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Tough day for Brannagan, but Argos win exhibition opener

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TORONTO – For those who believe it’s about time a Canadian started at quarterback in the Canadian Football League, Sunday’s game at the Rogers Centre is not going to help their argument.

Danny Brannagan, a former Queen’s University standout from Burlington, Ont., struggled in his first game at quarterback for the Toronto Argonauts, who beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 13-10 in the opening pre-season contest for both teams.

Brannagan completed 3-of-11 passes for 31 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked once.

“It was a pretty cool experience,” said Brannagan. “There were a lot of firsts for me today: first pro game, first game with the Argos, first game in the [Rogers Centre], first game with all these players, so it was definitely good to just get out there and get some time in and see what it’s like actually in a game.”

But there was no first touchdown pass, nor could the 23-year-old generate any points at all during five possessions in the second quarter.

A Canadian quarterback has not started a CFL game since Giulio Caravatta did it for the B.C. Lions in 1996. Brannagan is attempting to end that drought.

“It was pretty good all things considered,” said Brannagan, who led Queen’s to a Vanier Cup championship last year. “It could have gone much worse and I was happy I got out there and got a chance to ... see what it’s like to play in an actual game.

“So, overall [it was] a good experience and I learned a lot.”

The question now: how will head coach Jim Barker deal with Brannagan? He has repeatedly said he will not keep Brannagan around if he doesn’t measure up to the other pivots on Toronto’s roster.

“Danny did some good things,” said Barker. “He made some good throws and he also threw some balls that you can’t throw in this league that you can maybe throw in [Canadian Interuniversity Sport] so it’s going to be a learning process for Danny. I was happy with his composure. Hopefully he can continue to grow as a quarterback.”

Barker said he ensured Brannagan had every chance to succeed.

“I think he got quality [playing time]. We had our first-team people in there and it was important to me to give Danny quality reps, not clean-up reps. I wanted to give him quality reps and I felt he got that. And he’s got a long way to go and all our quarterbacks do.”

Last week Barker said that Cleo Lemon and Dalton Bell had emerged as the favourites to be his club’s starting quarterback. Both players looked sharper than Brannagan during the victory over Hamilton.

Lemon, starting his first game since 2007 when he was with the Miami Dolphins, played the entire first quarter and one possession in the second quarter. He completed 3-of-10 passes for 41 yards. Lemon’s completion number would have been higher, but a couple of balls that should have been caught were dropped by Toronto receivers.

Bell, a third-stringer with Saskatchewan last season, played the third quarter and was the most successful Toronto quarterback on the day completing 7-of-10 of passes for 94 yards.

The Texas native orchestrated a pair of strong drives that led to field goals.

Bell, the only Argos quarterback with CFL experience, said he benefited from taking part in pre-season games with the Roughriders last year.

“Last year I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect ... going out there a little wide eyed, [it was my] first time playing a real pre-season game in Canada,” said Bell. “I had all those [repetitions] in Saskatchewan last year and came here and have been working out against a great defence and [today I] played better.”

Former Heisman Trophy finalist Ken Dorsey, taking part in his first game since the end of the 2008 NFL season when he was with the Cleveland Browns, played in the fourth quarter and completed 8-of-16 passes for 86 yards. He also threw one interception.

No Argos quarterback could find the end zone, and Toronto instead used four field goals and one rouge to beat their East Division rivals.

Barker said he will continue to “whittle down” the practice repetitions for the Toronto quarterbacks who are not playing as well.

The game was the first of two pre-season contests for both teams.