MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Cleo Lemon has a tough act to follow.
Although the Toronto Argonauts are riding a six-game losing streak, Lemon comes into Thursday’s contest at Rogers Centre against the Saskatchewan Roughriders having registered consecutive 300-yard passing performances for the first time in his 1 1/2-year CFL tenure.
What’s more, Lemon was a stellar 26-of-36 passing for a career-high 368 yards and three TDs in Toronto’s 37-32 road loss to Hamilton on Saturday with no interceptions.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with the system, all my teammates and everyone doing their job and getting into their roles,” Lemon said. “But I’m a confident player, I approach every game feeling I’m going to go out and do my job.
“I’ve never lacked that. Sometimes, though, you just don’t get the results you want.”
Lemon, 32, has been a lightning rod for criticism throughout his CFL tenure.
Last season, Lemon sported a solid 61.7 per cent completion average but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (15) while Toronto had the league’s worst passing attack (221.1 yards per game).
But solid defence and opportunistic special teams helped lead Toronto to the East Division final before succumbing to the eventual Grey Cup-champion Montreal Alouettes. When head coach/GM Jim Barker held his season-ending meeting with Lemon, he told the veteran he’d again be competing for the No. 1 job in training camp.
Lemon reclaimed the starting position and showed flashes of brilliance in leading Toronto to its 23-21 season-opening win in Calgary. He was especially impressive leading the Argos downfield to set up Noel Prefontaine’s 43-yard winning field goal with 17 seconds.
But it wasn’t until Toronto’s 33-24 home loss to Winnipeg on July 23 that Lemon really raised eyebrows, smartly leading the Argos on a seven-play, 64-yard scoring drive on their opening possession.
Lemon was 5-of-5 passing for 58 yards but left the game on the next series when he was drilled by Bombers’ linebacker Joe Lobendahn following a 15-yard run.
Lemon suffered a cracked tooth that left a nerve exposed and required dental surgery, forcing him to miss Toronto’s 26-25 road loss in Edmonton. He returned for the Argos’ 36-23 home defeat to Montreal, completing 25-of-41 passes for 314 yards with two TDs and one interception.
Barker has a simple explanation for Lemon’s turnaround: a heart-to-heart talk the two had before facing Winnipeg when Barker issued Lemon an ultimatum.
“I don’t know, when I told him that if his play didn’t pick up he was done,” Barker said, drawing chuckles from the gathered media. “It kind of clicked in a hurry and he had the best quarter of football he’d ever had.
“I don’t know if that’s what it was, I don’t know if Cleo needs that kind of pressure … he’s seeing things much better. We’re not holding on to the ball, we’re not taking sacks, there’s no confusion on his part. He knows exactly where his receivers are at and how they’re going to come out of breaks, which takes a while.”
Lemon is second among CFL starters in passing completion, his 65.1 per cent mark behind only Edmonton’s Ricky Ray (66 per cent). Lemon has thrown for 1,410 yards and has seven TDs against just three interceptions.
“Cleo has taken a lot of heat for his numbers … but he is managing the game very well,” Barker said. “He has had back-to-back 300-yard games, can he do that on a continual basis? That’s the question.
“I’m not saying Cleo Lemon has turned the corner by any stretch. He has to consistently play the way he’s played the last three weeks. If he does that for a few more games, then you can say, ’Yeah, this guy has turned the corner and he’s a guy who can be an elite quarterback in this league.”’
Saskatchewan head coach Greg Marshall was impressed with Lemon’s performance in Hamilton.
“Obviously he’s getting more and more comfortable with the passing game,” he said.
Helping Lemon’s cause was the return of tailback Cory Boyd, who had missed four games with a knee injury. Boyd ran for game-high 73 yards and a TD on 18 carries and added three catches for 29 yards against Hamilton. The six-foot-one, 213-pound Boyd is also a solid blocker when kept in the backfield on passing plays.
“It makes life easier for (Lemon) if they can run the ball well,” Marshall said. “They’ve got a very physical offensive line.
“I would be surprised if they didn’t come out and try to run the ball.”