TORONTO — There’s no shortage of storylines heading into Sunday’s Eastern Semi-Final battle between the Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts, as many faces renew acquaintances in an elimination game at Rogers Centre.
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While Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray is set to face his former team for the third time this year, the players with the biggest chip on their shoulders may be on the other side.
Cory Boyd and Kerry Joseph each come into Sunday’s meeting number one on Edmonton’s depth chart, and with a chance to knock their former team out of the playoffs in their own building, it’s safe to say there’s a lot at stake for the two former Argonauts – even if neither showed their hand during Saturday’s walk-throughs.
“I’m not a drama guy,” stated Boyd, who will team up with Hugh Charles in the Esks’ backfield after Jerome Messam was added to the one-game injured list ahead of Sunday’s game. “Ricky and I, we had our spells with our teams and they decided to go different routes and we’re on different teams now.”
The 27-year-old spent two full seasons with the Argos and part of a third, before being released by the team during the summer in a move that caught the entire league off-guard.
He signed with the Eskimos just 10 days later, and as fate has it, is set to play his first playoff game as an Eskimo in the very Stadium he used to call home. But if the powerful runner has any ill-will towards his former team and fan base, he’s not showing it.
“We’re playing against our old teams and we just have to go out there and play, that’s the biggest storyline – we all have to play, it’s not just me playing against my old team and Ricky playing against his old team,” he added.
Part of the reason for Boyd’s low-key approach might be the fact that he’s already been through this. The running back played an important role in Edmonton’s 26-17 win at the Rogers Centre back at the end of August, which completed a two-game regular season sweep for the Eskimos.
Boyd had what remains one of his best games in Green and Gold, rushing for 45 yards on nine carries while adding 30 yards on a pair of catches.
But while that was a bittersweet evening for the former South Carolina Gamecock, he said those emotions are behind him, and that he knows what needs to be done on Sunday.
“Strictly business, here to do a job, get it done, get back home, prepare for next week,” said Boyd.
Joseph, meanwhile, just named the team’s starting quarterback for the game late in the week, said he carries a chip on his shoulder no matter who he’s playing against.
“I always carry a chip on my shoulder, and the chip may be small, may be big from different circumstances I’ve gone through throughout my career, but at the end of the day my focus is on winning this football game.”
The 39-year-old’s past with the Argos dates back to when he joined the team back in 2008, the next season after winning Most Outstanding Player along with a Grey Cup championship with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Toronto was where his career faded quickly though, eventually leading him to a backup quarterback position with the Eskimos, where he’s now taken over as the starting quarterback over Steven Jyles and Matt Nichols.
Joseph said he finds plenty of inspiration, not from being here to face the Argos, but from playing a playoff game in the same building where he won the 2007 Grey Cup.
“You just get that feel, you get that energy or vibe that you know what, it’s for all the marbles now, you lay everything on the table,” said Joseph. “I still remember holding the cup up in that corner, so you have that memory etched in your mind and I know it gives you chills just to have the opportunity to go at it again and be in this building.”
As for Boyd, he said he’s at peace with everything that happened in his release from the Argos – but you can also expect he’ll be looking to turn some heads on Sunday.
“People change their minds and plans go different ways, and now that I’m here with this team it’s even better because I get to go out there and show the Argo fans and Argos that they’re missing out on a great player,” said Boyd.
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“It would be a great ending of this story of mine to come back and play against my old team with my new team and just go out there and dominate and be who I’m supposed to be as a playmaker.”
The task won’t be easy for Joseph, Boyd, and the Eskimos though, as they prepare to face a team that appears to be peaking at exactly the right time.
Toronto looked to be in trouble at one point, on the heels of a three-game losing streak that put its playoff spot in jeopardy.
But it all turned around in Week 18, when the Argos traveled to Saskatchewan and clinched second place in the East with an impressive 31-26 win over the Roughriders in frigid conditions.
The greatest key aspect of the Argos’ turnaround has been a Ray-led offence, which seems to be finding its groove after some early growing pains.
Ray enters the playoffs as the league’s hottest quarterback, with eight touchdowns and just one interception over his last two starts, both since returning from a knee injury that held him out of action for nearly a month.
“I think early in the season we were moving the ball pretty well, we just weren’t coming away with as many points as we wanted to,” Ray recalled. “I felt like the Labour Day games we were starting to turn the corner a little bit, we beat Hamilton back-to-back and put up some big points.”
The Boatmen appeared poised to contend for top spot in the division with Montreal, with two games against the Alouettes and four of the remaining six regular season games on home soil.
But on Sept. 23rd against the Alouettes, Ray went down with an injury that would set the Argos back.
“When I came back I felt like I was starting to feel more comfortable,” he continued. “We just kept building and these last three games we’ve been able to do a good job of getting results out of what we’re doing out there and we just want to keep that momentum going.”
A steep learning curve was expected with Head Coach Scott Milanovich implementing a brand new offence in Argoland – one that Argos defensive players would argue seems confusing to say the least.
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But if it’s true that all of that is really starting to come together now, the Argos are a team that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“Just being more comfortable with the guys around me and what we’re doing offensively, probably the most comfortable I’ve felt just with having a season under my belt in this offence,” said Ray, who’s also coached by former teammate in Edmonton Jason Maas as the team’s quarterback coach.
“I think guys are really starting to understand what we’re trying to do out there, they’re understanding what their role is, and what they can expect from each other every time they step on the field.”
Of course, Ray isn’t the only one about to experience his first playoff game as an Argonaut. The Argos have a number of rookies and first-year Argos on their team, including the head coach himself.
“As of right now I don’t feel any different than I did the day before a week ago when we played Hamilton, but when you come on that field for a playoff game you sense and you can feel the finality of loser’s out, so I’m no different than Ricky,” said Milanovich, who endured a 9-9 season in his first year as head coach.
“There’s going to be some anxious moments and coaches get nervous and anxious, that’s why we do it too because we love that competitive feeling that you get to be in the playoffs so I do think it’ll feel a little bit different tomorrow.”
Still, Ray will be the one in the spotlight, for a number of reasons. Not only does his team’s playoff fate likely rest on his throwing arm, but so does the fate of his former team, the Eskimos.
“For me, I have a lot of memories there, I know a lot of the guys there” said Ray. “Having two games against them in the regular season helps get most of that out of the way.”