EDMONTON — The Edmonton Eskimos look to continue their strong start to the season on Friday night, as they play their home opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Commonwealth Stadium.
Esks fans enjoyed a pretty good preview of what could be to come in 2014 following last weekend’s 27-20 win on the road against the BC Lions, and now they’ll have a chance to see up close and personal just how much this team improved since a forgettable 2013.
“It’s important to win one game at a time but when you have your home opener, you have a chance to show your fans what you worked on all off-season,” starting quarterback Mike Reilly told Esks.com. “We’re looking forward to putting that product on the field here in Commonwealth in front of our fans on Friday night and showing them what this season’s going to be all about.”
It’s hard in any league to win on the road, and the Eskimos did that in style in Week 1 thanks to a come from behind win in one of the most difficult places to play in the league, BC Place.
They trailed from the very first drive all the way through the first half, but as a result of forcing five turnovers and getting timely big plays on offence, the Green and Gold battled back and held on in the fourth to start the season with a win.
But shortly after passing their first big test of the season, they face another significant challenge in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Highlighted by the fact that the Eskimos won just one game at Commonwealth a season ago, there’s a huge emphasis on being better at home.
“This is a new season with a fresh start and a chance to show our fan base that this is a team moving in the right direction,” Reilly said. “I think we’re gonna be able to do that on Friday night and we’re excited to play in front of our home crowd.”
“You want to make Commonwealth a place where people know when they come in here, they’re leaving with a loss.”
While the team already made a bold statement with its win over the favoured Lions, the Eskimos are aware that it wasn’t perfect – that ultimately they still have a number of things to improve upon. But the early signs are encouraging.
Against one of the most ferocious front-sevens in the league, Reilly was able to stay on his feet through most of the game while surrendering just three sacks. Meanwhile, Adarius Bowman picked up right where he left off near the end of 2013, racking up big yards after the catch and leading the team with nine receptions for 105 yards.
Most important though was winning the turnover battle as the Eskimos now sit at a plus-four turnover rating entering their second game of the season after having a minus-fifteen for the 2013 season.
Head Coach Chris Jones in his first season with the team said at least five minutes every practice are dedicated to forcing turnovers, which in turn also teaches offensive players to protect the football better as the defence tries to steal possession.
“I think it’s extremely important,” Jones said of winning the turnover battle. “That coupled with penalties, I think that’s one of the most important stats you can have is the ability to take the ball away from the opponents.”
“Any time you can make that many turnovers you usually have a chance to win the game.”
The next target for Jones will be a familiar opponent, as Zach Collaros takes the reins for a Ticat offence that was under pressure all game long in a Week 1 loss to the Roughriders. Jones was the defensive coordinator with the Argos last season when Collaros started eight games and won five of them, and he’s not about to read too far into the Ticats’ slow start.
“Zach Collaros has won a lot of football games over his career, both in high school, college, and now professional,” Jones said. “We won a bunch of games with him last year, he’s certainly a big-time competitor, you know he’s gonna move and throw on the run, and he’s the ultimate leader.”
“We’ll have our hands full.”
As the Ticats get set to play a second straight road game to open the season for the first time in its history, it won’t get any easier against an Eskimo team eager to play in its home-opener.
The last time they met
Last Meeting: Friday, August 2, 2013 Hamilton 30, Edmonton 29 Henry Burris threw two touchdown passes to Greg Ellingson, while a late Eskimos’ rally fell just short as the Ticats held on for a 30-29 win over the Esks at Commonwealth Stadium. » Read more.
If the Ticats are going to bounce back with an all-important win, second-year head coach and general manager Kent Austin said it starts with the line of scrimmage, particularly after Collaros was sacked 10 times by an aggressive Rider defence.
“The old adage is true, you have to win at the line on both sides of the ball,” Austin told Ticats.ca. “That’s where it starts and that’s where it ends.”
All of the hype coming into the season was on the plethora of dynamic playmakers lining up on offence, including breakout running back C.J. Gable and newly-acquired receiver Cary Koch, plus of course Collaros himself. When a defence can disrupt the line of scrimmage, like the Riders defensive line did last weekend, the playmakers have little impact.
“The playmakers and the skill guys have no opportunity to go out and make plays if we don’t control the line of scrimmage,” Austin added.
Austin praised his team’s ability to protect the football in all the chaos, especially considering the constant downpour throughout the entire game. Then, on the other hand, he pointed to a lack of discipline as an issue after the team was flagged 17 times for 148 yards in penalties.
“We’re going to have to get way more disciplined, especially on the kick team,” Austin told the team’s official site. “That’s on me and the coaches, to make sure the individual players are disciplined.”
“We want them to play hard, but to play between the whistles.”
On the defensive side of things, the big focus will be containing Reilly, now immersed in his second season as the Eskimos’ starting quarterback. In his first full season as a starter Reilly finished second in the league in passing yards, and he’s expected to take his game a step further following an off-season of hard work.
Austin is quite wary of the kind of damage Reilly is capable of inflicting.
“He’s a real good quarterback, I’m a big fan of his,” Austin said. “He’s very accurate, got a strong arm, he’s very competitive.”
“He makes plays, he’s a natural playmaker,” he continued. “He can pull the ball down and run if he needs to. So it is a great challenge for a defence, but one of the ways to counter a great quarterback is to collapse the pocket and get hits on him.”
Consider that the key for the Ticats’ defence, after registering just one sack on Darian Durant a week ago in Regina.
Last week the Eskimos delivered BC just its third loss in 23 games since re-opening BC Place back in September 2011.
The Eskimos have now won two straight against Western opponents following a 10-game losing streak.
The last four head coaches for Edmonton, including Chris Jones, started their coaching career with a win in their first game.
The Esks’ four interceptions were the most they’ve had in a single game since September, 2010 against the Argos, when they had six.
Mike Reilly improved to 6-15 in his career last weekend, throwing three touchdown passes against his former club. It marked his fifth three-touchdown game in 21 starts.
The Ticats suffered three losses by 20 or more points last season, bouncing back with wins on two of those three occasions.
After falling behind 24-1 at the half, Hamilton improved in the second half by allowing just 91 yards of net offence and forcing five two-and-outs.