Anyone who believed the Eskimos were getting “the next best thing” when they signed free-agent quarterback Trevor Harris to replace Mike Reilly during the off-season should re-evaluate that thought.
Harris doesn’t have to take a back seat to anybody in the CFL.
The 33-year-old quarterback not only leads the league with 3,051 passing yards (900 more than Reilly), 260 completions and 19 touchdowns (13 passing and six rushing), but he’s on a record-breaking pace towards having one of the greatest seasons in Eskimos history at the halfway point of the season.
Harris will attempt to help the Eskimos extend their winning streak to three games and maintain their perfect home record (4-0) when Edmonton, 6-3, takes on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 7-2, in a showdown for first place in the West Division at 7 p.m. Friday at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium (TSN, 630 CHED).
The Esks need to defeat the Blue Bombers by at least eight points to have the advantage in the season series should the teams finish league play with identical records. Edmonton lost 28-21 in Winnipeg earlier this year when Sean Whyte kicked a club-record seven field goals while the Bombers scored four touchdowns.
“We feel like we kind of let that one get away by making mistakes on our part,” said receiver Greg Ellingson, who will play in his 100th CFL game on Friday. “If we turned those three points into seven twice in Winnipeg, we would have won the game.
“It’s a different tale now, especially when we’re at home,” he added. “We have the home crowd behind us. We’re not in Winnipeg where they’re cheering when we’re on offence and making it loud for us. It’s going to be difficult for them to come in here and get the win.”
The Eskimos offence has been moving the ball up and down the field all season but has had trouble putting the ball into the end zone at times, scoring a total of only 60 points over three consecutive games before breaking out with five touchdowns and a season-high 41 points last week at Toronto.
“We do a very good job, generally, each game of accumulating yardage,” said Head Coach Jason Maas. “It’s just scoring points has been our Achilles heel, and the Red Zone (inside the opponent’s 20-yard line) has been the worst thing we’ve done this year.
“To execute (in Toronto) the way we did, particularly early in the game (scoring touchdowns on each of their first three drives for the first time in a game since 2003), speaks volume of the amount of work the guys have put in and the attention to detail and the focus that we talked about during the week about doing better down there,” Maas added. “They understand that they needed to rise to the occasion and they did that.”
Harris, who was named a CFL Player of the Week this week for a second time this season, has been zooming up the CFL all-time passing charts in recent weeks, slipping past former Eskimos QBs Kerwin Bell and David Archer. He is now only 22 yards behind Esks Wall of Honour QB Warren Moon (21,228) and could easily pass Peter Liske (61 yards), Travis Lulay (147) and Montreal Alouettes Head Coach Khari Jones (178) during Friday’s game to move into 31st place overall.
He is also well on his way to becoming the first Eskimos quarterback to throw for more than 6,000 yards in a season and break club records for most completions in a season and highest pass-completion percentage (72.02).
Only five CFL quarterbacks have ever reached the 6,000-yard mark in a season, with Doug Flutie throwing for 6,619 yards in 1991 and Kent Austin reaching 6,225 yards in 1992. Harris is on pace for 6,102 yards (Reilly’s club record is 5,830 yards).
Harris also has the lowest interception percentage in CFL history, having given up only two picks out of 361 passes (0.55%) in nine games, and his touchdown to interception ratio is 6.5 to 1, the highest in CFL history.
“This is years in the making,” Maas said about Harris’s performance. “Eight years worth of experience combined with a work ethic that is second to none. If you saw what he does on a day-to-day basis to play a football game, you’d be shocked. I’m surprised, and I’ve been around some great quarterbacks. What he does to prepare himself to play is literally as good as I’ve seen.
“He understands the offence extremely well, having been in it his entire (CFL) career. He’s just reaping some benefits of time and, obviously, experience. He also takes extremely good care of himself, and it’s very important to him. He’s got a solid family who are here supporting him.”
Ellingson, who spent three years with Harris on the Ottawa RedBlacks, isn’t surprised by his quarterback’s success this year. He’s seen this show before. Harris passed for 2,735 yards in his first nine games last year, 2,862 yards in 2017 and 2,696 yards in 2016.
“It’s the same guy,” Ellingson said. “Play-calling puts him in a position to make the reads and get the ball out of his hands. He’s had that capability. He dealt with some injuries and stuff along the way before where he’d miss a few games. But you’ve got to play a full season and not get sacked that much.
