EDMONTON — The Edmonton Eskimos host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium as the two teams close out their 2018 regular season.
Head Coach Jason Maas, quarterback Mike Reilly and the Esks are staring a hard off-season in the face after crashing out of playoff contention during a 2-6 second half in their Grey Cup-hosting year.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, has enjoyed a renaissance in the second half, as quarterback Matt Nichols and a surging defence have led the Bombers to five wins on the hop, securing a spot in the post-season.
With Edmonton headed for locker cleanout and Winnipeg to either Regina or Calgary for the Western Semi-Final, Saturday’s game is a footnote at the end of a long, winding season for both.
The biggest question facing the Bombers this week is whether or not Andrew Harris will win the rushing title.
Winnipeg’s dual-threat running back is currently seven rush yards behind Ottawa’s William Powell, who did not see the field in the REDBLACKS’ Friday Night Football contest against Toronto.
Harris is listed third on the Bombers depth chart, behind Kienan LaFrance and Johnny Augustine, and may not feature — an anti-climactic ending to what’s been a red-hot race down the stretch between the Winnipeg star and Powell.
Regardless, LaFrance — the listed starter — is ready to get after it.
“There’s going to be a lot of guys that are going to get an opportunity to get on the field,” LaFrance told BlueBombers.com. “Putting yourself in that situation is important, and increases your value.”
The Manitoba product and Winnipeg native has had 39 touches for just shy of 200 yards this season, and can be a compact wrecking ball of a running back. He is also one of a number of second-string players who will get a long look in Edmonton come Saturday.
“There’s lots of reasons (it’s important),” said Head Coach Mike O’Shea of winning against the Esks. “For some of these young starters, it’s a chance for them to honour their teammates, show their teammates how hard they’ve worked (and) how much information they’ve taken in.
“There’s a certain amount of pride that some of the veteran players have when a younger guy goes in and does it all right,” continued O’Shea. “They want to go in and do it right not just for them, but for the older guys that have moved out of the way for a game.”
Star linebacker Adam Bighill was unsurprisingly named the team’s MOP candidate this week, at the end of a season in which he has led Winnipeg in tackles (104) and forced a CFL-high four fumbles.
“As soon as I decided to sign, I knew it’d be the right move for me,” said Bighill, who joined the Bombers after a stint with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. “I knew coming here the situation was going to be a good one, (because) of guys I’d played with in this locker room already (and) led by Coach O’Shea, it’s been a great place for me.”
In Edmonton, attention has already largely been turned to the extended off-season looming just beyond Saturday.
Head Coach Jason Maas responded in fiery fashion when asked about rumours he had “lost” the Esks locker room during an abysmal second half which saw the team slide from potential Calgary challenger to missing the playoffs altogether.
“I don’t know where someone could say that,” Maas told Esks.com. “We’ve played 17 games, and I’d say 15 of 17 we had a chance to win. Give us six plays back on this year — plays, not games — (and) we’re speaking a different tune.
“I don’t think the locker room has lost faith, (and) I’m not going to speak to what other people speculate — I look at how the guys perform, come to work every day, (and) the outcome hasn’t been what we wanted.”
One bright spot in a disappointing season for the Esks has been second-year pro Kwaku Boateng; the Canadian D-end was named the team’s Most Outstanding Canadian after registering a team-leading nine sacks.
“I’m very grateful for the position I’m in, but I’ve gotta give my thanks to Coach (Demetrious) Maxie and Coach (Mike) Benevides, who trusted me,” said Boateng, who has proven to be a gem of a fifth-round draft pick out of Laurier. “They drafted me later on, and being able to use me so quickly (comes) down to the people in the locker room.
“When I first came in here I was the only Canadian on the D-line, so when you’re in that position in the CFL (where) everyone around you is (from) across the border you feel like there’s no position for you,” explained Boateng. “This organization gave me a chance to pass rush and I took that opportunity as far as I could.”
By The Numbers:
2 — Total number of teams in the CFL’s 18-game era who have begun a season 6-3 only to miss the playoffs. The only other team aside from the 2018 Eskimos? The 2014 Bombers, who sprinted to a 6-3 start only to finish the season 1-8 in the second half.
4 — The streak of four seasons in a row with playoff football will come to an end in Edmonton, as the Esks will miss the post-season for the first time since 2013; Edmonton made a divisional final in each of those four years.
125 — Consecutive games with a reception for Bombers receiver Weston Dressler, the sixth-longest streak in CFL history. Next on the list for Dressler to pass is Tony Gabriel, who hauled in a catch in 131 consecutive games.
650 — Receiving yards this season for Winnipeg’s Drew Wolitarsky, who has taken the league by storm in his second season after registering a single reception in his 2017 debut.
While Saturday afternoon’s contest will have no impact on the West Division’s standings, there will be plenty of storylines to follow regardless.
How will Kienan LaFrance and the rest of Winnipeg’s backups fare in a full game of action against a decent Edmonton team?
Is this Jason Maas’s final game in charge of the Esks? With free agency looming, could this be Mike Reilly‘s last game in green and gold?
– With files from BlueBombers.com/Esks.com
AFI, Yare Media and the CFL
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