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Mark’s Labour Day Weekend is in the books for another year and it delivered with all three games still in the balance heading to the fourth quarter. But it was the game’s most important position that shone brightest over the weekend, starting with the return of the reigning Most Outstanding Player.
After missing seven games due to injury, Bo Levi Mitchell was back for the Stampeders and you could tell. With no disrespected intended to understudy Nick Arbuckle, Calgary is a different team with Mitchell under centre. He’s the best quarterback in the CFL and gives the team an element they don’t have with anyone else there.
Sure, Mitchell didn’t shoot the lights out in a 25-9 win for the Stamps at home to Edmonton, but that wasn’t the way the game script played out. Instead, Mitchell was effective at worst and explosive when the time called. In outduelling his Eskimos counterpart Trevor Harris, Mitchell helped Calgary to their eighth straight Labour Day Classic victory and upped his personal record in the big game to 6-0.
The biggest noticeable trait you saw with Mitchell back at quarterback was his ability and willingness to push the ball down field. It was in contrast to Harris, as Edmonton seemed content to move the ball with short passes. It was also noticeable knowing that was the one area Arbuckle struggled in during Mitchell’s absence.
It’s also not a coincidence to see the Stampeders bust off their most effective game on the ground, either. Led by Ka’Deem Carey’s 143, Calgary finished with 201 rushing yards on the afternoon, which was more than double Edmonton’s average against per game heading in. With Mitchell back in the fold and the deep ball being a true threat, the Stamps were able to open up their run game effectively against one of the best defences in the league.
All Calgary needed to do was tread water while Mitchell was out, which they did and then some. Arbuckle won four of his seven starts and gave the team a chance to win in every outing. As such, the Stampeders are positioned competitively in the West Division with their most important player back in the saddle.
Much like the aforementioned Arbuckle, Hamilton’s Dane Evans has done a nice job stepping in for his injured teammate at quarterback. The only difference is the timeline, as Evans is pegged to be the guy for the rest of the season with Jeremiah Masoli out long-term. Heading into the annual Labour Day showdown with Toronto, Evans was 3-1 as a starter but was lacking a breakout game. That changed on Monday afternoon.
Evans was outstanding in leading the Tiger-Cats to an impressive 38-27 comeback victory over the Argos. It was Evans’s best game statistically as he finished with 442 yards with just six incompletions and three total touchdowns. Evans was dynamic and explosive all afternoon, which is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Yes, Hamilton improved to a league-best 9-2 against a one-win Toronto squad, but that doesn’t matter from a confidence standpoint. Monday’s performance is the type of confidence boost Evans needed, not for anyone other than himself.
Now 4-1 as a starter, you could argue Evans prior three wins came in a “game manager” role, which is fine with a team as complete as the Ticats are. But Evans is trying to carve a niche for himself in this league as being more than just reliable and steady. People in Hamilton have been vouching for this for weeks, and now we have proof: this guy can also be explosive and dynamic.
I like how strong Evans’s arm is and how he can put that on display while on the move. I also like how much of a connection Evans is creating with a pair of elite receivers in Brandon Banks and Bralon Addison; the pair caught 20 passes on 22 combined targets against the Argos.
Unlike in Arbuckle’s case, Evans isn’t going anywhere at the top of Hamilton’s depth chart as his reigning MOP candidate isn’t coming back this season. A 4-1 record as a starter is something to be proud of regardless of how the wins came about. Seeing Evans shoot the lights out has to a promising sign for Ticats fans, though.
A new hope
When was the last time fans in Saskatchewan were truly excited for a quarterback? I reside one province to the west, so can only partially gauge this, but I’d suggest you’d have to go back to Darian Durant’s first year as a starter a decade ago.
Even then, it took a while for Durant to truly become a buzzworthy guy; remember, his first year starting also saw Michael Bishop, Marcus Crandell, and even Steven Jyles start games for the Riders. As such, you might have to further back to recall a time when a guy has captured the league’s most rabid group of fans as quickly as Cody Fajardo has.
Fajardo has taken Regina by storm and added another feather in his cap in helping the Roughriders to a walk off 19-17 win over archrival Winnipeg on Sunday afternoon. You can make it six straight wins for Saskatchewan, while Fajardo is now 7-2 as the team’s starter. That’s quite the run, especially knowing what the conversations were in early summer.
Entering the season, all we had were question marks at quarterback for the Riders. Could Zach Collaros stay healthy and recapture his prior form in Hamilton? And, if the answers to either of those questions were no, then where would things stand? With so few CFL starts to his name, could Sask really count on Fajardo if the situation arose?
The answer to the final question has been a resounding yes thus far, and very few saw it coming. In a very limited prior resume, Fajardo struggled with accuracy and turnovers and wasn’t able to use his athleticism to overshadow those issues. That hasn’t been the case in 2019.
Among starting quarterbacks, Fajardo’s 71.8% completion rate is second-best and he sits fourth overall with more than 2,400 passing yards, in striking distance of second. With 16 total touchdowns, nine passing and seven on the ground, Fajardo has also gotten the job done in the red zone.
Fajardo has impressive wins under his belt against Hamilton, Montreal, and now a Labour Day win over Winnipeg. Most impressive on Sunday was Fajardo’s five-for-five run on the final drive to help put the Riders in position for Brett Lauther’s game-winning field goal.
There’s still lots of football to be played, which means Fajardo’s story is only part written. In saying that, fans in Regina should be excited about what they’ve seen from their new starting quarterback. In fairness, it has been a long time since a guy has taken the city by storm quite like this.
Reason for optimism
It has been a really rough season for the Argonauts, which is plain to see when looking at their 1-9 record. Unfortunately, those struggles have overshadowed one of the better feel good stories of 2019: the play of quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. Seen as only a temporary option going back to last season, Bethel-Thompson is changing that narrative in a big way, which could be huge for Toronto’s 2020 outlook.
You can understand why Bethel-Thompson has been viewed by many merely as a stopgap measure. After all, he’s 31 years old and has bounced around NFL practice rosters, the Arena League, and the defunct UFL since 2011. Bethel-Thompson finally landed steady work with the Argos last year and, to his credit, has done everything that has been asked and more.
Bethel-Thompson was very strong in Toronto’s Labour Day loss to Hamilton and is very quietly putting together a strong run statistically. He leads the CFL with 16 passing touchdowns, sits second in passing yards with 2,593, and has given Toronto’s offence a shot in the arm.
Perhaps most important, Bethel-Thompson has found a steady hookup with Derel Walker, which is something that wasn’t consistently happening earlier. Walker might be the most talented receiver in the CFL and when you feed him the ball, good things happen. That was very much the case Monday, as Walker finished with 203 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Argos need to be looking ahead to 2020 at this point. Knowing the way Bethel-Thompson has played, he deserves to be factored into that future watch. He’s consistently outplayed James Franklin since last year and has been one of the team’s few bright spots this season.
Sure, he’s a journeyman without a star-studded resume, but that doesn’t mean Bethel-Thompson shouldn’t be truly in the mix to be Toronto’s starter next season. Even if that doesn’t come to pass, he can rest easy knowing he’ll likely have done everything in his power.