CALGARY — The Lions and Stampeders kickoff Week 18 with a clash between two of the league’s great running backs, as Jon Cornish and Andrew Harris go head-to-head on Friday night at McMahon Stadium.
Harris and Cornish lead the league in yards from scrimmage respectively this season, with with just two games remaining on the regular season slate, this weekend’s meeting could end up deciding who takes home the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian award this season, with both players also still easily in the running for Most Outstanding Player, too.
And as all eyes might be on the league’s most dynamic runners this season, that’s not the only meaningful battle at McMahon on Friday.
While both teams have sealed their fate in the West Division standings, with the Lions clinching first place and a berth in the West finals and the Stamps earning a home playoff date in the semi-final, there’s still plenty at stake elsewhere.
For the Red and White, coming off a last-gasp 34-32 win on a field goal pin that went wrong by the Ticats on the game’s final play, Friday’s contest should be about gaining momentum heading into the playoffs.
The Stampeders haven’t beaten the Lions in two tries this season, and with a possibility of meeting BC a fourth time, beating those Lions once and for all would be a major boost.
However you want to justify it, Friday’s game is far from meaningless – especially if you ask Cornish.
“Meaningless? This is the most important game of the season,” said Cornish. “And I’m not just saying that to give you the usual cliché. I mean it. Let me repeat: THE most important of the year.”
“The other two games against them? They’re all said and done. Nothing we can about those now. So this is the dogfight.”
The last time the Lions visited McMahon Stadium, they walked all over Cornish and the Stamps en-route to a 34-8 win. Travis Lulay threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns, while Cornish was held to minus-one rushing yard on six carries.
When the Stamps returned to BC Place for a rematch on Oct. 6, they weren’t about to let that happen again, putting up a much better performance.
But in a battle where the league’s top Canadian backs enjoyed the spotlight, Calgary couldn’t mount a last-second comeback, coming up short on the last drive.
Cornish knows the last one was close, and that on Friday night, his team will have its last chance to get a win against the league’s best before possibly meeting them again in the playoffs.
“We want to come out and show these guys they can’t just push us around,” said the native of New Westminster, B.C. “We’ve got to go through them at their house to get where we want to be. We have no choice in that now.”
“This is our platform to show the CFL we’re as valid a Grey Cup contender as anybody.”
Cornish’s case speaks strongly. Calgary is 10-4 this season against opponents not named the BC Lions, while with two wins against the Stamps, the Lions currently sit in first place – meaning the only difference between these teams in the standings is their head-to-head result.
“They’re the standard,” preaches Keon Raymond, who’s lined up for the Stamps both at defensive back and linebacker. “And they’ve had our number for a while now,”
“I think the last time we beat them was the last time they played at Empire Stadium, at the start of last season. So we need to make a stand, a statement, on Friday.”
The Stampeders have one 6 of 8 games at home this season, and are second only to Hamilton in points scored with 464 this season. What’s most impressive is they’ve done it without their opening-day starter, Drew Tate, who went down with an injury in the second game of the season.
Led by backup Kevin Glenn, this is a team that’s spent all season proving people wrong – and it plans to continue doing that late in the season and especially later in the playoffs.
“A lot of people are already crowning them West champions, talking about a repeat as Grey Cup champions,” continued Raymond, who’s asserted himself as one of the league’s most dominant players this season with 41 tackles and five interceptions, including one he returned 100 yards for a touchdown against Hamilton last week.
“If we’re going to have anything to say about that, this is a big game for us to stand up,” he said. “We’ve got to let them know we’re for real. The last time, I think they kind of got a taste of it, but we’re looking to seal the deal this time.”
The West-leading Lions seem to have a message to send too, though, and they continue to preach it each and every way.
They’ve moved seamlessly in 2012 from the legendary Wally Buono regime into the Mike Benevides era. That stubborn defensive resistance, fortified by Adam Bighill, Keron Williams, and the evergreen Korey Banks remains the undisputed class of the league.
Last week the Lions may have made their biggest statement yet. With no Travis Lulay under centre along with receivers Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce, the Lions still put up big numbers en-route to a 39-19 home win over the Eskimos.
Highly-touted backup Mike Reilly made his first career start for the Lions instead of Lulay, and after a shaky start bounced back with 276 passing yards and two touchdowns, along with 20 points in the fourth quarter alone.
The 26-year-old native of Kennewick, Washington is poised to make his second straight start and will look to build on last week’s success. Meanwhile, Simon is slated to make his return to the lineup on Friday, as the Lions focus on getting their top players back to health in time for the West Final.
But even with the division tucked away neatly thanks to a stretch of seven wins over their last eight games, ‘meaningless’ isn’t a term in BC’s vocabulary, either.
The last time they met
Last Meeting: Saturday, October 6, 2012 Lions 27, Stampeders 22
Andrew Harris had 125 all-purpose yards and a touchdown, as the Lions held off a last-second Stamps surge for a 27-22 win at BC Place. In a game that would, at least temporarily, decide the West Division’s top team, Travis Lulay threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns, while Nick Moore caught his career touchdown pass and added 83 yards receiving in the absence of Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce. The Lions defence, meanwhile, picked off Stamps pivot Kevin Glenn twice, while holding Jon Cornish to just 61 yards on the ground on 10 carries along with 32 yards receiving.
The team will face its first cold-weather conditions of the season on Friday with snow in the forecast and a game-time temperature of -10C, and while it may be the first of Benevides’ young career, the rookie head coach was pulling off veteran moves in practice this week.
For the opening drill on Tuesday, Benevides had his receivers put their hands in a tub of ice-water for a few seconds, before making them catch one of eight footballs that had been tucked away in a freezer overnight.
There were no hot towels or a mug of cocoa waiting for them after practice.
“It’s not cold, it’s wonderful out there,” said Benevides, the only person at practice to wear shorts to work. The former defensive coordinator wanted to send a message that was every bit as understated as his choice of practice clothing. “This game is such a mental game and about imagining. It’s all about preparation and getting your mind ready for success.”
The coach may be ready even if his some of his players were caught by surprise with the ice-bucket drill on the final day of a bone-rattling practice week.
“I haven’t seen anybody do that,” said receiver Courtney Taylor. “I don’t know where he gets that stuff from.”
Some guys will be cold, but it won’t be defensive end Khreem Smith, who will be a scratch in favour of Maurice Evans as Benevides begins to manage the time before the division final. Several players, Benevides said, will be on a programmed snap count.
The absence of Smith makes a certain starter out of Keron Williams, who says he is adept at blocking out distractions.
“It’s just snow. It’s just cold. It’s just for three hours. Life goes on after that,” Williams said. “You got to embrace it. You can’t shy from it because it’s not going anywhere. No sleeves, ready to go.”
And that’s just the approach sought by Benevides, who is trying to manage a team which has several regulars needing to get back in the lineup and others who could use a rest.
Despite facing a game with weather-related obstacles, Benevides talked all week about ball security and limiting turnovers to a team which could break the league record for fewest giveaways in a season, with only 28 so far this season. It’s either that or let the elements become a mental roadblock.
“We’ll be dressed in white. It’ll be great camouflage,” the coach insisted.
Kickoff is at 9:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.