CALGARY -- The most highly-anticipated Labour Day bout in years is set to kick off in Alberta on Monday afternoon, as the Edmonton Eskimos visit McMahon Stadium for a clash with the Calgary Stampeders.
With both teams combining for a 14-2 record through the first two months of the season, a true classic could be in store for these Western rivals who haven’t started this well since 1993, when the 9-0 Stamps battled the 6-3 Esks.
“I’m excited, it’s gonna be a fun game and it’s gonna be a battle,” Stamps quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell told Stampeders.com. “The battle for the West starts.”
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Both teams have feasted on East Division opponents thus far, with six of Calgary’s eight games coming against Eastern teams, all of which the Stamps have turned into wins. The Eskimos meanwhile have similarly swept their five matchups against Eastern opponents, and now as the halfway point approaches the games only get bigger.
“A lot of East games early on, but getting to play these guys, they’ve been playing really well on defence,” said Mitchell of the Eskimos’ defence, which has surrendered the second-fewest points in the CFL behind only Calgary.
“We just have to make sure we go out and play great against a defence that’s creating a lot of turnovers and playing with a lot of momentum, so we have to come out and make the first strike.”
The Stampeders enter the weekend playing their best football of the season while also getting healthier. Last weekend they took care of business on the road against the REDBLACKS, scoring three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away with a 32-7 win.
The offence didn’t exactly shoot the lights out, but combined with a dominant defensive effort did enough to lead the Stampeders to their third wire-to-wire win over the last five games. In 300 minutes over the last four games, meanwhile, the Stamps have trailed for only 17:53.
This comes on the heels of Jon Cornish and Joe West’s return to the lineup, while this week the Stamps get another key game-breaker back on the offence in Maurice Price. West chipped in with a game-high 129 receiving yards against the REDBLACKS on four catches, while Cornish and Price both add explosiveness to a Stamps offence that hasn’t yet hit full stride.
“I thought Jon played well, he got better as the game progressed,” Head Coach and General Manager John Hufnagel said of Cornish, after last year’s Most Outstanding Player and Canadian rushed for 74 yards on 16 carries.
“I thought there’d be a bit of a getting back in the game type of adjustment for him but I was pleased with the way he consistently improved,” he continued. “He started to see the holes better and he ran with a little bit more authority – all the things you expect from Jon.”
Price meanwhile hasn’t played since Week 1 when he left the game during a season-opening win over the Alouettes. Yet his stat line for the season – one catch for 102 yards and a touchdown – is indicative of the big-play ability he brings to the offence.
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“Just getting into it with Bo, it’s been a while and just getting back on the same page with him,” said Price when asked about getting back into action. “Physically I’m ready to go, I’m fast and I’m in shape, it’s just mental and a chemistry thing – but other than that I’m ready.”
“Is it Labour Day yet? Let’s go.”
If Monday is anything like this season’s previous clash between these teams, fans are in for a treat. Neither team had lost a game when they collided in Week 5, and in the end special teams and defence carries the Stampeders to a 26-22 road win.
The Stamps won’t know what Esks head coach Chris Jones plans to throw at them this time until it hits them, but they do realize what Eskimos football is all about.
“Jones is a guy that’s going to mix enough things up on that defence – they play hard, they have a lot of great athletes, they’re a big defence, a fast defence, they like to hit,” Mitchell told the team’s official website.
“They like to play with momentum and you see them get happy and excited and celebrate a lot when they do have momentum, so you have to take it away from them and keep it on your side,” he continued.
“Just make sure you keep pounding the rock on them.”
Jones is also trying to keep an even-keel approach with his team, knowing Monday’s contest is just the first of back-to-back games with the Stampeders, and also the first of seven games against Western opponents before the end of the season.
“It’s another game, it’s the next one on the schedule and the next one will come after that,” Jones told Esks.com heading into the weekend. “We’ve gotta go out and handle our business, take care of the football and play solid, and see how things go.”
Some trash talk has emerged as expected, particularly after a picture was posted on Twitter following the last meeting between these teams of Jones’ motorcycle being flanked by four members of the Stampeders.
Esks fans battled back while Jones only laughed, calling it ‘pretty ingenious on their part’. The picture has since resurfaced, but Jones is confident his team won’t get caught up in the back-and-forth chatter ahead of the two biggest games of the season.
“We’ve just got something to do, we know we've got a job,” the rookie head coach said. “We just have to go out and play smash mouth football and be aggressive like we have over the course of the eight games that we’ve played.”
“We look forward to it.”
The Eskimos are currently enjoying one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent CFL memory, rebounding from last season’s 4-14 campaign, during which they won just a single home game, to start 7-1 this season. So far they’ve proven at every avenue that their hot start is no fluke, but amazingly even with so much success they find themselves only a single win up on fourth-place Winnipeg and two up on the last-place Lions.
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Against a team they’ve lost nine straight against, the Eskimos can ill-afford a setback here.
“We’ve done a real nice job of continuing to stay the course,” Jones explained. “Every single game has posed some kind of adversity for us, whether it’s been players being injured and having someone step up in their absence or whether we don’t play well in the first half and we have to bounce back in the second half, or vice versa.”
“There’s always been some kind of adversity,” he continued. “It seems to me that this group has great character and they always find a way to come out on top.”
That shone through again last weekend, when the Eskimos overcame an injury to quarterback Mike Reilly on the game’s opening possession along with a 7-0 deficit to top the Argos 41-27. Matt Nichols did enough to keep the offence moving, while the Eskimo defence picked off Ricky Ray three times, returning two for touchdowns.
“I think you’ve gotta give credit to both the coaching staff and the players, because there’s been a lot of shuffling in and out due to injury and they’ve been able to go in and play at a high level,” Jones added. “That comes with a lot of film study, a lot of preparation, and a lot of meetings, and they’re going out and executing it out on the field.”
Reilly seems likely to return under centre this week, but Nichols will also be ready to go if needed. No matter who starts, the Eskimos know they’re in for a battle against a Stampeders team close to reaching full strength – a scary thought for what’s already been such a dominant team.
“They’ve got a lot of guys back, they’ve got Price back and Cornish back, probably gonna have Sanders back and when those guys are all there they’re gonna be one of the most high-powered offences in the league,” Jones said.
“So we’re gonna have to do a great job in man coverage and zone coverage, and we’re gonna have to fly to the ball and stop the run.”
Kickoff is at 4:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live with CFL.ca Gamecast.
- With files from Stampeders.com/Esks.com
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