The spotlight was going to shine on Eskimos wide receiver DaVaris Daniels one way or another this week.
Not only was the fleet-footed Daniels going to play against his former team – the Calgary Stampeders – for the first time since he signed as a free agent with the Eskimos in February, but he was coming off a game where he had a season-high 10 receptions for a career-best 207 yards.
Daniels, 26, was named a CFL Player of the Week after the first 200-yard receiving game of his four-year CFL career (Adarius Bowman was the previous Eskimos receiver to accomplish the feat with 208 yards on Oct. 24, 2015). Daniels also had 155 yards on five catches in his previous game for a two-game total of 362 yards and 501 yards on 31 receptions in only five games this season.
“We knew, obviously, when we signed him what he was about and what he’s capable of,” said Head Coach Jason Maas. “But, obviously, to see it up close and personal, it’s different to see how he fits within our offence and how we can utilize him. He’s obviously very talented and we’re reaping the benefits of that.”
Daniels gave credit to the offensive line for protecting Trevor Harris long enough for the quarterback to be able to make good throws and the coaches for creating good matchups and calling good plays for his success.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” he said.
Daniels has previously said that Harris influenced his decision to join the Eskimos after the QB called to talk about life situations after signing as a free agent with Edmonton himself.
“I’ve admired his game from afar for a long time,” said Harris, who was named a CFL player of the Month for a second time this season in August after passing for 1,550 yards and six touchdowns while also rushing for two TDs. “When we signed him, I was really, really excited about it. He’s just one of those guys who’s going to win his routes, he’s dangerous and, obviously, we’ve had a great chemistry, but it’s easy to have chemistry with him.”
The only thing missing from Daniels’ game right now is touchdowns. He’s only caught or carried the ball into the end zone once despite all of his recent big plays. But that’s also been a team problem once the Eskimos reach the Red Zone (inside an opponent’s 20-yard line).
“We really feel like it’s on us,” Daniels said about the Eskimos’ difficulties in scoring touchdowns when deep in an opponent’s territory. “We feel like teams don’t really stop us. It’s always us stopping ourselves for some reason.
“If you ask us, we feel like we’re probably the best team in the league. We’ve just hurt ourselves in different situations. The results are the results, but by the end of the season we’ll be a better team. That’s when you want to hit it anyway. You’re not going to win the Grey Cup in August. We’ve got a long way to go. We’ll get there.”
Head coach Jason Maas adjusted how the Eskimos practised this week “to get our guys a little more comfortable being down there (in the Red Zone)” with the hope of making a difference during the Labour Day Classic at McMahon Stadium on Monday. Game time is 2:30 p.m. (TSN, 630 CHED).
“Then, ultimately, it’s a mindset,” Maas said. “You’ve got to be willing to lock in and understand the details while you’re down there and execute.”
Harris, who leads the league with 286 completions, 3,481 passing yards and 20 touchdowns (14 passing, six rushing), pointed out that the Eskimos “move the ball better than anybody in the league.”
“We just have to finish drives,” he said. “That’s the thing that’s frustrating – the small things that are happening to stall us. But we’re going to get it fixed, I can guarantee you that.”
As usual, there’s a lot at stake in the home-and-home series between the provincial rival Eskimos, 6-4, and Stampeders, 5-4. But, this time, it isn’t first place that’s up for grabs, but a chance to move up the standings in order to improve their position for the playoffs.
“Every game is important, but especially going against a West Division opponent, it’s truly a four-point match,” offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell said. “You’re stopping them from getting two (points), you’re getting two. And you turn around and maybe do it again.”
Winning is most important for receiver
Labour Day is usually all about the intense dislike between these two teams, but this game will be a different experience for Daniels because he’s on the other side of the bitter rivalry this year. Daniels spent his first three CFL seasons in Calgary.
“There’s always a little bit of different feelings when you do that,” Maas said about playing against former teammates.
Daniels admitted that “there’s going to be a lot of outside noise on Calgary and the return. It’ll be exciting, it’ll be fun to get back out on that field in front of that crowd and in front of a lot of people that I know, but at the same time, I’m trying to get a win. Coming off a loss, I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth so the win is the most important thing to me.
“Luckily, I don’t have to go out there by myself. I’ve got 11 other guys with me (on offence) who are going to have my back and it’s going to be fun.”
It will also be “a grind,” Daniels said.
“It’s going to be pretty physical on both ends. Everybody’s going to bring it. It should be a battle, just like it was last week and we’re excited for it.”
Daniels explained why the Labour Day Classic is always a big deal in Calgary.
“There’s a lot of excitement around the game,” he said. “The fans come out, you’ve got the flyover, Labour Day is a good family event, the Battle of Alberta. There’s a lot of stuff going on around it.
“But I like the approach we have here – just taking it one game at a time. It’s just one game. It’s not going to make or break our season and we’re going to approach it as such and try to get a win.”
