VANCOUVER — The BC Lions are ready to tackle a new-look division rival on Saturday evening, as they welcome Chris Jones and the Edmonton Eskimos to BC Place to kick off their 2014 regular season.
Following a dominant pre-season in which they outscored Calgary and Edmonton by a combined 51-24, they appear to be in mid-season form despite being without star quarterback and former Most Outstanding Player Travis Lulay.
It was announced on Friday that Lulay has been placed on the six-game injured list, which means the Lions will have to find a way to continue down that road with long-time veteran Kevin Glenn at the helm.
“Right now we need him to grab a hold of the reins and get it done for us,” third-year head coach Mike Benevides told BCLions.com following the team’s 37-13 win over Calgary, Glenn’s former team, to close out the pre-season.
“Kevin’s a pro and Kevin’s a champion and he’s getting it done – fortunately for us he’s here and I think the backup quarterbacks have done a nice job with us.”
Glenn echoed his coach’s confidence with an outstanding performance in his final action before the regular season, completing 17 of 21 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown.
Now after an off-season of uncertainty – he was selected by Ottawa in the expansion draft then traded to BC after the REDBLACKS acquired Henry Burris – he’s suddenly the main man at the helm of a team trying to reach the Grey Cup as the host city.
It’s hardly a new situation for the 35-year-old, now with his seventh CFL team if you include the Argos and REDBLACKS – both of which he never actually suited up for. Two years ago he stepped in for the Stamps during the second week of the season when Drew Tate went down, helping Calgary finish 12-6.
That year he stepped in again in the playoffs to lead the Stamps to an upset in in the West Final over BC, earning a start in the 100th Grey Cup Championship in Toronto.
Last season wasn’t all that different as Glenn started the majority of games for Calgary once again in relief for Tate, attempting 335 passes and throwing 18 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions, along with a quarterback rating of 100.5.
He did enough to help the Stampeders win the most games in the CFL, and now that he’s in BC he’ll look to provide similar leadership as he fills in for the injured Lulay. For a quarterback that no one seems to want as their starter, he sure plays a lot – and wins a lot, too.
“Kevin Glenn, he and I have gone against each other numerous times since way back and he’s won a lot of football games for a reason,” said Eskimos first-year head coach Chris Jones. “There are a lot of people vying for his quarterbacking abilities for a reason.”
“He knows where to go with the football, he doesn’t take a lot of sacks, he gets the ball out of his hands and that’s why they have him.”
Glenn meanwhile has a chance to once again prove everyone wrong, but more than that he’s just excited to play.
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“It’s been a long off-season for me to not know what was going to happen, but now I know what’s going to happen and I’m eager to get back on the field,” said Glenn.
Above all he’s excited to contribute to a team expected to contend for the Grey Cup this season, especially considering it’s in Vancouver. The Lions have been one of the league’s most dominant teams over the past decade, but despite strong campaigns in 2012 and 2013 they fell short in the playoffs.
“I’m a firm believer in this is the ultimate team sport,” Glenn said. “So you need everybody working towards one goal in order to be successful.”
For Benevides after a great training camp and pre-season, the urgency truly kicks in now.
“Now it’s real, all that other stuff to this point was a great process, part of the journey we have to go through and now we have 186 days of excellence that we need to capitalize on.”
As hungry as the Lions are to excel in the year they’re hosting the Grey Cup, the Eskimos are eager to match them when it comes to intensity. Responsible for that is Jones, now a head coach for the first time after serving as the Argos’ defensive coordinator for two seasons.
Practice harder than you’ll ever play in a game is the mantra for the Eskimos, and so far everyone’s buying in.
“Coach Jones has definitely built an environment we feel comfortable in, and if our hardest days are in practice the games will be just a walkthrough,” National receiver Shamawd Chambers told Esks.com. “At the end of the day camp was tough, but it built us for what we’re about to face this entire year.”
Quarterback Mike Reilly, entering his second season as a starter for Edmonton, said aggression is the best word to sum up the team’s new coach and in turn, its new identity. Jones, when asked what kind of team he hopes the Eskimos will be, echoed that.
“I think the biggest thing is you’re going to see us work,” Jones said. “We’re definitely going to work, we’re going to play for four quarters, and we’re going to be aggressive in all three phases and that’s the way we play.”
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Actions speak louder than words, and the Green and Gold will have an excellent opportunity to personify their coach’s expectations on Saturday – on the road against a team they’ve struggled mightily to conquer.
The Esks have lost eight of their previous nine meetings with BC, and were swept in all three appearances last season on the way to a four-win season. There were positives though, including the passing game, where Reilly emerged as one of the game’s brightest young stars and built major chemistry with his receiving corps.
This season the team returns many of its top weapons and a more experienced Reilly, to go with a rebuilt offensive line and a new-look coaching staff. Reilly said he believes the difference will be clear from the get-go.
“Definitely I think we’re a better team now for sure,” he said. “Our focus is Saturday against BC, but I think we’re going to field a good football team this year and we definitely have high expectations for ourselves.”
Last season Reilly threw for 4,207 yards and 24 touchdowns, putting up a quarterback rating of 86.9 despite throwing 18 interceptions. He has a big arm and the ability to also make plays with his legs, and if the offence can take a step forward it could become elite.
In the end Reilly is focused more on Saturday’s opener than setting season goals, in which lies a tremendous first test of 2014.
“The things have changed quite a bit but it’s no different going back to Vancouver every time, we’ll be indoors, it’s probably gonna be closed, it’s probably gonna be raining and it’s gonna be loud so we’re gonna be ready,” he said.
– The Lions open their 61st CFL season, and have made the playoffs 17 straight years.
– Mike Benevides is 24-12 in two seasons, which matches the first two campaigns for current GM Wally Buono when he was head coach.
– With the addition of Stefan Logan late last season, the Lions posted rushing totals of 93, 220, and 179 to close out the regular season, before putting up 213 in a playoff loss to the Roughriders.
– The Lions have won five in a row against Edmonton and eight of the last nine.
– Veteran receivers Emmanuel Arceneaux and Marco Iannuzzi join Lulay on the injured list and will miss the opener.
– Kevin Glenn is 81-72-1 all-time as a starter, and will become the Lions’ 57th different quarterback to start a game.
– The Eskimos are the best all-time in season openers, going 40-26-1 in opening games.
– JC. Sherritt will miss Saturday’s game for Edmonton; the Eskimos were 0-8 when he didn’t play last season and 4-6 when he did.
– Chris Jones’ coaching debut makes him the 21st head coach in team history.
– The Eskimos have only missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons once in team history, and have been in the post-season 54 times out of 67 seasons.
– Mike Reilly is 5-15 as a starter thus far, but in his previous visit to BC Place he threw for 321 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Kickoff is at 6:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live here with CFL.ca Gamecast.
– With files from BCLions.com/Esks.com