EDMONTON -- The Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders each look to remain undefeated on Thursday night, as the Battle of Alberta returns to Commonwealth Stadium to kick off Week 5 action.
Two of the league’s most dynamic young quarterbacks and the CFL's top-ranked defences square off in the most highly-anticipated game of the young season so far, in a matchup that pits one of the CFL’s perennial powerhouses against a team on the rise.
“It’s a rivalry game, even though it’s not the Labour Day Classic it’s still the clash of Alberta,” defensive end Odell Willis told Esks.com. “I still feel we run Alberta but we’ve gotta come out and prove it, they’re not going to come in here and lay down – they’ve got a good offence, good defence, good coaches.”
Life is good for Willis and his Eskimo defence, especially after his 16-yard interception return touchdown (marking the first interception of his career) in the first quarter sparked an eventual 26-3 road win over the previously-undefeated Bombers to register their fourth win in as many games.
But as Willis points out, every week the bar is raised and this week it’s no different. The Eskimos have early bragging rights as the number one team both in the CFL and in Alberta, but on Thursday they’ll face a team surrendering just 10 points a game while also boasting one of the top passing attacks.
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“Every game gets bigger and bigger, that’s why you take it one game at a time,” quarterback Mike Reilly added. “It’s a chance to play at home against a very good football team and it’s gonna be a great test for our team.”
The Eskimos couldn’t ask for a better start to their season. It started with an eye-opening win on the road at BC Place, in a stadium few visiting teams escape victorious. In Week 2 the Green and Gold overcame a deficit in its home-opener on the way to a second straight late-game win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Back-to-back wins over Ottawa and Winnipeg saw the Esks outscore their opponents 53-14, giving them just their eighth 4-0 start in franchise history and a chance to make it a perfect five entering next week’s bye.
With two weeks to think about whatever Thursday’s result may be, however, a loss to Calgary would quickly put the celebration on hold, which is why the Eskimos are focused and ready for the challenge ahead. The Esks know they’re undefeated for a reason, now it’s a matter of showing everyone else.
“It’s no coincidence we’re where we are right now,” said defensive tackle Almondo Sewell, the league’s sack-leader with five takedowns. “We work hard, we study hard, we’ve got each other’s backs – we’ve been there for each other so we’re all feeding off each other as the game goes on.”
While one intriguing matchup pits the league’s top defences against one another, the other features two of the league’s most thrilling quarterbacks to watch. Both Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell are young, have strong arms, and can make big plays with their feet.
They’ve also each combined for 11 consecutive wins, as Reilly has won five straight starts dating back to last season’s finale while Mitchell is a perfect 6-0 to start his career, putting him within a win of former Stampeders great Jeff Garcia for the team’s all-time record of seven straight wins to start a career.
On Thursday something’s gotta give, and both teams are wary of what each opposing quarterback is capable of doing.
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“He’s a really outstanding young prospect, he hasn’t lost a game yet for a reason,” Jones said of Mitchell, whose 116.2 quarterback rating leads the CFL. “He’s been around good football since he was in high school back in Texas. He’s a winner.”
Mitchell’s only 24 and is in his first season as a full-time starting quarterback, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s carried his team so far. The Katy, Texas native has 781 passing yards in three games and has thrown 6 touchdown passes to not a single interception, and early on has Stamps fans gushing about his future.
“He’s had his share of mistakes, he just hasn’t turned the ball over,” Head Coach and General Manager John Hufnagel told Stampeders.com. “It’s fortunate, he’s thrown the ball in the defence’s hands but they haven’t been able to hang onto it.”
“But he’s doing good things and he’s going through the learning process,” Hufnagel countered. “I don’t care how long you’ve played the game, you’re going to make mistakes – the biggest thing is forgetting about it and make the next play.”
Mitchell’s development will truly be put to the test against an Edmonton defence that leads the league with just 263 yards against per game and a turnover ratio of plus-10.
“They have a very good pressure team, they have a strong defensive line and they have a lot of movement,” Mitchell said when asked about the Eskimos’ stellar defence so far this season. “But we have a good offensive line, we have good running backs to block and receivers that aren’t afraid to get a hat on guys, so we’re excited for the challenge.”
The Eskimos have a new identity with Jones now at the helm, one that ultimately means the Stamps better be ready to have Mitchell protected. They’ve done well in that regard so far this season, and Thursday provides the tallest measuring stick knowing that if they can keep Mitchell upright against the Esks, they can do it against anyone.
“Our offensive line has played well,” Hufnagel said. “They’re going to be tested, Edmonton already has an excellent pass-rush but they do a lot of scheming with their defensive line and their secondary pressure, so we have our hands full to be able to protect the passer.”
“But they’ve done a good job for the bulk of the first three games, both in pass protection and in the run game.”
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Led by a historic night from Kevin Glenn who moved into the 10th spot in the all-time passing list the Stmaps clinched a home playoff spot and inched closer to the west division title.
Mitchell agreed with his coach’s assessment, and added that he has a world of confidence that the offensive line will carry its success into a difficult matchup in Edmonton.
“I’m the least-sacked quarterback because of those guys up front, our scheme, and the fact that our receivers get open fast enough,” Mitchell said. “It generates from our run game, that’s where we always like to start, make sure we’re getting the ball on the ground and pounding away at these guys.”
“But it’s about those offensive line guys, getting up there, being confident, having fun and just sticking together as a group.”
Meanwhile just two weeks after out-dueling the master in future Hall of Fame quarterback Ricky Ray, Mitchell could be about to face his next biggest head-to-head test as he goes against the Esks’ Reilly, one of the league’s finest pivots through July.
Reilly is in his second season as a full-time CFL starter and has seemingly built on a strong rookie season, entering Thursday with eight touchdowns and just three interceptions with a quarterback rating of 94.7 – good for third in the CFL.
What’s most dangerous about Reilly though is his uncanny ability to escape from trouble in the pocket and scramble downfield for big gains. Last weekend against a confusing Bomber defence he had problems getting much going through the air, but he willed his team to victory by leading all rushers in Week 4 with 96 rushing yards on 10 carries.
The Stamps defence wants to assert its claim as the league’s number one unit, and in order to do so will need to find a way to limit the damage done by Reilly’s legs.
“We know Mike Reilly, he’s been that type of player since he was at BC – he’s a tough guy, he’ll take some hits and keep going,” said linebacker Juwan Simpson. “It’s not going to take one guy to stop him, it’s going to take all 12 guys to stop him – and not only him but a talented offence.”
Thursday’s matchup marks the first of three between these Alberta rivals, and with so much on the line it promises to be a heated affair.
Kickoff is at 9:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
- With files from Esks.com/Stampeders.com