Surprising Ottawa Redblacks unbeaten and tied for East Division lead

Don’t look now, but the Ottawa Redblacks are 2-0.

Many football prognosticators had tempered expectations for the defending East Division champions following a difficult off-season. Quarterback Trevor Harris, offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers and receiver Greg Ellingson (all to Edmonton), running back William Powell and defensive lineman AC Leonard (both to Saskatchewan) and defensive back Rico Murray (to Hamilton) were among the players to leave as free agents.

And although it’s still early, Ottawa is tied atop the East Division standings with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a team many consider a Grey Cup contender.

Harris and Ellingson are both enjoying solid starts in Edmonton. Harris leads the CFL in passing yards (741) and touchdowns (six) while Ellingson is tops among receivers with 240 yards on 14 catches with two TDs.

But Ottawa’s Dominique Davis leads the CFL in pass attempts (83) and completions (59) and is second in yards (630) with three TDs and four interceptions. The picks came in the Redblacks’ stunning 32-28 season-opening road win over Calgary.

Davis has run 10 times for 53 yards and three TDs, the scores all coming versus Calgary.

Davis was 30-of-39 passing for 354 yards and three TDs in Ottawa’s 44-41 home victory over Saskatchewan on Thursday night. Dominique Rhymes had 11 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown.

Ottawa has a bye week and visits the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on July 5.

Harris and Ellingson have helped stake Edmonton (2-0) atop the West Division standings heading into its intriguing road game Thursday versus Winnipeg (1-0). Calgary (0-1) and B.C. (0-2) meet Saturday at McMahon while Saskatchewan (0-2) hosts Toronto (0-1) on July 1.

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KEY CONTEST: It’s only their second regular-season game, but the Toronto Argonauts’ contest in Regina on Canada Day is a pivotal one.

Toronto suffered a lopsided 64-14 home loss Saturday to the arch-rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats. What’s more, the 50-point defeat came before a BMO Field gathering of 16,734.

But Toronto can’t afford to drop a second straight lopsided contest considering its home to the B.C. Lions on July 6. Two consecutive convincing losses would give Toronto fans little incentive to return to BMO Field.

Toronto averaged just 14,211 spectators in 2018, missing the playoffs with a 4-14 record. The Argos’ highest home attendance last year was 18,104 for a 24-23 victory over B.C. on Aug. 18.

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LOW ATTENDANCE: It hasn’t been a stellar start for the CFL at the turnstiles.

Through two weeks, the average home attendance is just 22,302. The largest gathering has been 26,301 at McMahon Stadium for the Ottawa Redblacks’ 32-28 victory over Calgary on Aug. 18 in a Grey Cup rematch.

The return of B.C. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly to Commonwealth Stadium on Friday night — which Edmonton won 39-23 — drew 24,016 spectators. The Eskimos attracted 25,263 fans for their season-opening 32-25 home victory over the Montreal Alouettes.

The lowest crowd of the season came Saturday at BMO Field as 16,734 watched the Hamilton Tiger-Cats dispatch the Toronto Argonauts 64-14.

Winnipeg hosts Edmonton on Thursday night in a battle of unbeaten teams. And the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who averaged a league-best 32,835 spectators last year, host Toronto on July 1 in their first home game of the year.

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VICTORIOUS RETURN: It was a triumphant return for Chris Van Zeyl.

The veteran right tackle made his first appearance at BMO Field since being released by the Toronto Argonauts on May 18. The six-foot-six, 308-pound native of Fonthill, Ont., started at right tackle for the arch-rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats in their lopsided 64-14 road win Saturday afternoon.

Van Zeyl spent 10 seasons with Toronto before being released in May. The 35-year-old played 156 games with the Argos and helped them win Grey Cups in 2012 and 2017.

Van Zeyl admitted he had a little extra incentive to perform well against his former team but took no satisfaction from the one-sided win.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something just lingering in there that I wanted to prove something,” Van Zeyl said after the game. “I have no ill will or feelings towards the Argos or anyone in the organization, I can only thank them for everything they did for me for 10 years.

“I love everybody in that locker room and really do feel for them over there because I’ve been in those games before and nobody wants to be on that side of it. At the end of the day this is pro football, it’s a business … but you know what? I couldn’t be happier being where I am right now.”

Hamilton signed Van Zeyl shortly after his release, and with good reason. The Ticats started four Canadian offensive linemen against Toronto, allowing them to use Americans elsewhere on the roster.

“My transition has been painless, it’s been really easy,” Van Zeyl said. “Great guys in the locker room and it (offensive line) is a good group that we have.”

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BAD OPTICS: Last week’s CFL-CFLPA squabble regarding the suspension of Hamilton Tiger-Cats linebacker Simoni Lawrence wasn’t a good look for either side.

Lawrence received a two-game ban for hitting Saskatchewan quarterback Zach Collaros in the head early in Hamilton’s season-opening 23-17 win. The CFLPA grieved the suspension, allowing Lawrence to continue playing until an arbitration hearing is held.

Lawrence had a sack and interception in Hamilton’s 64-14 road win over Toronto on Saturday and will be eligible to play in the Ticats’ home-and-home series with Montreal before his July 9 hearing. CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie criticized the grievance, stating, “The CFL is deeply disappointed that the CFLPA has decided to contest the league’s attempt to punish and deter a dangerous play.”

The CFLPA countered by calling Ambrosie’s statement an attempt to “gain a public relations advantage during a difficult situation.”

“The commissioner’s public attack on the process and the rights allotted to all CFL players, as mutually agreed to in the collective agreement, is both disappointing and unhelpful,” the union continued. “Our commitment to player safety must be balanced by our duty to ensure every player receives fair representation when these situations happen.

“Generally, players have not been treated equally and therefore unfairly by the process the commissioner currently follows in these instances.”

The public spat comes after both sides agreed on a new three-year deal last month.

The controversy hasn’t bothered Lawrence. He had six tackles, a sack and interception versus Saskatchewan before adding a sack and interception against Toronto.

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