up eight all season) and down 15 with 4½ minutes to play, all Mitchell and his guys did was go 7-of-9 (not including two desperation heaves to close out regulation time) for 110 yards and 18 points.

Toronto Argonauts 23, Ottawa RedBlacks 20. For the second week in a row, the RedBlacks faced a second-string quarterback and for the second consecutive week, they lost by a field goal or less; not sure what that means, exactly; I’m just sayin’ is all.

Tell you what, though: If you’re one of those folks that argue the American game is taking the “foot” out of “football,” this was the game for you. How about seven FG attempts including four from 49 or more yards out and five from last year’s whipping boy in Winnipeg, Lirim Hajrullahu.

In what was certainly a game of two teams hampered by quarterbacks – Toronto went with Logan Kilgore in his first CFL start; Ottawa brought back Henry Burris who, despite publicity stating otherwise, is still not throwing with 100% of that injured hand – both defenses turned probably their best performances to date in 2016. For Toronto, Cory Greenwood led a side that got four 2-and-outs from the RedBlacks in the second half alone, while Ottawa kept the Argos out of the end zone in the first half though applying little pressure to Kilgore – both RedBlacks sacks came in the second half.

And now, somehow, the Argonauts are in first place in the CFL East.

Weird Canadian news story of the week

Fantasizing about emigrating to Canada after the election? Who can blame you? After all, Canada is a wonderful country with amazing cities, beautiful countryside and (mostly) English as a common language. As we like to remind Americans, however, just don’t forget that it’s a whole other country with its own particular brand of weirdness up there…

Since May, the citizens of Belleville, Ontario (pop. 49,454), have found themselves not exactly terrorized but certainly baffled by a peculiar crime wave – and now local police are appealing to the populace for help with the as-yet unsolved mystery.

It seems that some clothing stores have been burglarized at a rate of nearly one theft per week, with the perpetrator robbing each of … a single mannequin. No clues have been left at the scene of any of the crimes, though one shop owner noted that the thief had absconded without one of the poor dummy’s arms.

Shopkeeper Dawn O’Dell, whose store has been hit four times (um, maybe an alarm system might be useful right about now…?), is particularly bamboozled, telling media that, though, the Belleville PD at first “<a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/28/canada-mannequin-robbery-store-belleville” target=”_blank”>thought it was a sex crime</a>.” She then went on to muse, “But … how many partners do you need? Unless it’s a cult of people.”

Belleville law enforcement officer Sheri Meeks meanwhile wondered aloud, “What is the motive for taking the mannequins? Is it because mannequins are expensive? Is there a more deviant motive for it?”

Quite the puzzler to be sure, but here’s to thinking quite a few US police officers would rather be dealing with the Mystery of The Missing Mannequins a lot more readily than some of the stuff they’ve seen lately…

Week 7 games

Looking forward to week seven, here’s how we see the CFL slate shaking out. Of course, given this writer’s overall record at this stuff, well … get the grains of salt out.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Winnipeg Blue Bombers – As of this writing, dominant rumors say that franchise QB/prospective season-saver Zach Collaros will not be starting for the Tiger-Cats in week seven. Nevertheless, the Ticats’ impressive 37-31 win over Edmonton in week five plus a bye week has to give them the edge over nearly any side – particularly the Bombers, who no one can feel confident about picking to win two weeks in a row. We’ll see what Nicholas can do against an average secondary, but it probably won’t be enough. Hamilton wins decisively.

BC Lions at Montreal Alouettes – Hey, Montreal put up just as many points as BC did last week, right? And that Alouettes offense may be clicking again, right? And this is the wacky CFL, where anything can happen, right? Ah, wrong. BC Lions win, anchoring themselves firmly within the CFL’s top three, likely for the rest of the season.

Toronto Argonauts vs the bye – Happy with your quarterback, Argos fans? (C’mon I know you’re out there somewhere…) Happy for a week off? Happy to be getting the Bombers in Toronto in week eight? Great! Enjoy the bye week; just don’t look behind you, because now those ornery RedBlacks are playing catchup…

 

Saskatchewan Roughriders at Calgary Stampeders – This year’s Sisyphus of the CFL is most assuredly the Saskatchewan Roughriders. After all the work done in rolling that boulder weighted with expectation to the peak of a glorious win, said ball has slipped from their grasp like a Gale underthrow and they’re back to ground zero. Key stat for this game: The Stampeders OL has allowed exactly one sack against teams not named the BC Lions this season. And what happens when Bo gets enough time to pick his spots against a third-rate secondary? That’s right – Stampeders win.

Edmonton Eskimos at Ottawa RedBlacks – Last year’s Grey Cup finalists started off the 2016 CFL season with a 45-37 OT beauty played in week one – but going into week seven, both enter on two-game losing streaks. Edmonton’s recent woes are all about that offseason plunderment, while the RedBlacks, oddly enough, can look directly at the quarterback position. (How long ago was it that we were praising the Ottawa front office for signing the league’s most expensive backup QB? When were we singing the praises of no. 3 guy Brock Jensen?) It bears repeating: Henry Burris was not ready last week and may have come back at least a week too soon.

Why not give Jensen another start? After all, everything else except dumb luck is clicking for the RedBlacks. The magic quartet (Chris Williams, Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopili) has by the grace of the football gods collectively avoided the injury bug while remaining hyper-productive with Brenry Haburris at QB: These guys are on pace for over 375 catches for 5,700-plus yards and 36 touchdowns cumulative! Oh, and the RedBlacks are the top-scoring team in the CFL, with whomever throwing and catching.

As for defense, Ottawa has consistently improved, going from that 37 in week one to a well more reasonable 21 points per game since. They’re also tops in the league in turnovers, despite a CFL-low two forced fumbles.

Is this a lot of text on the RedBlacks? Yes, because the defending East division champions are fascinating and fun. The Eskimos are simply sickeningly reeling right now. If any team needs a bye week, it’s Edmonton – but going to Ottawa is about the exact diametrical opposite … RedBlacks win.

Next week: Ottawa fans boo the Algonquin Loggersports Team for not making the wood cookies thick enough…