CALGARY -- The Calgary Stampeders look to bounce back from their first loss of the season on Saturday night at McMahon Stadium, as they host the Ottawa REDBLACKS along with a few familiar faces.
With many former Stamps both on the roster and coaching staff heading into the season, expansion Ottawa is evidently looking to replicate what’s made the Stampeders so successful over the past decade. This weekend the REDBLACKS get a first-hand glimpse of how they measure up.
But as former Stamps’ quarterback Henry Burris along with Head Coach Rick Campbell and Offensive Coordinator Mike Gibson return to Cowtown looking to make a statement against their old club, no one is looking at the parallels as everyone is keen on getting a much-needed win.
“It’ll be good to see those guys pre-game, talk it out a little bit and chat a little bit,” Bo Levi Mitchell, asked about facing former teammates and coaches, told Stampeders.com. “But once you step on the field, they’re wearing the wrong colour.”
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“No matter what once you step on the field friends are off, it’s just you on the battlefield and you and your teammates going out there and trying to get a win.”
The Stamps aren’t in a particularly good mood coming into Week 7 following their first loss of the season, 25-24 against the BC Lions, at home no less. But in light of what’s made this franchise one of the league’s best over the past decade, the players and coaches aren’t in any state of panic.
Instead they’ve shifted their focus to being prepared for the next one and making sure it doesn’t happen again.
“You never want to lose at home, you expect to win every single game at home and then you’ve gotta take a couple on the road,” Mitchell said after suffering his first career loss as a starter. “So giving one away at home when we were ahead, I felt the entire time we were in control of the game; there were just some small things in the end that we let go.”
It was a result some might’ve seen coming, given that the offence had dried up a little bit since the team’s explosion out of the gate over the first two weeks of the season. The Stamps after all got by on just a single touchdown in a 10-7 win over Hamilton in Week 4, aided by a botched game-tying field goal attempt by the Ticats late in the game.
The following week some big plays on defence and special teams lifted Calgary to a 26-22 road win over the previously-unbeaten Eskimos, despite Mitchell only amassing 124 yards through the air on 14-29 passing.
The Stamps had a perfect record but were far from perfect and against the Lions just three points in the entire second half and a pair of long fourth-quarter touchdown drives against marked the breaking point.
“We didn’t play as well in the second half as we did in the first half,” Head Coach and General Manager John Hufnagel said. “I thought we had some chances in the third quarter to do a little bit more damage, put some more points on the board, but that didn’t occur.”
“BC’s a good football team and they’re resilient, they came back and make a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter,” he continued. “We had a little bit of time left on the clock to do something, and we marched the ball but unfortunately had a turnover.”
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In the end it could be what jump-starts this Calgary offence, which has shown glimpses of being something prolific. The same applies for Mitchell, whose play has tailed off slightly since those impressive first two weeks.
“He had a good first two games, he was as good as anybody those first two,” said Offensive Coordinator Dave Dickenson. “If you start breaking down every game like ‘was he good or not good’, it’s too long a season for that – I just want to see him take the coaching and not make the same mistakes.”
Outside of getting Mitchell and the offence back to where it was a month ago, Hufnagel also has to be mindful of a REDBLACKS offence that hasn’t broken out just yet, but is capable of doing so at any moment – especially with a prolific passer like Burris leading the offence
The 39-year-old isn’t off to his usual quick start to the season, but he’s approaching 53,000 passing yards in his career and has thrown at least 20 touchdown passes in 10 straight CFL seasons dating back to 2004.
Ottawa hopes this will be the game Burris and the REDBLACKS offence lights up the scoreboard, while Hufnagel, very familiar with Burris’ ability as his former coach, wants no part in that.
“They throw the ball deep, we know that he can extend the plays and we know that he’s a savvy veteran that understands defences and does a good job reading defences,” Hufnagel said. “We have to do things to get him nervous, that’s how you try to play against good quarterbacks – make sure they can’t get into a good rhythm and try to hurt the timing of the plays.”
While the REDBLACKS weren’t the beneficiary of a perfect start to the season like Calgary, they’re no worse off in their respective division standings sitting just two points back of the first-place Argos with a game in hand.
They’re looking to bounce back from a 38-14 loss to the Riders last weekend in which they went down 24-0 in the first quarter, but outside of that woeful start the team felt it bounced back pretty well – something Burris and Campbell hope they can carry into Saturday’s trip out West.
“Sometimes you do have a bad day at the office and we had that,” Campbell told OttawaREDBLACKS.com. “Sometimes you will have a bad day and it’s not an excuse. We just seemed out of sorts to start and then seemed to regain ourselves later on.”
Two-and-out, interception, interception, and punt were the REDBLACKS’ first four possessions, and the Riders made them pay with three touchdowns and a field goal in response. The Riders, both Campbell and Burris conceded, were the Grey Cup Champions last season for a reason.
But a visit to Calgary could only be trickier, against a team similarly looking to get back in the win column. With the Argos stagnant this weekend and Ottawa still looking to make a move in the East, Saturday’s game could be a pretty good measuring stick – not only of whether the team will compete for a division title this season, but what kind of character this group possesses.
For Burris, last weekend was a wake-up call and now it’s time to kick it into gear.
“If there’s any time you need a reality check it’s after this game,” Burris told the team’s official website following the loss to Saskatchewan. “It just wasn’t one or two plays like it’s been in previous games for us, where if we make that play the game can go in a different direction.”
“With this one here there were so many opportunities to close the gap and make plays and put ourselves in positions to score touchdowns, and we missed them.”
Now, he added, it’s up to the team to make the best of a difficult start and rise to the occasion the rest of the way.
“We’re really gonna challenge ourselves because we got our butts kicked,” he continued. “Everybody’s frustrated, we’re embarrassed about that and we’re gonna see what type of team we are bouncing back.”
The REDBLACKS have plenty to be optimistic about given their level of talent, both on the field and in the coaching staff. They’ve done things this season to have people believe they can get the ship turned around.
But before too long moral victories will get tiresome as the team continues to eye a successful first year with top spot in the division still well within reach.
“We just need to have each other’s backs,” Campbell added. "We just need to re-group and focus on Calgary.”
“We’ve played a lot of good football this year and I’m a believer in the people in that room,” the rookie head coach continued. “We have a lot of good coaches and players and I don’t think that was reflected, especially early in that game.”
Kickoff is at 7:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live with CFL.ca Gamecast.
- With files from Stampeders.com/OttawaREDBLACKS.com