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The term ‘must win’ is overused in sports. Any football playoff game falls into that category, as does a regular season game where a loss means being eliminated from playoff contention.
The Toronto Argonauts 20-17 victory over Edmonton was not literally a must-win game, but it was still pretty darn important.
After dropping the first two outings of the season, especially in the manner in which they lost their previous game to Calgary, the club had put itself in a precarious position. The Argos were 0-2 and beginning a home-and-home series against a team many think will be playing in the Grey Cup game in their home stadium on November 25th.
Based on what they witnessed against Calgary, many thought 0-4 was a distinct possibility. Saturday’s win slammed the brakes on that mindset and eliminated any talk of a prolonged losing streak.
The most obvious subplot of Saturday’s drama was James Franklin’s first start as an Argo, underscored by the fact it was against the team that traded his rights to Toronto in the off season.
Franklin showed that he looks good in Double Blue.
The Missouri product was in complete command of the offence. He finished 16/24 for 217 yards with one TD and one interception. He looked comfortable from the first snap to the final clock-killing drive.
Also on display was Franklin’s agility. He was able to extend plays and at one point took off on an 18-yard scamper. On the radio broadcast, colour analyst Chris Schultz was not only impressed by that run, but equally thrilled to see Franklin punctuate the play with a slide, rather than risking injury by trying to add an extra yard or two.
The first reviews are positive. In his debut Franklin lived up to the considerable hype.
THE OTHER JAMES
For obvious reasons, most eyes were focused on Franklin’s contributions, but what should not be forgotten is that James Wilder Jr. finally looked like himself.
After two games that were sub-par by his own lofty standards, Wilder ran with the confidence that led to him being named the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie last season.
When Wilder saw a hole he hit it hard. He often initiated contact and continued to pick up yards, showing it’s always better to be the hammer than the nail.
The opening script was tailor-made for the back. The first play was a screen pass for eight yards. Wilder then ran up the middle, first contacted behind the line, but he muscled his way for a three-yard gain and a first down.
The next play was again a run up the middle for ten yards. On the drive, which culminated in a Franklin TD, Wilder would carry the ball five times for 27 yards, adding another eight on the reception.
He’d finish the day with 21 carries for 120 yards, 72 of which came on the game’s final two series. One drive led to the game-winning touchdown while the other killed the final 2:09 off the clock.
He’d add 27 yards on three catches for 147 yards from scrimmage on what was a pretty fair afternoon for the Tampa, Florida native.
HE PASSED THE AUDITION
The attention given to Franklin permitted another debut to fly under the radar.
The Argos released Brian Tyms early in the week, meaning another receiver would get a chance to start at the ‘X’, or boundary wide receiver position.
Many were surprised that Toronto native Llevi Noel was given that opportunity. Instead of buckling under the pressure, Noel made two key receptions that rewarded Marc Trestman’s faith in the third-year Argo.
Noel’s first catch of the day came on the game’s first drive. On first-and-ten from the Edmonton 53, Franklin dropped back and floated one down the left sideline, immediately in front of the Argonaut bench.
Despite having Maurice McKnight draped all over him, Noel fought off the defender, bringing the ball down for a 31-yard gain. The play was eerily reminiscent of a catch Noel made in practice this week in virtually the identical spot on the field, albeit at Lamport Stadium.
By the way, if you recorded the game check out the low angle slow-motion replay and watch the facial reaction from Justin Tuggle who turns toward the stands as Noel made the grab. It’s a combination of “Did he just make that catch?” and “I think we’ve found our new X.”
— Michael Walton (@GunMetalGreen) July 7, 2018
Noel would add a second reception in the third quarter. Facing a second-and-three from their own 27, Noel found himself in single coverage. It was a simple inside release that gave him all the separation he’d need. Franklin hit him in full stride at midfield, with McKnight then bringing Noel down with a diving tackle at the Edmonton 33, a 50-yard gain.
Noel had two catches for 81 yards and proved he’s capable of playing receiver in the CFL, not just as a special teams player.
RUN D STEPS UP
Perhaps the most confusing part of the Argos loss to Calgary was the porous play of the defence. It’s veteran laden with depth at every position, which made the result a serious head scratcher.
The D played much better against Edmonton. Mike Reilly is the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Player for a reason. He’s blessed with a handful of playmaking receivers, so no team is going to shut them down completely, but the Eskimos only found the end zone once on Saturday. While the visitors were able to move the ball through the air, the Argos defence did a nice job on C.J. Gable.
A week ago against the B.C. Lions, Gable had a huge game, rushing the ball 23 times for 165 yards, an impressive 7.2 yards per carry. The Argos were able to keep him in check, limiting him to just 39 yards on 14 carries for a relatively miniscule average of 2.8 yards.
Marcus Ball seemed to be all over the field. The Argos did a much better job of tackling, or at least getting a hold of an opponent and holding him until getting some help from teammates.
On a day where several defensive players found themselves on the trainer’s table getting work done during the game, the unit showed significant improvement. Tuggle did a nice job when forced to move back to middle linebacker from his defensive end spot.
There’s still work to be done, but it looked a lot more like the defence we thought we’d see this year.