Around the CFL: What we learned in the first half of the season

BC Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke looks downfield during second half CFL football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Saturday Aug. 13, 2022. (Larry MacDougal/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The 2022 CFL season hits the midway point this week – Week 11 of the 21-week campaign.

The first full season since 2019 has produced far more entertaining games than last year’s snoozer of a campaign, and it’s setting up for what should be an exciting stretch drive.

Scoring is up through 39 games (50.5 vs. 43.5) and 26 games have been decided in the final three minutes, up six from last year’s total at this time.

Here’s our look at how the first half has played out.

Best story

Obviously, Nathan Rourke.

CFL fans should enjoy the B.C. Lions quarterback while they can because the Canadian figures to get an NFL look next season.

What kind of opportunity he gets south of the border is another question.

That’s a topic for another day, however. Rourke is playing some of the best football at the position in years and is a clear front-runner for the league’s most outstanding player and top Canadian awards.

The Lions, an afterthought on the sporting landscape in recent years in Vancouver, are 7-1 and finally have some buzz.

Rourke will look to become the first quarterback since Doug Flutie in 1993 to pass for 400 or more yards in three consecutive games on Friday when the Lions face the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina.

The 24-year-old is on pace to break records for passing touchdowns, TD rushes by a QB as well as completions.

Championship pedigree

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are making a very real bid for the first Grey Cup three-peat since Edmonton won five in a row from 1978 to ‘82.

The Bombers finally suffered their first loss last week in overtime against the Montreal Alouettes – and that defeat simply boiled down to a kicker missing what should have been an easy field goal to win.

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It’s worth monitoring whether kicker Marc Liegghio can bounce back, but let’s not get too down on a team that is now 9-1 and is enjoying its first bye week this week.

Coach Mike O’Shea and quarterback Zach Collaros have done excellent work all season and credit the Bombers front office for finding the league’s likely rookie of the year – receiver Dalton Schoen.

Most disappointing team

There are a number of candidates in a year in which there seems to be a big gap between the haves and have-nots, but for now we’ll say the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

The two-time reigning East Division champs are 3-6 and spent much of the first half of the season playing terribly in fourth quarters. Dane Evans, chosen as the No. 1 quarterback ahead of Jeremiah Masoli (who went to Ottawa), has played below expectations and now is dealing with a shoulder injury.

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However, the Ticats notched a key win over the Toronto Argonauts (4-4) last week, keeping their southern Ontario rival within striking distance in the race for first.

Labour Day in Hamilton should be interesting.

The injuries

No position seems to have been as hit as hard as running back this year.

The season started on a rough note when Montreal Alouettes star William Stanback suffered a fractured ankle in the first game of the year.

This week, the Argos learned they have lost Andrew Harris for the season after the veteran turned back the clock to start the year.

Ka’Deem Carey (Calgary Stampeders), James Butler (B.C. Lions) and William Powell (Ottawa Redblacks) also have missed time.

On the hotseat

Redblacks head coach Paul LaPolice will be feeling some pressure in the second half.

First-year GM Shawn Burke inherited LaPolice and the team is now 1-7.

Nobody expected the Redblacks to be at the top of the standings, but they weren’t expected to be this bad, either.

Two men also feeling some heat will be Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson and general manager Jeremy O’Day.

The team is a middling 5-4 in a year in which the Roughriders, who have had discipline issues, host the Grey Cup.

Argos head coach Ryan Dinwiddie, meanwhile, has made some questionable game-management decisions in his 1.5 years, but the team has improved record-wise under his watch. A good finish will help his cause.

Pivotal concerns

Looking ahead, it’s easy to see the majority of teams having questions at quarterback heading into 2023.

Outside of Collaros and possibly Bo Levi Mitchell, who has played well for Calgary this year, every team can’t be totally confident with what they have – we’re assuming Rourke goes to the NFL for a look.

Guys like Evans, Toronto’s McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Masoli and Saskatchewan’s Cody Fajardo will be under the microscope in the second half.

Keep an eye on Argos backup Chad Kelly, who could have the tools to be a standout.

What we liked in Week 10

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• The Lions-Stampeders game. Best game of the year so far with B.C. rallying for a 41-40 victory thanks to the heroics of Rourke.

• Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Matthew Shiltz. Starting in place of Evans, Shiltz was hurt in the third quarter, but came back to lead his team to a 34-27 win over the Toronto Argonauts.

What we didn’t like in Week 10

• The Argonauts’ play in the second half. Every time it looks like Toronto is poised to take control of the East, the Argos fail to lock games down. Something’s just not quite right with this team – though you can say the same about every squad in the East.

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• The Edmonton Elks’ play at home. A 34-23 loss to Saskatchewan was the Elks’ 12th loss in a row in Edmonton, dating back to 2019.

Week 11 picks

Edmonton Elks at Ottawa Redblacks (-4.5), Friday, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT

Caleb Evans gets another start at QB for the Redblacks after a rough outing against the Stampeders. PICK: Edmonton

B.C. Lions (-5) at Saskatchewan Roughriders, Friday, 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT

The Roughriders have yet to beat a team with a winning record this season. PICK: B.C.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Montreal Alouettes (-3), Saturday, 4 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. PT

Second place in the East on the line. Both teams are coming off wins. PICK: Montreal

Calgary Stampeders (-2.5) at Toronto Argonauts, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT

Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson is 8-1 in his career against the Argos. PICK: Calgary

Overall record: 22-17

(Odds from FanDuel as of Wednesday night)

Power rankings

1. Winnipeg Blue Bombers (9-1, Last week: 1): The Blue Bombers have played many close games this year – and finally lost one last week. No reason to panic. A bye week comes at a good time.

2. B.C. Lions (7-1, Last week: 2): After a dramatic win in Calgary, the Rourke show heads to Regina for what should be a fun atmosphere.

3. Calgary Stampeders (5-3, Last week: 3): Mitchell was critical of his team for not finishing the job last week against the Lions.

4. Toronto Argonauts (4-4, Last week: 4): With Montreal facing Hamilton this week, Argos will need a win against Calgary to maintain its current lead atop the East.

5 .Saskatchewan Roughriders (5-4, Last week: 5): Snapped three-game losing streak with win over Edmonton. Things get much tougher with a home-and-home set against the Lions.

6. Hamilton Tiger-Cats (3-6, Last week: 6): Fan base reenergized after winning at home against rival Argonauts.

7. Montreal Alouettes (3-6, last week: 8): Notched upset of the year with a win in Winnipeg. Now, the Als have to carry that momentum into a huge home game against Hamilton.

8. Ottawa Redblacks (1-7, last week: 7): Like the Elks, the Redblacks have been awful at home in recent years. Chance to change that on Friday against Edmonton.

9. Edmonton Elks (2-7, last week: 9): Lots of work ahead for GM/coach Chris Jones, who continues to shuffle his roster.

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