Lions' rookie, Argos' vet an unlikely mirror matchup

 

Jonathon Jennings’ fast start in the CFL reminiscent of the debut Ricky Ray enjoyed

 
 
 
 
It’s been a long time since quarterback Ricky Ray, starting Friday’s game for the Toronto Argonauts, made his triumphant debut in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos, but his opponent at Rogers Centre — B.C. Lions rookie Jon Jennings — is putting up some similar numbers in his first year.
 
 

It’s been a long time since quarterback Ricky Ray, starting Friday’s game for the Toronto Argonauts, made his triumphant debut in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos, but his opponent at Rogers Centre — B.C. Lions rookie Jon Jennings — is putting up some similar numbers in his first year.

Photograph by: JASON FRANSON, THE CANADIAN PRESS

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TORONTO — An old quarterback, who took the league by storm as a rookie, is facing a young quarterback taking the Canadian Football League by storm as a freshman.

Ricky Ray, 36, starting for the Argonauts for the first time this season, faces Jon Jennings, the 23-year-old who has captivated fans of the B.C. Lions in the manner of Casey Printers, circa 2004 (when the first-year starter was the CFL’s most outstanding player).

Ray versus Jennings. The pocket passer versus the scrambler. A generational quarterback versus one who could be.

Except neither of them choose to think like that.

“I find it kind of funny when people talk about a duel of gunslingers,” Jennings said Thursday after the Lions arrived in Toronto. “But they’re not really going at it. I never think of it as me against the other guy. We’re going against their defence, not Ricky Ray.”

Ray, a thrice-crowned Grey Cup champion and three-time CFL all-star, missed 16 consecutive games through shoulder surgery and rehab before returning as the backup to Trevor Harris. But, as Harris’s efficiency rating tumbled over the past three games, head coach Scott Milanovich decided to switch his starters this week after a desultory 34-2 loss to the Montreal Alouettes.

“I’ve never seen (Ray) play before,” Jennings said. “But everything I’ve heard about him is positive. Obviously his numbers speak for themselves, and he’s lasted a long time.”

Personality differences, playing style, age and accomplishments aside, Ray admits to feeling the weight of expectations, much like a rookie quarterback would. He was one, in 2002, when the Happy Camp, Calif., native began his first year with the Edmonton Eskimos as a third-stringer (like Jennings) before throwing four touchdowns (against the Lions) in his first start in relief of an injured Jason Maas. Ray finished his rookie season with highest quarterback rating in the CFL.

“I feel like I got a little bit of pre-season last week (against Montreal) and this is the first game of the season, which it is for me,” Ray said. “Usually, the first game of the season is everybody’s first game. I’m definitely excited to get back out there. But, yeah, I’m going to be nervous. There’ll definitely be a roller-coaster of emotions. Every time you get a chance to play you’re out there having to prove yourself again.”

Ray has thrown for at least 300 yards in 14 career starts against the Lions and came close to that (284 yards and two TDs) the last time he played them, on Sept. 19, 2014 — a 40-23 Argos win at BC Place.

Still, his winning percentage against B.C. is the poorest of all the CFL teams he has faced (13-17, .433), and larcenous Lions halfback Ryan Phillips seems to have his number.

“Being a veteran in this league, he knows route combinations,” Ray said of Phillips. “He can use his mind out there and anticipate what we’re doing. He’s able to make plays on the football — definitely a guy you’ve got to keep in mind.”

The Argos, orphaned since Sept. 11 because of the overriding commitment of Rogers Communications to the Toronto Blue Jays, are thankful to be back at Rogers Centre for the first time in 49 days, even if there are no more than the usual 15,000 suspects rattling around inside Friday night. That would represent about 14,990 more that saw them go down with nary a fight a week ago at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

“There was literally not a soul in the stands,” said Argos defensive end Ricky Foley, the former first-round draft pick of the Lions. “There may have been 10 Ticat fans. You could hear every word they were saying: ‘Argos suck!’ This is supposed to be a bloody home game? The boys have had enough.”

About to make only his sixth pro start, Jennings threw for 13 touchdowns and 1,493 yards in the previous five, and his ability to extend plays with his feet “scares me,” Milanovich said.

