Stampeders ride strong start, down Tiger-Cats in Mitchell's return to Calgary

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Bo Levi Mitchell got a standing ovation Friday night at McMahon Stadium.

Then his former team made him take a seat.

The Calgary Stampeders refused to let the love-in by fans dominate their CFL season opener on the legendary quarterback’s first return to the field he called home for 10 years, instead turning the tables to win the crowd’s affection with an 32-24 win over Mitchell and the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

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No … there was no time for nostalgia on the night for the home side, as it went into its debut game of the calendar looking to get off to a winning start — and a CFL-best 700th franchise win — and put behind the ugly 6-13 record of 2023.

“That feels great — it really does,” said Stampeders quarterback Jake Maier. “When you come off a six-win season, you look forward to hitting that reset button and getting back at it.

“But this is just one game,” continued Maier. “Nobody in this room or in this organization should jump the gun. It’s a good start for us, and we have a long way to go.”

It was an especially good start for Maier himself, who made the most of a duel with the guy he supplanted as the Stamps’ No. 1 pivot back in 2022.

The fourth-year QB proved darn effective, going 21-of-26 for 252 yards with two TD passes and no turnovers.

Calgary Stampeders vs. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Calgary Stampeders quarterback Jake Maier lines up to throw to receiver Cam Echols against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on Friday, June 7, 2024. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

Mitchell had his moments, too, including nearly forging a comeback in the late stages, but he otherwise failed to find the vintage form that made him the Stampeders’ top QB for a decade at McMahon.

But he did sling it around for 300 yards, one touchdown and one interception on 27-of-38 passing.

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“I did (hear the ovation),” said an appreciative Mitchell. “I just gave the little small two-finger wave there. It was really cool of them to do that. That’s awesome.

“I was just trying to stay locked into the game. Some of the boys in the huddle were watching it, but we were pretty locked in.”

“Bo played well,” said Stamps GM/head coach Dave Dickenson said of his former QB. “I like to beat him when he plays well.

“I think as an organization, we’ll always know what he’s been about. And he showed again that he’s right up there with the best quarterbacks in our league.”

Stamps QB Maier was helped by plenty of fresh faces — including receiver Cam Echols, defender Demerio Houston and returner Erik Brooks — in helping produce the all-important first victory of the campaign in front of 19,741 fans.

Echols made a magnificent catch for a touchdown, Houston stepped up defensively with an interception, and Brooks was brilliant in the runback game on a beautiful spring evening in Calgary.

Clark Barnes
Calgary Stampeders receiver Clark Barnes celebrates a touchdown against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on Friday, June 7, 2024. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

Other Stamps in on the fun included second-year receiver Clark Barnes — with a half-dozen receptions for 61 yards and a major — running back Dedrick Mills — with a solid 87 yards on 13 carries — veteran receivers Marken Michel and Reggie Begelton combining for six grabs and 92 yards and — of course — robo-kicker René Paredes going a whopping 6-for-6 in the triumph.

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“I thought the guy that stepped up the best was Clark Barnes,” Dickenson said. “I thought he could’ve had even a bigger game on the outside. To me, he was the guy who made the biggest catches.

“I thought we looked pretty confident out there,” continued Dickenson. “I thought the guys at least knew what they were wanting to do. I think offensively, we just need some touchdowns. But we were basically in our groove the whole game. I do think we need to run the ball better — I don’t think we moved the line of scrimmage that well.

“And then defensively, I didn’t think we pressured the quarterback well enough. I thought they handled us on the line of scrimmage. You don’t win a lot of games when you don’t win the line of scrimmage, but we won the turnover battle — and that’s key. And I thought we were the better team on special teams.”

They were certainly the most deserving team game-long, buoyed by a strong start — highlighted by scoring on all five first-half possessions.

Paredes hit from 42 yards out on the first drive of the season and followed with a 52-yard bomb to cap the second march.

It was more Parades to start the second quarter, with a 25-yard make, before the first touchdown was scored by the Red and White of the campaign. It came courtesy of newcomer Echols on a one-handed bring-down of Maier’s pass to the back of the Ticats’ end zone.

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Calgary STampeders vs. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Calgary Stampeders defensive back Kobe Williams tackles Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver Tim White at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on Friday, June 7, 2024. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

And on the visitors’ next play from scrimmage, Mitchell overthrew his receiver for an interception by another newcomer in ball-hawk defender Houston — last year’s league-leader in pilfers — which led to another Paredes field goal, of 43 yards.

Mitchell and the Ticats could only respond in the first half with two field goals of their own plus a punt single.

The Ticats threatened to add another to start scoring in the third quarter, but kicker Marc Liegghio missed on a 47-yard attempt that was fielded and run back 84 yards by yet another Stamps newcomer in Brooks.

That set up Paredes’ fifth field goal of the night — this one a 37-yarder.

“Man, we had a lot of really good drives,” Maier said. “I don’t know how many times we punted? Maybe two or three times. Probably one too many field goals for my liking. I wish we would’ve scored more touchdowns in the first half. But the biggest thing was when they scored points — touchdowns or field-goals — we answered with a really good drive.

“I don’t know if you could say that about last year’s team. That was really fulfilling for us to get that done.”

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Jalen Philpot
Calgary Stampeders receiver Jalen Philpot runs the ball against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on Friday, June 7, 2024. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

In the fourth frame, the Ticats made it a game, first answering back with their first TD of the year, when former Stampeders fullback Ante Milanovic-Litre plunged in from a yard out on a third-down gamble.

But the Stamps replied in kind on the next drive, with Maier finding Barnes all alone in the end zone for an easy pitch-and-catch major of 12 yards.

The home team then bent but didn’t break on the next Ticats drive to force another Liegghio field goal, covering 42 yards.

Yet another Paredes make — of 36 yards — sealed the deal for the Stampeders, although Mitchell engineered one last TD march, finding Kiondré Smith for a 19-yard score.

A scary scramble on the ensuing onside kick could have put the finish in doubt, but the Stampeders were able to jump on the loose ball, knock some time off the clock and then stuff the Ticats on a final comeback bid by Mitchell.

“We did make it tough on ourselves (in the fourth),” added Dickenson. “I do think there was a lot of coachable moments, especially in the fourth quarter. You’ve gotta be careful.

“We did win, but I’m not sure that fourth quarter is winning football. We made some critical mistakes.”

Next up for the Stamps is a visit next Saturday to the West Coast to play the host BC Lions in Vancouver (5 p.m., TSN, QR Calgary).

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Calgary Stampeders
The Calgary Stampeders celebrate their home-opener win against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at McMahon Stadium as well as the franchise’s CFL-best 700th victory on Friday, June 7, 2024. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

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