“After that, it’s just up to him. It just shows how good he is.”
Harris, who is tied for the league lead with 20 pass completions of 20 or more yards this year, has thrown for more than 300 yards five times this season. He has exceeded 400 yards on two occasions, including 447 yards in the season opener. He has had more than 20 completions in 22 consecutive regular-season starts, dating back to July 20, 2018, when he played with Ottawa. Ricky Ray’s CFL record is 24 games in a row with more than 20 completions.
The veteran QB is a large part of the reason why Ellingson also moved out west as a free agent this year.
“If you see that potential in somebody, why wouldn’t you want to play with him?” he asked. “Especially when you have chemistry with someone, and you’ve spent time in the locker room, and you know that person as an individual outside of football, you want to follow a guy who is a leader the way that he is.”
Experience the catch
Do you want to know what it feels like to catch a highlight-reel touchdown pass?
Picture Ellingson in your mind as he describes his diving TD catch in the back of the end zone last week at Toronto.
“I kind of had a feeling the ball was going to come my way,” he said. “You know on certain plays how the coverage is going if the ball is going to come to you, or at least you should. You should be ready for that.
“Trevor put a great ball outside the reach of the defender, and I just finished and focused and made sure I pulled it in.
“I guess the momentum of just having to dive out for it (carried his body to the back of the end zone, where he celebrated with his hands in the air). I was just thinking about ‘Catch the ball and turn to my side, stay in bounds and also just protect the ball.’ When you make a diving catch like that, it happens in practice sometimes where you make the catch, and you come down on the ball on the ground, and the ground makes the ball come out.
“I was just making sure I could turn my body and make sure I protected the ball after I caught it.”
Esks, Bombers ‘a great matchup’
The Eskimos play three of the league’s best teams during their next four games – Friday’s contest with Winnipeg, a home-and-home series with the Calgary Stampeders, 5-4, and then a home game against the East Division-leading Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 7-2.
Maas said the Eskimos and Bombers will be “a great matchup” on Canadian Armed Forces Appreciation Night and that both teams have earned the right to battle for first place in the West “so now it’s all about going out and seeing who’s the best.”
Second-year quarterback Chris Streveler will make his fifth CFL start for Winnipeg with ex-Esks pivot Matt Nichols sidelined with an upper-body injury. Streveler started both the season opener and the final game of the regular season against the Eskimos last year, losing both games.
But the Eskimos know that Streveler poses “a significant threat,” according to Maas because he’s a mobile quarterback who is big, strong and fast and can also throw the ball.
“Our guys are going to have their hands full,” Maas said about the Eskimos defence.
When the teams played earlier this season, Edmonton dominated the time of possession (36 minutes and 20 seconds to Winnipeg’s 23:40) and net yards (447 to the Blue Bombers’ 270) but failed to score a touchdown.
The teams have alternated wins and losses in their last five matchups dating back to 2017.
- Besides winning all four home games this season, the Eskimos have won each of their last six games at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium dating back to last season and are 9-1 in their last 10 home games.
- Left tackle Tommie Draheim, who quarterback Trevor Harris was told is “the only left tackle in the league who did not give up a sack this year,” was placed on the six-game injured list this week. Rookie Kyle Saxelid, selected in the second round (12th overall) in the 2019 CFL Draft, will make his second career start – and first at left tackle – against Winnipeg. “I want to get on the field, but not because of the reasons I’ve been getting on the field (other players getting hurt),” Saxelid said. “I want to get on the field because I’m better than the other people, but just the way it is, they’re better than me, and the only thing I can do is work hard and make the team better.”
- Fullback Calvin McCarty and special teams player Blair Smith were activated off the injured list while international defensive back Brian Walker was added as a backup from the practice roster. International offensive lineman Eric Lofton, who played four CFL games with the Ottawa RedBlacks during the 2017 & ‘18 seasons, and national O-lineman Kwabena Asare will also be on the roster this week.
- Ellingson converted second-down plays on six of his 10 receptions last week to improve his league-leading total to 19 second-down conversions. He also has an active reception streak of 52 games dating back to 2016.
- Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels had a career-high 155 receiving yards against Toronto for the ninth 100-yard game of his career.
- The Eskimos have had more passing yards than their opponent in 12 consecutive games.
- The Esks haven’t allowed 30 points this year. The last time they went an entire season without giving up 30 points was 1979.