The CFL’s marquee player gave the Calgary Stampeders a real scare in their 29-8 win over the Montreal Alouettes to open the season Saturday.
Jon Cornish lay face down on the field in the fourth quarter after the Stampeders running back took a high, hard hit on the run from Alouettes linebacker Kyries Hebert.
It looked grim for the CFL’s leading rusher and most outstanding player in 2013 when an ambulance was summoned onto the field.
But an immediate trip to the hospital wasn’t required as the 29-year-old from New Westminster, B.C., got up and walked to the clubhouse accompanied by medical staff.
“I was knocked out,” Cornish said following the game. “I’m going to have to go through concussion protocol 100 per cent.
“You’d expect me to feel a little bit worse, but I’m pretty good. I can remember what happened before and immediately after.”
What happened a few minutes before that play was Cornish running for an 18-yard touchdown off a direct snap to pad Calgary’s lead to 26-1.
The Stampeders posted the CFL’s best record last season at 14-4 and were quick out of the gates to start 2014.
An opening-day starter for the first time in his CFL career, quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell was efficient throwing for 313 yards, a pair of touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The Texan completed 16 of 25 passes. He threw out of Calgary’s end zone to Maurice Price for a 102-touchdown pass in the opening quarter and tossed to Anthony Parker for another major in the fourth.
Rene Paredes kicked a pair of field goals and punter Rob Maver contributed two punt singles in front of announced attendance of 26,135 at McMahon Stadium. Cornish had 67 yards on 14 carries before leaving the game.
“I thought we played very physical on both sides of the football and special teams, we played fast,” Stampeder coach and general manager John Hufnagel said. “I think we took a first right step going in the direction we want to go. A lot of work to be done though.”
Montreal, 8-10 last season, have large wrinkles to iron out on both sides of the football.
Troy Smith’s season debut for the Alouettes marked the first time since 1999 a quarterback other than Anthony Calvillo was Montreal’s opening-day starter. The CFL’s all-time passing leader retired in January after 16 seasons with the Alouettes.
Smith, a former Heisman Trophy winner with Ohio State, completed 17 of 40 passes for 127 yards. He was sacked four times and intercepted once.
Sean Whyte’s punt single was Montreal’s only point until fullback Steven Lumbala dove for a one-yard major on the final play of the game.
A gaffe by Montreal’s secondary left Price open for his touchdown as the Als had two defenders on Calgary receiver Jeff Fuller.
“I don’t feel good at all,” Smith said. “There’s a whole different feel when you leave the field after a week’s work of preparation and nothing works.
“You definitely have to look yourself in the mirror and you have to understand that things aren’t going to go the exact ideal way that you want them to all the time.
“You’ve got to go back to the drawing board and accept the Calgary Stampeders played a great game today. They game-planned and they paid also, and they made plays.”
Former NFL star receiver Chad Johnson had two catches for 20 yards in his CFL debut.
“I’ve got a long way to go, man,” Johnson said. “With this being my first time experiencing a real live game with the bullets flying, the level of competition is really not that far off from the NFL and the speed of the game is equivalent.”
Hebert was slapped with a major foul and ejected for his hit on Cornish. Calgary parlayed Montreal’s 25-yard penalty into another touchdown as Mitchell threw to Parker in the end zone.
Cornish says he’s yet to be diagnosed with a concussion in his career. The league’s top rusher the past two seasons said he bore Hebert no ill-will.
“I don’t really blame him,” Cornish said. “I got a pretty good cut block on him earlier in the game, so that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Hufnagel had said it was a “photo finish” between Mitchell and Drew Tate in choosing a first-day starting quarterback.
Mitchell cleaned up his game considerably Saturday after a pre-season loss to the Lions a week earlier, when he completed half his pass attempts and was intercepted twice.
The quarterback checked off the boxes of throwing touchdowns, moving the offence and not allowing any interceptions Saturday.
“I’m still not going to check the box of going out and doing exactly what I wanted to do and that’s just making sure we’re executing on everything we can,” Mitchell said. “A couple plays early on I can myself clean up.
“I felt like there was a quarter where we didn’t move the ball very well. I felt like I played good, but it’s easy when your receivers are making those kind of plays and your O-line is giving you time.”
Paredes, winner of the CFL’s special-teams player award last season, booted field goals from 25 and 38 yards in the game. Maver kicked punt singles of 78 and 88 yards.
Whyte was wide on a 39-yard attempt midway through the first quarter.
Calgary’s defence held the Als under 100 offensive yards in the first half when Charleston Hughes, Corey Mace and DeQuin Evans each recorded sacks and Hughes knocked down a pass. Juwan Simpson also sacked Smith later in the game.
Cornerback Fred Bennett would have collected two interceptions in the half had his second not been negated by Deron Mayo’s horse-collar tackle on Smith.
The Stampeders head immediately into their bye week. Their next game is in Toronto against the Argonauts on July 12.
The Als host the B.C. Lions on Friday. With the Blue Bombers moving to the West Division, Montreal won’t face an East Division rival until Aug. 1.