CFL Pass

Inside the CFL: Arbuckle shines under excellent game plan

It would be hard to blame the Saskatchewan Roughriders for thinking they would be facing an old grey mare Saturday night at Mosaic Stadium. After all, Calgary lost its opener to Ottawa and had to take advantage of a complete collapse to beat a bad B.C. team. The Stampeders were without their starting running back, were playing with three rookies in the secondary, a depleted receiving corps, and a patchwork defensive line. Their quarterback was making his first start as a pro.

Proving there’s lots of life in the old horse yet, the Stampeders won 37-10.

It was an intriguing matchup with young gun quarterbacks shooting it out and each team coached by a Dickenson. With Chris “Darth Vader” Jones gone to the NFL, replaced by the personable Craig Dickenson, sunny days prevail by the Wascana. The rookie mentor was fresh off a trouncing of the Argos. But his team was also coping with injuries, especially to the offensive line.

Calgary won largely because 2016’s CFL Coach of the Year Dave Dickenson did a masterful job preparing his team to play. The Roughriders were thoroughly out-coached. He gave backup quarterback Nick Arbuckle a simple but effective game plan which the youngster executed to perfection.

I thought the Riders would win because Calgary has been vulnerable to the run and Saskatchewan has two excellent backs in William Powell and Marcus Thigpen. But they didn’t run much, hoping instead to exploit the inexperienced enemy secondary, a typical mistake of offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo. First-year coordinator Jason Shivers runs vanilla defensive schemes. Calgary opened the game with a 74-yard touchdown march which revealed pretty much everything they were going to try to do. The Riders didn’t adjust the rest of the way.

Give general manager John Hufnagel a lot of credit for the win. He replaced starting running back Don Jackson with Ka’Deem Carey. He brought in rookie Robertson Daniel to replace Raheem Wilson who moved over to fill the injured all-star Brandon Smith’s place. He even brought in a receiver named Huff (Josh).

With a retooled defensive line, the Stamps kept the pressure on Rider quarterback Cody Fajardo, who was making only his third start as a pro. After passing for over 400 yards against Ottawa and Toronto, he was held to 89 yards and two interceptions, both by the sensational Tre Robertson who returned one for a back-breaking touchdown. Fajardo was sacked four times. But don’t blame him for the loss. He was executing a game plan a blind man could read.

The big story of the night was the play of Arbuckle. After his opening drive, I made a note, “a star is born.” Arbuckle is the new Ricky Ray who starred in his first appearance in the CFL as an Eskimo in 2002.

Like Ray, Arbuckle is highly intelligent, poised and patient. The 26-year-old from Georgia State is amiable and modest. It is a delight to be present when such a marvelous talent enters the league. The previous week Arbuckle replaced the injured Bo Levi Mitchell late in the fourth quarter and led them from behind to an improbable victory over the B.C. Lions. Saturday was his first start.

“It’s been a long time since my last start in my career in college,” Arbuckle said after the win. “I didn’t know how I’d feel. But it felt really good. It was good to be on the field. During the first drive I was able to see what they were doing and react to what their adjustments were. It brought back old memories and I was fine. But there were a lot of nerves before the game. They went away after a play or two, especially after I got hit.

“It’s not just me coming in. We have a lot of backups that have been thrust into starting roles. There were so many guys out there making plays.”

Said Craig Dickenson: “We’re not as good as we thought.”

Does brother Dave have any words of consolation for his brother? “No, they played so well last week, we played well this week. It’s one of those things. If you have a good team you want to put together back-to-back weeks. You never know who will win.”

Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 47 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to