EDMONTON -- The Edmonton Eskimos are putting their perfect start to the season on the line on Friday night, as they host the expansion Ottawa REDBLACKS at Commonwealth Stadium.
Riding an early-season wave of momentum following an off-season of change, the Eskimos appear well-tuned under first-year head coach Chris Jones. Now they’ll look to assert themselves even more in what’s expected to be a highly-competitive West Division as they take on another difficult foe.
One thing’s certain, that following clutch last-minute wins against the Lions and Tiger-Cats, the Eskimos aren’t about to let up against an Ottawa team gunning for its first win since re-joining the CFL this season.
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“I don’t look at them as an expansion team,” quarterback Mike Reilly told Esks.com. “With the amount of vets they have and the coaching staff, they’re a veteran team and I think they showed that when they went out and played last week.”
Reilly was referring to how the REDBLACKS stormed out to a 21-7 lead by the end of the first quarter and led through the majority of the contest, before surrendering 16 fourth-quarter points on the way to a 36-28 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Ottawa indeed looked like anything but an expansion team despite the loss and that, added to the unfamiliarity involved with a brand new franchise, has both Reilly and Jones preparing for just about anything.
“We’ve spent a lot of time watching last week’s film, I assure you,” Jones said. “We’ve watched that film over and over, I’ve almost got it memorized on all three phases.”
“You have to know some of the background of the people that are calling the plays and you have a general idea as to what they like to do and what their philosophies are.”
The Eskimos have no room for complacency. They won their first two games by a combined 11 points thanks to fourth-quarter comebacks, which is amazing considering they were outgained and outrushed in both games while generating only a single touchdown drive on offence.
Leading the league by far in turnover ratio at plus-seven, timely defensive plays have played the biggest role in the team’s 2-0 start, such as when Patrick Watkins stripped the ball from Jeremiah Masoli in the fourth quarter last game and returned it for a 50-yard touchdown.
That touchdown would put the Esks within striking distance and not long after they took their first lead since the second quarter thanks to a field goal from Grant Shaw. Another defensive turnover would help the Esks build on the lead with another field goal.
“We’ve got a whole team full of winners,” Watkins said. “Nobody around here likes to quit, and that’s a great thing when you’re playing with a team that doesn’t give up and doesn’t quit.”
“We’re always trying to find a way to score points and put our offence in a better position, and when you start to think like that a lot of times you’re heading in a better direction.”
Taking advantage of the shorter field and ultimately sustaining drives is something the offence will look to improve upon this weekend. The Eskimos rank sixth in the league in average offence per game at 295.5 after last year featuring one of the CFL’s most dynamic units.
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Finding ways to stay on the field longer is the key, Jones said.
“Whether it means throwing a screen or maxing up and throwing deep, whether it means we hand the football off, we’re going to stay on the football field.”
The worst of it has come in the running game, where the Esks rank at the bottom with 67.5 yards per game on the ground despite sitting fifth in attempts. The team removed Hugh Charles from the fold in training camp, and so far Tyler Thomas has struggled to fill the void.
Getting the opportunity to right the ship on Friday will be returning back John White, who finished with 260 yards in a backup role a year ago. The Eskimos seem to believe the 23-year-old has a lot of potential, and has shown improvement since the end of last season.
“He’s playing with confidence,” Reilly said. “He runs hard, he’s a strong running back and his size running north and south is something people are going to take notice of.”
“But he’s been working hard in the other aspects of his game, catching the ball, protecting in the passing game which are both very important to our offence obviously.”
Critical to that success, Jones admits, will be patience.
“I think any time you have a new offence, you don’t abandon anything,” Jones said. “You continue to try to do the things that you know work, and you look at all the successful teams over the last few years, they’ve been able to run the football.”
“So we’re going to keep banging at it.”
While the Eskimos look to keep the ball rolling at home, the REDBLACKS are feeling no shortage of urgency as they enter their second league game since entering the league. While getting win number one is the top priority, a number of Edmonton connections should inspire a bold effort from the visiting side.
Linebacker T.J. Hill will play his first game against the former club following five seasons with Edmonton, all of which saw him record at least 60 tackles.
“I’m always fired up to just have the opportunity to play,” he said in an interview with the Canadian Press.
The 34-year-old said he was disappointed with the team’s loss to Winnipeg in its season-opener last weekend, after the REDBLACKS were outscored 16-3 in the fourth quarter on the way to a disheartening 36-28 defeat.
“I'm not going to give you the politically correct answer,” Hill said in practice this week. “No disrespect to the Blue Bombers but we definitely feel like we let that one slip away.”
“We've got to finish, and there are no excuses.”
Battles between those on the sideline also highlight this Week 3 clash, as rookie head coaches Jones and Rick Campbell used to coach in Calgary together. Jones is looking forward to the showdown.
“He’s an extremely smart guy, he’s worked on both sides of the football,” Jones said of this week’s coaching rival. “He’s very calm, very studious, and he’s a hard worker.”
“When you play against someone you’ve been on the same staff with, it’s always interesting to go against them.”
Ottawa’s defensive coordinator Mark Nelson, meanwhile, was Edmonton’s defensive coordinator in 2012. Yet the one with the most to prove for the REDBLACKS may be receiver Marcus Henry, as he looks to show the Eskimos that they made a mistake in cutting him at the end of last season.
“At first, no, I wasn't OK with it. It was a surprise to me, too,” Henry said ahead of his return to Commonwealth. “But coming through the locker-room after I got released, the guys picking me up and stuff, I got over it pretty quick.”
“Whenever you get released by a team and you go back and play them, there's always a chip on your shoulder.”
The revenge aspect should provide a boost, but in the end the biggest key for the REDBLACKS will be winning the turnover battle against a team that’s been head and shoulders above everyone else in that department.
They turned the ball over only once against the Bombers, and that’s what gave them the edge through the majority of the contest. A repeat of that and the REDBLACKS will likely be getting their first win in the CFL.
“We need to take care of the football,” said Campbell.
Kickoff is at 10:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from The Canadian Press and Esks.com.