OTTAWA -- The Ottawa REDBLACKS look to take down the top-ranked Calgary Stampeders on Sunday afternoon at TD Place, as they meet for the second and final time this season to kick-off a CFL double-header.
Facing one top team after another, the REDBLACKS are in the midst of their toughest stretch of the season, which includes four straight games against three Western opponents with a combined record of 17-4.
They’re winless in those games so far, but each game has been closer than the last, including most recently last weekend’s 10-8 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos. Disappointment but also cautiously optimistic best describe first-year head coach Rick Campbell heading into Sunday’s rematch with Calgary.
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The Ottawa REDBLACKS will debut their Signature Uniforms, featuring plaid helmets and shoulders, against the Calgary Stampeders.
“Disappointed in not winning, we’re here to win,” Campbell told OttawaREDBLACKS.com following the loss. “I am proud of our guys – they work hard and they’re trying to do the right things, and that’s our formula of the way to play football and to be competitive in order to give ourselves a chance to win games.”
“Stay away from the penalties, play well on special teams, and give ourselves a chance to win and obviously we want to get it to where we can win a game.”
The REDBLACKS did have every chance to win last weekend, leading from an early first-quarter single point all the way until 20 seconds left, when Esks kicker Grant Shaw connected on a short field goal attempt to give the Esks their first lead of the game.
It wasn’t that the offences couldn’t move the ball, as the Eskimos eclipsed 400 yards of total offence while Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris threw for 255 yards on 18-of-28 passing. For the REDBLACKS it was just a matter of finishing, considering one touchdown would have been enough to win the game.
“We had ample opportunities to cash in, we had the ball in the scoring zone and we just didn’t finish drives,” Burris said. “We found ways to shoot ourselves in the feet by missing a couple of assignments and missing plays that we could have made, and we let things linger on and let a team like that hang around.”
The REDBLACKS had Mike Reilly and the Esks on the ropes inside five minutes left in the fourth, leading by a point and driving once again into Edmonton territory. But just when a 36-yard pickup by Matt Carter put Ottawa in a position to cement a much-needed victory, the former Eskimo was stripped of the ball, leaving Edmonton with possession at the nine-yard-line.
One thing Campbell’s team has done well this season is protect the football, but this, their only turnover of the game, was a costly one.
“It’s a team game, obviously you don’t want to turn the ball over,” Campbell said. “He made a tremendous catch in the first half and one play never wins or loses a football game.”
“That’s why I like football – it’s the ultimate team sport,” he continued. “You’re gonna make a mistake once in a while and good football teams erase those mistakes.”
On three big completions to Adarius Bowman and some clutch second-down running by Mike Reilly, the Eskimos took advantage of Ottawa’s inability to finish drives and put the game away.
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“They’re going to find a way to put you away, especially if you let them hang around,” Burris said following the game. “We’ve gotta finish off drives and it comes down to making plays.”
“Our offensive line did a heck of a job against one heck of a defensive front, and we’ve just gotta be better playmakers on our side and help complete the job at hand.”
It was a buzzer-beater for the Esks and the most difficult of defeats for the REDBLACKS, who have now lost three games by 10 points or less this season and have played five against Western opponents. Now they’ll add another one, looking to avenge a 38-17 loss to these same Stampeders in Calgary a couple of weeks ago.
The Stamps, able to start 6-1 despite a myriad of injuries to key players, especially on offence, are starting to get healthy. Running backs Jon Cornish and Matt Walter are back, and the addition of two Canadian running backs also allows them to dress dangerous slotback Nik Lewis.
Campbell said he believes the REDBLACKS are doing the right things and getting closer to being a winning football team, and on Sunday we’ll find out if he’s on to something.
“There are a lot of right things about this football team, and we’re looking to improve whatever needs to be tweaked to improve so we can close it out,” he told the team’s official website. “The thing I do know is there are a lot of things right about this team, there are a lot of young players here that have a good future.”
“But we want to get as good as we can as fast as we can.”
A team the REDBLACKS would certainly want to emulate is the Stampeders, in the midst of another impressive season. Despite so many injuries they’ve been able to remain the class of the West, last weekend winning their sixth game of the season in Hamilton 30-20.
Hugh Charles rushed for 102 yards on 14 carries filling in for a plethora of injured Stamps running backs, while Bo Levi Mitchell had two touchdowns on 19-of-27 passing while chipping in 33 yards on the ground.
This weekend Charles likely won’t be on the active roster, but this time not due to any kind of injury as the Stampeders should welcome back Nationals Cornish and Walter to the lineup.
Cornish was injured near the end of the team’s season-opening 29-8 win over Montreal, during which he rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries while adding 41 yards through the air. He was last year’s Most Outstanding Player and Canadian and could provide an instant boost to Calgary’s relentless rushing attack.
“Exactly as I expected it to be,” the New Westminster native said in an interview with Stampeders.com, after being asked about his return to practice. ”It was nice to be back playing with the guys.”
“I think that was the best part,” he continued. “Honestly, I didn’t think I would notice any issues and I didn’t.”
After failing to shake off the early effects of the concussion, Cornish opted to go on the six-game injured list, which he said was a turning point in his recovery.
“I kept pushing to get back when all I needed was time, so getting on the six-game let my muscles relax and then I saw real quick progress,” he said. “Even after one week I was ready to play. The concussion wasn’t that bad, but all things considered it’s good that I took lots of time.”
Now Cornish is getting back to being himself, punishing would-be tacklers and carrying the Stamps’ offence.
“Yeah, looking forward to it,” Cornish smiled when asked whether he’s ready for contact.
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While the Stamps benefitted from some stellar running back play in Cornish’s absence, namely from fill-ins like Charles, Jock Sanders, and Martell Mallett, another significant factor in Calgary’s seamless start to the season has been the play of Mitchell.
The 24-year-old in his first full season as a starting quarterback has been the number one constant for the Stampeders this year, and with the win over Hamilton is now 9-1 to start his career. He’s quick to deflect any credit to his teammates, although his quarterback rating of 102.6 speaks for itself.
“We have a very scary set of receivers,” Mitchell said following last weekend’s win. “You probably don't see it in the stats, but it's just because we don't focus on guys.”
“We're not trying to get the ball to any single player — we're just making sure we get out there and get the ball to different guys and let them make plays.”
He also heaped praise on a defence that’s been as dominant as any in the CFL, whether it means holding a team to seven points in a 10-7 win such as a month ago against Hamilton, or forcing timely turnovers and creating field position like last weekend.
“They give us the ball in good field position all the time, and that's a big thing in this game,” Mitchell acknowledged. “They held these guys in a very productive offence.”
“It was big for them to step up and make a huge play like that at the end of the game to win it, and not put it on the offence to make the play. It was great.”
The Stamps are 6-1 but with key pieces coming back and the offence just coming into form, it feels like the best may be yet to come.
Kickoff is at 3:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live with CFL.ca Gamecast.
- With files from OttawaREDBLACKS.com/Stampeders.com