EDMONTON — The Eskimos and Riders are set to clash for the third time this season on Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium, in a pivitol West Division battle with playoff implications.
Fresh off a 35-20 win over the Ticats last weekend that ended a five-game losing streak, the Esks suddenly have plenty of wind in their sails coming into an important Week 16 battle with the Riders.
Kerry Joseph threw for 359 yards and three touchdowns to get his first win since he played for the Argos, while Fred Stamps had his biggest performance of the season with 204 yards on nine catches and a game-sealing touchdown.
And suddenly, despite the frustration coming out of Edmonton over the month of September in which the club failed to record a single win, the Esks find themselves with a one-game lead in the playoff hunt and just two games behind the second-place Riders and Stamps.
The Esks are slowly starting to resemble more of the team that started the season out 5-3, and looked like it would challenge for the West Division crown – especially when it comes to the running game.
The team announced it released Cory Boyd during the week, meaning the attempt at a three-headed monster will be no more in Edmonton. It also means Hugh Charles, who was a big part of the team’s success in the first eight games of the season, is back to being the focal point of the offence.
Charles, in his second season with the Esks, leads the team with seven touchdowns, 700 rushing yards, as well as 1,213 all-purpose yards. Impressively, he also sits second on the team in receiving yards with 513.
And quite frankly, he’s happy to be the man in charge in the backfield.
“I always go into anything expecting the worst. Hoping for the best, expecting the worst,” said Charles, a three-year backup to Wes Cates with the Saskatchewan Roughriders when he came to Edmonton at the trade deadline a year ago, initially to back up Messam.
“I fought my way into the starting position and it could have been taken away at any minute,” he continued. “It was unfortunate that it was taken away not because of my actions, but because of this decision upstairs. It’s something you’ve just got to take and go forward with it.”
On the short end of the stick the first four years of his career, Charles is happy to be where he is right now. In last weekend’s win, he showed once again what he’s capable of when the load is on his shoulders, compiling 104 yards from scrimmage on 10 carries and three catches.
“I’ve been in that situation before, so I don’t have any sympathy,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot, I don’t have any sympathy for anybody. I’m not trying to be rude, but that’s just the nature of the game.”
“I want the ball and I’m sure whenever I came in (last year) and was getting a little action, I’m sure (Messam) was saying the same thing, he wants the ball.”
Charles will look to team up with the team’s other weapons on offence, including Stamps and emerging receiving threat Marcus Henry, to duplicate last weekend’s success – possibly the team’s best all-around offensive performances this season.
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Even after last week’s 35-point effort, the Esks are still second-worst in the league in scoring with only 314 points. Comparatively, this weekend’s opponent has 377 points this season.
That means while the Green and Gold will need another strong game from its offence, it’s also going to require another shut-down performance.
Last weekend the Eskimos held the high-octane offence of Henry Burris and Chris Williams to just 20 points, with Burris throwing three interceptions along the way. This week it doesn’t get any easier with Weston Dressler and Kory Sheets entering the equation.
Between them, Dressler and Sheets have scored 21 of the Roughriders’ 34 offensive touchdowns this season.
Dressler is the CFL’s leading pass receiver, having caught 82 balls for 1,007 yards and 10 TDs, while Sheets is second to the Calgary Stampeders’ Jon Cornish in rushing, with 1,035 yards on 192 carries and nine TDs. Sheets also has caught two TD passes.
Stop those two, and you’ve got to like your chances of stopping the Roughriders, obviously, especially in the score zone.
But not many teams seem to be able to stifle both the five-foot-seven, 180-pound Dressler or the five-foot-11, 208-pound Sheets, let alone both in the same game. Not lately, at any rate.
As the Roughriders have improved from 5-6 to 8-6, it’s no surprise both Dressler and Sheets have been key contributors.
Dressler has caught 22 passes for 355 yards and four TDs during that three-game winning streak. Sheets, in his first CFL season after NFL looks with Carolina, Miami and San Francisco over the last three years, has carried the ball 45 times for 274 yards and one TD.
To keep their hopes of finishing third in the West Division lit, realistically, the Eskimos must beat Saskatchewan on Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium. Which means containing two of the hottest and most lethal offensive weapons in the CFL.
“With No. 7 (Dressler), you just try to eliminate him from making the big play,” said veteran Eskimos linebacker T.J. Hill. “We know they’re going to try to throw him the ball, give him screens and reverses and things of that nature, and sweeps (and let him run.)
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Steven Jyles connected with Cary Koch for a 30-yard touchdown pass, while the Esks defence picked off Darian Durant twice on the way to a 28-20 win over the Riders at Commonwealth Stadium. Jyles finished with 282 yards and a touchdown on 18-23 passing for his best performance of the season, while Hugh Charles chipped in with 67 yards on the ground in a total team effort for the Eskies. Durant threw for 401 yards in the loss for the Riders, but failed to throw a touchdown pass as the Green and White dropped its third straight game.
“As for No. 1 (Sheets), you can’t stop him from getting the ball, because all the quarterback (Darian Durant) has to do is hand off the ball to him,” Hill continued. “But with him, it’s pretty much the same thing, try to limit his big carries. And he can make plays by catching the ball, too.”
The launch points for Dressler and Sheets aren’t that dissimilar, especially when Durant is finding Dressler in space for a short pass and letting the fifth-year pro from the University of North Dakota make plays, as the football people say.
“Sheets is arguably one of the best, if not the best at making cuts at the line of scrimmage,” Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed said. “Which is somewhat of a rare characteristic for a guy of his size.
“He is a powerful individual, but I would say his most deadliest attribute would be his cutting abilities.”
Both players had a key role in one of the Riders’ most impressive wins this season a week ago, a 36-10 win at a Rider fan-infested Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Sheets was contained through the entire first half, but broke the game open in the third quarter on a long scoring run, eventually finishing with 113 yards on 19 carries.
Dressler followed soon after with a long touchdown of his own, using his speed to find an opening on the way to a 78-yard touchdown grab. He finished his day with 97 yards on five catches – just another day at the office for the shifty veteran pass-catcher.
Of course, Riders pivot Darian Durant has been the ringleader of the Riders offence, as he continues to show that he’s taken the next step in his career when it comes to the process of maturing. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown, without turning the ball over against an opportunistic Argos defence.
He’s shown he can be a game manager when needed, but can also grab the offence by the horns and put up big points when necessary, too.
“Darian is a warrior. Having worked with that young man, he’s a warrior and he’s going to battle through and give his team everything he has to have an opportunity to win,” Reed said.
Saturday’s meeting between these teams will be the third and final regular season battle of 2012. With the teams splitting the first two games, this will decide who takes over the tiebreaker with three games left in the season.
Kickoff is at 4:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
– With files from Postmedia