OTTAWA -- The Ottawa REDBLACKS return to the Nation’s Capital on Friday night searching for an important home win, as they host the Edmonton Eskimos at TD Place in Week 8 action.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the expansion team this season, which despite a strong weekly effort from players and coaches hasn’t yet produced the results fans hoped for when the season first started.
Still well in contention for a playoff spot and perhaps even a division title this season, Head Coach Rick Campbell and quarterback Henry Burris know they’ll have to engineer a momentum swing pretty soon if those aspirations are going to come to fruition.
For Campbell, though, the answer isn’t to simply try harder.
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“I really don't think it's a question of want with our guys,” the former Stampeders Defensive Coordinator told OttawaREDBLACKS.com. “Our guys want to win for the fans, for our owners, for everybody.”
“We feel like we owe it to the city and the whole region.”
For the second straight week against a strong Western opponent, the REDBLACKS were forced to play from behind early on, this time giving up 21 points in the second quarter and trailing 28-7 at the half.
Against a Stamps team looking to bounce back from its first loss of the season the week before, the offence went two-and-out on four of its first five possessions and managed just four first downs in the entire first half.
A touchdown on a short field off a Bo Levi Mitchell interception late in the half gave Ottawa some life heading to the third quarter, before a 32-yard touchdown pass from Burris to Wallace Miles made it a 17-point game. But in the end the hole was just too deep for the REDBLACKS to come all the way back.
Set to face yet another Western powerhouse for the third week in a row, Ottawa must avoid making mistakes early in order to avoid another slow start. That means as opposed to trying harder, the REDBLACKS must focus on playing smarter.
“Sometimes we're just trying too hard,” Campbell said. “We need to make sure we try smarter, not just try harder.”
“If we clean up some stuff, it will give us a chance to win some games.”
It won’t come easy against a surging Eskimo team coming off an impressive 33-23 win over the Montreal Alouettes last weekend. The Esks, winners of just four games a year ago, have already eclipsed that total with five wins in six tries.
Third in the league in scoring and first in almost every defensive category including yards allowed, first downs, and pass defence, Edmonton under rookie head coach Chris Jones has few holes in its game. Looking to reverse a trend that’s seen Western teams dominate the East to the tune of a 16-3 record thus far, the REDBLACKS’ margin for error will be slim.
“The West has been the best for as long as I've been in the league and you're starting to see it again,” Burris, 39, pointed out. “Towards the middle of the season you're going to see the teams in the East make their moves and then start to get it together.”
With the Argos earning one of those three wins on Tuesday over the Bombers and extending their lead in the East, now would be the perfect time for Burris and company to make a move of their own. The REDBLACKS play four of their next five games against Western foes, finish their regular season slate with four straight against the East.
If they’re still in contention by then anything can happen, which means for now the focus has to be on playing smarter and beating the Eskimos.
“We need to focus better,” said running back Chevon Walker, the only player in the league to lead his club in rushing, yards from scrimmage, and combined yards this season. “Just do your assignment and don't try to do too much.”
“I think we'll be fine,” he continued. “We need to be confident, go out there and play ball.”
“Like Coach said, it's not an effort thing, it's just playing smarter.”
The attitude is a little bit different for the Eskimos, who bounced back from their first loss of the season and ensuing bye week with an important road win over the Alouettes. In a bit of a rarity in football they’ve spent the entire week on the road since, bonding and getting ready for what’s ahead.
“It’s been a great trip, our guys have bonded pretty tight and it’s nice to get back out here on the field,” quarterback Mike Reilly told Esks.com. The team toured Parliament Hill on Sunday before getting right back to business with a practice in humid conditions and 30-degree weather on Monday in Gatineau, Que.
“The mark of our team is that we kind of hate days off,” he continued. “You need to have them and we enjoy them, but when we come back the first day after a break you see the excitement and guys are ready to play football.”
That sounds like that attitude of a winning team, something the Eskimos have become this season after enduring some growing pains with a younger roster a year ago.
This season everything’s gone right, as the emergence of Reilly as an elite quarterback combined with an aggressive playmaking defence have powered the Green and Gold to a first-place standing through seven weeks of play.
Most telling may have been the team’s response to its loss to Calgary three weeks ago, jumping out to a 30-5 lead at halftime against the Alouettes. Then of course as a reminder that they’re still a young team with plenty to improve upon, they caught the ire of their coach by easing up on the gas a little and being outscored 15-3 in the second half.
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Adarius Bowman scored a hat-trick of majors in the second half to help guide the Edmonton Eskimos to their third-straight win to start the season, 27-11 over the Ottawa REDBLACKS.
“We played the first half real well, if you could carry the first half to the second half it’d be great but unfortunately we came out flat in the second half and let a good football team hang around,” Jones said. “It was a little bit closer than it should have been.”
Reilly, who attempted just six passes in the second half and completed three of them, agreed with his coach’s assessment.
“We were still disappointed in the second half after watching it on tape,” said the second-year Eskimo, who finished with 206 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 15-21 passing, to go with one interception.
“It’s not like we were terrible, but we had a few opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of and had we done that early in the third quarter we felt like that would have been a blowout football game,” he continued. “We’ve gotta clean up a few of those things and we’re still learning every single week.”
“I think the next time we’re in that situation we’ll know exactly what to do and what not to do, and we’ll be better for it.”
Reilly is right, the Eskimos are learning every single week, and on Friday night will get their next test against a team they managed to overcome in the second half, 27-11 back on July 11th. Jones attributes that win to his team’s physicality, adding that more of the same will be required this weekend.
“We were physical, I think that’s probably the biggest thing is we’re a physical football team and we kept staying at it, we knew we had to keep grinding and that’s the thing I felt we took away from that ballgame,” Jones told the team’s official website.
“They’re a good football team, don’t get it twisted,” he continued. “They haven’t won many football games this year but at the same time they’ve been in every single game.”
Kickoff is at 7:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from OttawaREDBLACKS.com/Esks.com
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