It is a real possibility a team from the West might win the East, on the way to winning it all. The East Division semifinal was the first playoff meeting between Saskatchewan and Ottawa since 1976. This is the third straight year the Redblacks have hosted a home playoff game as their franchise has quickly become one of the models of the league. But they won’t be hosting their first Grey Cup since rejoining the league with their team on the field. In a matchup between the last two Grey Cup-winning head coaches only one team looked like it was championship calibre on Sunday.
The game started out a track meet but was methodically dominated by the road team.
The game started off more like a touch football game than a November post-season contest. A touchdown was scored on the first three possessions of the game becoming the first time ever that the first three drives in a playoff game ended in a TD. It was also the fastest three touchdowns (and two touchdowns) have been scored in a playoff game.
Ellingson injury hurt Redblacks
The biggest factor working against Ottawa was the early injury to Greg Ellingson. The talented receiver hurt his knee when it buckled on him when he planted trying to run a crossing route. Ellingson struggled to run in the first half and eventually checked out of the game because he couldn’t contribute. Ellingson came out early to test his knee after halftime and gave it a shot in the second half and gutted out a four-catch, 52-yard performance but had no real burst and was not the deep threat he was all season on the way to 96 receptions for 1,459 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns.
Harris haunted by costly mistakes
Trevor Harris was 6-1 as a starter to end the season and was one of the hottest QBs in the league down the stretch. But this was the first playoff start for Harris and much of the talk throughout the week was debating how he’d handle post-season pressure. The 31-year-old already has a couple of Grey Cup rings from 2012 with Toronto and 2016 with Ottawa but never won one as the main guy. Harris finished with a monster stat line of 452 yards passing and two touchdown passes but most of that yardage came when the game was already out of reach. Two costly interceptions on balls that came out late will haunt Harris this off-season. It was a mixed performance for Harris and the loss isn’t exclusively his fault but the questions about him playing big in big moments wont subside.
Glenn gets revenge
The best player was the oldest player on the field, Kevin Glenn at 38 years old. The veteran got some revenge as some thought he shouldn’t be on the field exclusively as he has been rotated at QB with promising young Canadian Brandon Bridge. Glenn threw for 252 yards, one passing touchdown and had one rushing touchdown. This was a meaningful game for Glenn because of his past connection with the Redblacks. In 2013 Glenn was picked in the expansion draft first overall by Ottawa. Glenn was excited to be the face of the franchise but then was traded to B.C. when Ottawa acquired Henry Burris. Glenn came back and showed the Redblacks what they missed out on.
Ottawa didn’t apply pocket pressure and he was comfortable and poised in the pocket and picked apart the Redblacks’ zone defensive schemes with arguably the best receiving core in the league at his disposal. The 17-year veteran had 214 yards passing in the first half. In the second half, they took the air out of the ball and leaned on the running game with Marcus Thigpen. Glenn now has five playoff wins with four different teams.
Thigpen running again
Thigpen hasn’t played running back since his days at the University of Indiana. But Chris Jones is not shy about playing his assets out of position for the betterment of the team. Earlier in the year it was Duron Carter moving to corner. Now it’s Thigpen moving from his role as a receiver to play tailback because the Riders have been decimated at the position due to injury. Completing an all-Detroit backfield with Glenn, Thigpen looked comfortable running the ball and churning out big yards. Thigpen had 169 yards rushing and a touchdown on just 15 carries.
Chris coached them up
Some players play their best in the post-season. Chris Jones coaches his best in the post-season. The Riders were sound in all phases and looked to be the superiorly prepared team. The most telling stat is Saskatchewan winning the turnover battle 4-0. Jones now improves to a 4-1 playoff record after getting his first playoff win with Saskatchewan. Besides blowing up mid-game at broadcast cameras filming him on the sideline, it was a great day for Jones and his coaching staff.
West road warriors
Saskatchewan has crossed over twice before. This time the Riders packed their bags for an extended road trip. The last time they crossed over they were playing against Jones as he was the defensive coordinator for the Montreal Alouettes. Jones is now their coach and has his team prepared to be on the road for the next three weeks. Part of the reason it is hard for a West crossover team to make a run to the Grey Cup is the constant travel back and forth across the country taking a toll. So, the Riders have chosen to stay in Ottawa, the site of this year’s Grey Cup. They’ll set up shop there and get familiar with the city, only leaving to make the short trip to play Toronto, at BMO Field next week.
There is a good chance some Riders fans have made the choice to stay out west for the month also.
Limbo seen down south
Even American reports were noticing how good the CFL game and the end-zone celebrations were in comparison to the four-down football being played on Sunday. After Dionate Spencer’s first touchdown, Ellingson’s limbo celebration set Twitter on fire.
The last time the Roughriders went to a divisional final they defeated Glenn and the Calgary Stampeders on their way to winning the 101st Grey Cup on home soil. Next up is the East Divisional final as they the take on the Toronto Argonauts in a battle of aging quarterbacks that many wrote off a year ago when they were on East Division teams that missed the playoffs. Ricky Ray will take on Glenn for the right to go to the Grey Cup next Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.