While the Eskimos are trying to approach the season one game at a time, some players do occasionally think about the long run.
“It’s playoff season,” said defensive end Nick Usher. “It’s playoff football right now. That’s how everybody has to take it on the team. These next eight games straight, we have to treat it like the playoffs. We can’t lose and we’ve got to keep ourselves in the fight, for sure.”
O’Donnell returns at left tackle
Matt O’Donnell has played 107 CFL games since joining the Eskimos in the fall of 2012, most of them as the starting right guard.
But until recently, O’Donnell, 30, had never missed a game due to injury.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “I made it all through college, didn’t miss a game to injury. Ninth year (as a pro), they finally got me. Someone fell wrong and they fell into me (during the game against the B.C. Lions at Vancouver on July 11th). Most times, I’ve been able to stand up and walk away, but they finally got my number.”
O’Donnell said his biggest challenge preparing for Monday’s showdown was getting up to “game speed” because there are “so many moving pieces” to worry about in the Calgary defence and “the legs are a little slow.”
“Just got to get out there and make sure your brain is working as fast as your feet are,” he said.
O’Donnell, who made 14 starts at left tackle last year in place of an injured Tommie Draheim, will slide back into the left tackle position on Monday instead of right guard. Draheim was recently injured again and SirVincent Rogers is still on the six-game injured list.
Kyle Saxelid, a 2019 second-round draft pick who made his first start (and second overall this year) at left tackle last week, is once again a backup on the offensive line along with 2017 draft pick Kwabena Asare.
The rest of the line, which has had a strong season despite multiple personnel changes, has Jacob Ruby at left guard, David Beard at centre, Travis Bond at right guard and Colin Kelly at right tackle. As a group, the Eskimos gave up only three quarterback sacks during the first nine games before Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson doubled that total last week with two strip-sacks (causing Harris to fumble the ball) and tackling Harris for a one-yard loss on a quarterback draw.
“Our O-line has done a great job,” Harris said. “They’ve been an integral part of this whole deal (with the Eskimos leading the CFL in net yardage). … It all starts up front and those guys have been awesome for us all year.”
Eskimos ready for both Calgary QBs
It doesn’t matter to Eskimos defensive co-ordinator Phillip Lollep whether injured Calgary QB Bo Levi Mitchell (pectoral chest muscle) or Nick Arbuckle plays on Monday.
“They’re both excellent quarterbacks,” Lolley said. “They run their system very, very well.
“Bo Levi is going to strike you deep more often than (Arbuckle). The other guy reads well, he delivers the ball well, he runs the team well. But when Bo comes in, now it doesn’t mean on second-and-four or second-and-five that he’s going to take the first down. He’s just liable to go right up top so you have to honour that.”
Eskimos defensive line coach Demetrious Maxie said the Stampeders have been playing the same offensive system since he played in Calgary in 2008 “so you get those ideas and those thoughts ingrained in those boys heads and get them to believe in your system that you’ve been constantly running over and over again and been successful, then that’s just who you are.”
Lolley said he always tells people that “it’s a lot harder to get to where (the Stampeders offence is) and stay there than it is to actually get there. And they’ve stayed there for a number of years so they’re a good program.”
Back in the day
Jason Maas, who played with the Eskimos as a quarterback from 2000-05 and 2008-11, remembers a time when the Labour Day Classic “used to be where football began.”
CFL games weren’t usually televised at that time until the Labour Day weekend “and that was a big deal,” he said.
“You’re looking at one of the last good weeks of weather, generally … at least it used to be that way,” he added with a smile considering all of the rainy weather this summer. “And it’s a storied rivalry. We understand that. We’re not losing sight of that.
“But I just want our focus more on ourselves and what our task is at hand – and that’s every day getting better and knowing our jobs as good as we can going into this one so we can play it as fast and physical as we need to be.”
While the Stampeders have won on Labour Day each of the last seven years, the Eskimos will be looking to end that streak on Monday.
“We’ve got an excellent football team so we expect a heck of a ball game,” Lolley said.
“We’ve played 10 games,” said Maas. “We’ve hung tough with every team we’ve played. They’ve all been battles. They’ve all been hard-fought games.”
The Labour Day Classic has usually been a hard-fought game. Five of the last seven Classics has come down to the final three minutes, including last year’s game when Calgary’s Rene Paredes kicked a game-winning field goal on the last play of the game. There were three lead changes and four tied scores during last year’s game to end the Stampeders’ streak of five consecutive wire-to-wire victories on Labour Day.
The team that scores first has won 12 of the last 17 Classics, although that didn’t work in the Eskimos’ favour last year.
- The Eskimos averaged 13 penalties during the first eight games, but only seven penalties the last two games.
- First-year defensive back Tyquwan Glass will make his seventh start in his ninth game of the season when he returns to the lineup at defensive half on the wide side of the field while Josh Johnson slides over to field (wide side) corner in place of the injured Arjen Colquhoun.