More than 42,000 to see how far CFLs have come since opener

August 20, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

The only game in town will draw a crowd tonight when the Baltimore CFLs make a progress check in their inaugural Canadian Football League season.

The Toronto Argonauts will serve as the barometer, and an anticipated Memorial Stadium crowd of more than 42,000 will serve as judges.

Are the CFLs a better team than when they outlasted the Argos, 28-20, in their July 7 debut at SkyDome?

"Much better," quarterback Tracy Ham said yesterday. "We're executing a lot better; we understand the game better."

If they're better, coach Don Matthews was saying, it's attributable in large part to Ham. He's the league's leading passer, with 12 touchdown passes, only three interceptions and a passer efficiency rating of 113.9.

"We're a better football team, especially offensively," Matthews said. "Tracy Ham, although he's a veteran in the CFL, has not been a veteran in this type of offense. The offenses he's run were drastically different. He didn't do five-receiver [formations], quads and trips. It was more base.

"He's added to his weapons and what we do with it. He's more comfortable with it."

For Matthews, tonight is not so much about looking back, though, as it is about looking ahead. The CFLs (4-2) can move back into a first-place tie with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (5-2) in the Eastern Division with a victory.

The loss of quarterback Matt Dunigan in Winnipeg for at least six weeks with a knee injury has -- on the surface, at least -- tilted the balance of Eastern power. Suddenly, Baltimore might be the team to beat.

"Being tied with them, I thought we still had a legitimate shot [before the injury]," Matthews said. "We get them down here [on Oct. 29]. . . . We all know games in August are not as important as October."

Matthews wants to turn up the heat on a Toronto team (2-4) that has given up 108 points the last two weeks and surrendered 698 yards and 40 first downs in a 54-39 loss to the British Columbia Lions last week.

That's with the pass rush and the crowd. In three regular-season home dates, Memorial Stadium has become the X-factor for the CFLs. This promises to be the biggest crowd of the season, surpassing the previous high of 39,247 for a Week 2 loss to the Calgary Stampeders.

"We enjoy the crowd," Matthews said. "There's an energy with the crowd that comes here that helps the team. The way I know that, I hear players talking about the crowd. . . . The bigger the crowd, the better the energy."

The pass rush is Matthews' answer to Baltimore's pass defense, which ranks last in the league with an average of 333.8 yards a game. There is short-term help (Earnest Fields) and long-term help (Elfrid Payton) on the way. Fields will fill the rush end spot opposite O. J. Brigance tonight; Fields is the third different starter the team has tried. And next week in Hamilton, newly signed Payton will get his chance.

"Any opportunity I get to play a position might open up an opportunity," said Fields, who lost his starting middle linebacker job two weeks ago. "I feel I can get in there and put pressure on the quarterback. Hopefully, I'll go in and get some sacks."

Matthews, a master tinkerer when it comes to defensive strategy, may even have a few tricks up his sleeve for the Argos. "We'll use a couple different defensive formations to try to manufacture a pass rush," he said. "We'll move people around to create some mismatches. We're still a man-cover team. We've been covering well."

It will be a different look on both sides of the ball. Toronto counters with a change at quarterback, where Reggie Slack takes over for Mike Kerrigan, who threw 12 interceptions in the first six games.

"Slack has more mobility and a stronger arm," said Brigance. "He may be able to squeeze balls in a tighter place."

Said defensive tackle Robert Presbury, who leads the CFLs with five sacks: "Any time you change the quarterback, you change the offense. It's not the same mentality."

Quarterback is not the only Argos change, though. Among the changes coach Bob O'Billovich made this week were benching veteran center Blaine Schmidt, activating former NFL receiver Tommy Kane and revamping his tattered secondary.

"We're trying to get more consistency in the secondary," O'Billovich said. "We're not panicking, though, because we had a major rebuilding job [from a 3-15 team in 1993]. . . . The secondary has not played as well as it had earlier. We're living and dying with some of that youth."

Toronto vs. Baltimore

Site: Memorial Stadium

When: 7:30 tonight

TV/Radio: Ch. 2/WJFK (1300 AM)

Tickets: 12,600 remain

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