OTTAWA -- Professional football finally makes its long-awaited return to the Nation’s Capital on Friday night, as the Ottawa REDBLACKS play their home opener against the Toronto Argonauts at TD Place.
It’s the first CFL game in Ottawa in nine years, and with it comes euphoria for fans hoping to get their first glimpse both of a visually stunning new stadium and a team that could lead the league in excitement.
“This place will be rockin’,” veteran centre John Gott told OttawaREDBLACKS.com. “I’m excited for that. Finally, after almost two months, it’s going to be nice playing in front of our crowd.”
Gott was one of the team’s major off-season acquisitions, after the REDBLACKS surrendered the first overall draft pick and the rights to centre Marwan Hage in exchange for the six-year veteran who’s dressed for every single game over the last two seasons.
He joins a roster that doesn’t resemble that of a typical expansion team, led by 39-year-old veteran quarterback Henry Burris and shifty running back Chevon Walker. Despite dropping their first two games on the road to start the season (both of which Ottawa led at halftime), fans remain optimistic and so too does Gott.
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“Did you see the other teams (in the East)?” Gott fired back after being asked if expectations perhaps were just a tad high entering the season. “We lost two and the others are only a game ahead of us.”
“We’re still close. It’s early.”
The REDBLACKS owned an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter in their opener at Winnipeg, before a Demond Washington special teams touchdown and then a game-winning score from Nic Grigsby thwarted their efforts.
Last weekend in Edmonton they had a 7-2 lead at halftime thanks to a stand-up effort on defence, to go with a 65-yard touchdown run by Walker. But for the second straight week they were outscored 16-3 in the fourth quarter, as the Esks outscored Ottawa 25-4 in the second half on the way to the win.
“We’ve been ahead both games at half time but the goal is to be ahead at the end of the game and we have not found a way to do that,” Head Coach Rick Campbell said.
“We want to win here.”
“I don’t like to think of it as growing pains. That’s like making an excuse and we don’t want to do that here,” he continued. “We’ve just got to be more consistent. We make some big plays but we need more consistency.”
The early hole, if you can call it that, is nothing the REDBLACKS can’t overcome. Take it from Burris, a 14-year veteran who just last year saw his Ticats overcome injuries and a slump to start the season on the way to an eventual appearance in the Grey Cup in Regina.
“We’ve got a lot of great personnel here but we’re trying to grasp different things and we’re trying to fast-track things,” Burris said. “We were 1-4 last year to start in Hamilton and we went to the Grey Cup.”
”Look at Saskatchewan,” he continued. “They were supposed to go undefeated and look where they are. No team in this league goes undefeated and no offence in this league goes through a season without a slump.”
Burris added that he’s seen plenty of good from his team so far, which means now just comes the hard part – learning how to win.
“The one thing I’ve said is we have to learn how to win,” he said. “We’ve been in both games and we’ve had more than a few opportunities to put points on the board. We’re a team that’s trying not to have those same mistakes moving forward.”
“Good teams trust each other and we’re still developing that trust.”
Getting that first win under their belt would be a start, and against a personal rival in Ricky Ray and a division rival in the Toronto Argonauts there’s no better scenario for the REDBLACKS to debut their brand new stadium
“Our biggest focus is to entertain this electric atmosphere that’s going to be here,” Burris said. “We want to come out here and play the type of game the fans expect us to play.”
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“We’re trying to be the team that mimics what is going on in the stands.”
While the REDBLACKS search for their first franchise win, the visiting Argos won’t be without pressure either as they hope to bounce back from their second loss of the season, a 34-15 loss to the Calgary Stampeders on home turf.
The affair wasn’t as lopsided as the score suggests given that Toronto’s offence kept pace with Calgary’s all night, however the Argos squandered any chance to win the game by leaving the red zone without a touchdown on several occasions, especially in the first half.
“We had opportunities in the first half, four times in the red zone to get the lead and not have so much pressure on us and we weren’t able to do that,” Milanovich told Argonauts.ca. “And a good team made us pay for it.”
“We’re still trying to come together, we’re still learning about ourselves and we just have to play better against a good team.”
The Argos, too, are figuring many things out on the fly, as they enter Friday’s contest with the league’s worst-ranked defence following an off-season of change, not just on the roster but on the sideline as well. On offence, meanwhile, they’re forced to cope with injuries to Andre Durie, Jason Barnes, and most recently, Chad Owens.
That’s just part of the game though, Milanovich pointed out. Most of the team’s current and past stars all got their first playing time in this league as injury replacements, and that’s now what the likes of Anthony Coombs, Darvin Adams, and Terrell Sinkfield have the opportunity to do as well.
“It’s football, these are the opportunities guys have and Hamilton went through it early last year, we went through it on our four-game road trip when Ricky was out, Chad was out, our tailback Kackert was out,” Milanovich said.
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“That’s what the guys have to expect from their performance,” He continued. “At the minimum you need to weather the storm, while in a perfect world this is where guys step up and make a name for themselves and become stars.”
“That’s what I told them before practice – they’re out, so what? Sinkfield’s taller and faster than Chad. I’m gonna miss Chad but Sinkfield does other things, go out and show Chad how it’s done.”
While the Argos face key losses on offence and a difficult road game on Friday, it’s a challenge that could become a turning point. Historically this is a team that thrives on adversity, as was shown last season when it won a franchise record four consecutive road games despite, as Milanovich pointed out, injuries to Owens, Ray, and Chad Kackert.
That means you can expect to see two teams giving it all they’ve got in hopes of securing a much-needed momentum boost early in the season.
“It should be a great atmosphere, I’m looking forward to it,” Milanovich said. “Our guys thrive on playing in stadiums that are full and loud and we’ve historically been a pretty good road team.”
“I’m excited, I think the players are excited. We have a lot of respect for this team.”
Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live with CFL.ca Gamecast.
- With files from OttawaREDBLACKS.com/Argonauts.ca