CALGARY -- The Battle of Alberta commences for the third time this month, capping off a Friday night double-header as the Eskimos and Stampeders meet at McMahon Stadium.
It’s a rivalry that didn’t need any more fuel on the fire, but the Esks added even more intrigue heading into an important West Division duel by announcing on Thursday that Matt Nichols would be making his first career CFL start.
|Related: Eskimos at Stampeders|
The 25-year-old pivot has been hailed as the future of the Eskimos organization for a while now, and with Kerry Joseph and Steven Jyles dinged up, fans will get to see what the hype’s all about as the Green and Gold look to climb back in the division race with what would be an enormous win.
“We feel confident that Matt has enough understanding of the offence,” said Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed, now in his second season with the team. “He has enough skill sets to be able to go out and guide and lead this offence. We know that he’s a very smart individual and that he will do things the smart way.”
The young pivot had a brief but impressive regular season debut two weeks ago in Hamilton, when he entered the game in the third quarter with his team trailing 37-8 and in one drive moved the ball deep into striking distance.
He wound up throwing two touchdown passes on the same drive, but in a flurry of penalties on consecutive plays, neither would stand. He was forced out of the game shortly after, following a hard tackle while scrambling to move the chains.
Nichols does have one touchdown that has counted this season. While holding for a field goal attempt, the product of Eastern Washington corralled a bad snap and threw a 35-yard touchdown to Corbin Sharun during the Labour Day rematch against Calgary on September 7.
While he’s looked good in spot duty as a backup, though, Nichols will now be judged on his ability to take advantage of a full week of reps. But with the added benefit of being a start also comes pressure, as the defence also has time to prepare.
Still, Nichols said he expects he’ll perform better with a week of first-team reps.
“I think when you can take a full week to prepare, you know what they are going to be throwing at you, you know what plays you’re going to be running,” Nichols said. “I think that’s a lot better than getting thrown in and having no pressure. I’d rather have the week to prepare.”
The Eskimos hope that fresh blood at quarterback will provide a spark. The play of Jyles wasn’t exactly problematic for the Green and Gold in last week’s heartbreaking 19-18 loss to the Lions at home.
After all, the agile pivot completed 12-straight passes in the first half, leading his team to an impressive 15-3 edge out of the game. But the Lions roared back in typical fashion, dominating the second half in time of possession and finally getting into the end zone halfway through the fourth quarter on a Geroy Simon touchdown.
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|» Armstead prepped to make Stampeders debut
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While Jyles finished the game with 222 yards on 17-27 passing, his struggles in the second half combined with a running attack that continues to flounder led the Eskimos to a season-high fourth straight loss.
In the end though, it’s barely mattered who’s at quarterback for the Esks, at least over the past month. Both Joseph and Jyles have played well at times, but it hasn’t been enough.
In two games against the Stamps at the beginning of the month, Joseph combined for 44-62 passing with 586 yards and three touchdowns to just one interception.
Normally, that would be enough to give a quarterback a pair of wins – but the Stamps squeaked out both games on missed field goals, albeit long ones, from Grant Shaw.
The Esks currently occupy a playoff spot by virtue of an East Division crossover, which as of now would pit them against former pivot Ricky Ray and the Argos in round one of the playoffs. But the Ticats won’t be willing to give up their spot in the division, while the Bombers aren’t out of the picture yet either.
In any case, the Esks control their own destiny, and with a win against Calgary on Friday would sit just one game out of second place in the West Division. That’s how quickly things change in the CFL, especially if Nichols can go in and provide a spark.
The Stamps know all too well how quickly things can change, too. After winning four straight games and five of their last six, the Red and White headed into Saskatchewan just a single game out of top spot in the West Division.
But a close loss in Riderville gave the Lions some space at the top, while making things a little bit tighter in the West. Only two games separate second and fourth place in the division, and with six games to go in the season and four against West Division teams, including two each against BC and Edmonton, anything goes in the Wild West.
“Since I’ve been here, every season it always comes down to these last few games,” said Calgary Stampeders’ linebacker Malik Jackson, towel draped over his head to ward off a spitting rain descending on McMahon Stadium on Monday late afternoon. “Always. Never fails. All the games count, but this is when it really counts.”
Last Sunday may have displayed Calgary’s season in a microcosm; an emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs, with everything coming down to the wire.
Both teams exchanged leads twice early on, before going into the break tied at 10 apiece. But in the third quarter, the wheels started to fall off the visiting Stamps, outscored 17-3 in that quarter alone by a surging Rider offence.
|The last time they met|
Friday, September 7, 2012
Stampeders 20, Eskimos 18
Jon Cornish ran for a 59-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, while Grant Shaw hit the upright on a long field goal attempt as the Stamps held on for another tight win over their provincial rival, 20-18 at Commonwealth Stadium. Cornish had 185 yards on the ground to go with a touchdown, while Kevin Glenn threw for 254 yards and one touchdown as the Stamps held off a late Kerry Joseph surge for their second straight win over the Eskimos, sweeping the Labour Day series.
Then in the fourth, it looked like the Red and White would mount a comeback – just to come up short in the end, thwarted by a great effort from the Rider defence to close out the game.
It was another strong battle between these two teams, who finished within a touchdown of each other in all three games this season – but it’s one the Stamps will have to erase from their memory quickly, given the upcoming stretch of games.
October is just about in the air for Calgary, as regular season games begin to feel like an extension of the playoffs with all-important positioning up for grabs.
“Finish strong. That’s the nature of this league,” lectures cornerback Keon Raymond. “You want to hit your peak heading into the playoffs. How many times has that been proven to be the winning recipe in the past?
“It’s going to come down to the team that’s best prepared,” the defensive back continues. “You’re playing guys, teams, three or four times, so the team that knows its opponent best is the one that has the upper hand. Guys are going to have the intensity at this time of year. That’s a given. But preparation now, at this stage, is what can give you the separation you need.”
The first two matchups between these heated rivals are likely still fresh in the minds of each and every coach and player on the rosters. With playoffs on the line and already one of the nastiest rivalries in the league to build on, we could be in for quite a classic in the Battle of Alberta.
Kickoff is at 10:00 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
|2||Blue Bombers||DE||Mulumba, Andy|
|3||Alouettes via EDM||LB||Edem, Mike|