Without apology, Foley also sees an emerging quarterback talent who excites him, speaking as a player who wants the best for his league.

“If I could take myself out of the conversation as a player, (Jennings is) a fun guy to watch,” Foley said. “It’s good for the league to see new talent like that come in, and it’s good for football on the West Coast because the Lions need a boost.

“But (Friday), hopefully they suck.”

• THREE THEMES OF THE GAME

RUSHING CROWN

Manny Arceneaux may be a 1,000-yard receiver, but stopping running back Andrew Harris is priority No. 1, says Argos head coach Scott Milanovich. With 987 rushing yards, Harris is on the cusp of becoming just the third Lion (after Joe Smith in 2007 and Jim Evenson in 1971) to win the CFL rushing crown. He has a 161-yard lead over Jerome Messam. "I'd be lying if I said it (rushing title) wasn't important," Harris said. "I'm in my contract year. It's definitely important for me. It's something I haven't accomplished yet. And, for us, running the football is really crucial to winning games."

HOME AT LAST

In a quirk of scheduling because of the Pan American Games and Blue Jays baseball, the Argos have played more games in Hamilton (four) this season than at Rogers Centre (three). Returning to their designated home (after the Jays' elimination in the ALCS) for the first time in 49 days will be a relief, said Ricky Foley. He blames the embarrassment of last week's 34-2 loss to the Alouettes at Tim Hortons Field, played before a handful of fans, as a case where the Argos "have had enough. There was no atmosphere," he said. "There was no energy. We were just done with it."

POSSESSION OBSESSION

Time of possession is a debatable stat. Normally, one can look at the time one team controls the football vs. another and deduce that the team which is on the defensive the longest should be the loser. Yet, last Friday, the Lions and QB Jonathon Jennings dominated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on the scoreboard — 40-13 — but not in time of possession. B.C. had three TD drives of two plays or less (series beginning at the 20, 10 and 28-yard lines). It was the seventh straight game in which the Lions have lost the time of possession battle. They've averaged just 26:56 with the football over that period.

• PLAYERS TO WATCH

TORONTO

PHIL BATES, wide receiver

Bates makes his CFL debut at wide receiver in place of Tori Gurley (suspension) and is one of two players in tonight's game with a Super Bowl ring from his time with the Seattle Seahawks (Lions Mic'hael Brooks is the other). Undrafted, Bates was a quarterback at Iowa State and Ohio who signed with Seattle and spent three seasons on the practice squad learning the nuances of how to play wideout. At 6-1, 220 pounds he is known for his physicality. Bates got into a publicized scrap with cornerback Richard Sherman on the second day of the Seahawks' 2014 training camp.

B.C.

MIC'HAEL BROOKS, defensive tackle

After lagging behind in the sack race (the Lions averaged 1.9 per game over their first 11 starts), B.C. is coming on strong, taking down rival QBs at a rate of 4.8 per game over the past five starts. Much of that improvement has to do with the push up front from first-year defensive tackles Zach Minter and Mic'hael Brooks, the ex-Seattle Seahawk. "He's quick off the ball. At the point of attack, it's ridiculous how he gets his hands going. He's a playmaker. He's got skills," said Argos wide receiver Phil Bates of Brooks, his former Seattle teammate.

mbeamish@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/sixbeamers

 
 
 
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It’s been a long time since quarterback Ricky Ray, starting Friday’s game for the Toronto Argonauts, made his triumphant debut in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos, but his opponent at Rogers Centre — B.C. Lions rookie Jon Jennings — is putting up some similar numbers in his first year.
 

It’s been a long time since quarterback Ricky Ray, starting Friday’s game for the Toronto Argonauts, made his triumphant debut in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos, but his opponent at Rogers Centre — B.C. Lions rookie Jon Jennings — is putting up some similar numbers in his first year.

Photograph by: JASON FRANSON, THE CANADIAN PRESS

 
It’s been a long time since quarterback Ricky Ray, starting Friday’s game for the Toronto Argonauts, made his triumphant debut in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos, but his opponent at Rogers Centre — B.C. Lions rookie Jon Jennings — is putting up some similar numbers in his first year.
Files: Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray throws a pass against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during first half action in their CFL game in Toronto Saturday July 5, 2014.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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