The Eskimos seemingly have nothing to play for in terms of the standings.
They are locked into a fourth-place finish in the CFL’s West Division and an East Division Semi-Final playoff berth against the Alouettes at Montreal on Nov. 10.
But that’s not how the Eskimos, 8-8, are approaching a home-and-home series with the Saskatchewan Roughriders during the next two weekends to conclude the regular season.
“We want to win this game,” Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas said about Saturday’s 5 p.m. showdown with the Roughriders at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium (TSN, 630 CHED). “We’re picking the roster that best suits that. We’re not resting anybody (i.e. healthy scratches). This is a game we’re trying to win. We’re trying to finish strong at home.”
The Eskimos have a 5-3 record on home turf this season.
“We know what Sask is coming here playing for,” Maas added, referring to the Riders’ battle with the Calgary Stampeders for first place in the West Division. Both teams are currently tied with 11-5 records while the Winnipeg Blue Bombers sit one win back at 10-7.
“You expect everybody’s best, no matter what,” he said. “The fact they have something to play for probably adds to it, I guess, on their end for motivation.
“But you’re not going to see us play any harder, play any different than what we’ve played all year and we can’t increase our (place in the) standings whatsoever. … Obviously, you want to see how you measure up against the best teams, and they’re one of them. We’re excited to play them. We haven’t played them all year, and they’ve had a great season so far.”
The last Eskimos-Roughriders game was Oct. 8, 2018, at Mosaic Stadium in Regina. That’s 383 days between games. The only time the two rivals have had a longer break was from Aug. 4, 1988-Aug. 30, 1989 (391 days), according to Eskimos stats guru Brian Desjarlais.
“We want to be playing good football at this time of year,” Maas said about building momentum for the playoffs. “Every game is an opportunity to win, to grow as a team. Every week we have is practice opportunities to grow and become the team that we want to be.
“There’s not a team out there that we fear. There’s not a team out there that we don’t feel like we can go out there and do what we need to do to accomplish the goals that we’ve set as a team.”
Business as usual for Harris
The Eskimos will have a big piece to their puzzle back in the lineup this weekend when starting quarterback Trevor Harris makes his first appearance since the Labour Day Rematch game against the Calgary Stampeders on Sept. 7.
Harris played with an injured throwing arm for three games before being forced to leave the field early in the second quarter of the last Calgary game. Backup quarterback Logan Kilgore led the Eskimos to a 2-2 record during four starts in Harris’s absence, clinching Edmonton’s playoff berth in the last game two weeks ago against the BC Lions.
The Eskimos eased their 33-year-old veteran QB back into the practice routine this week by initially limiting the number of throws he made. While he may have been a little rusty after seven weeks on the sidelines, Maas was happy to report that Harris did well all week.
“No pain or anything like that, just about getting back into a groove and finding his throwing motion again,” Maas said. “The time off was needed, obviously. It’s helped, and this week he’s had no ill effects from it. It’s been good to see him progress as the week’s gone on.”
When it comes to Saturday’s contest, it’ll be business as usual for Harris, who still ranks fourth in the league with 3,706 passing yards and third with 316 completions despite playing only 11-1/4 games.
“We’ve talked about just playing him for the whole game,” Maas said about how Harris will be used in Saturday’s game. “As long as he’s in there and he feels good, he’s going 2019-10-26t2019-10-26o go.
“We’ve said it all along, as soon as Trevor is ready, he’s playing. There’s no one-quarter, two-quarter, three-quarter count. It’s if you’re starting, you’re finishing as long as he feels good to do that, and we expect that to happen.’’
100-yard rushing games are Cooper’s thing
Unfortunately, the Eskimos won’t have all of their starting players on the field this weekend.
“We don’t have everybody on our roster completely healthy,” Maas admitted. “Guys are close. Guys have been playing banged up or nicked up, which everybody at this time of year is generally doing, but you want to go into the playoffs as close to 100 per cent with everybody as possible.”
One player who won’t be in the lineup on Saturday is veteran running back CJ Gable, who is currently three yards shy of rushing for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
Gable suffered a lower-body injury on Oct. 4 against the Tiger-Cats at Hamilton.
That opened the door for second-year running back Shaquille (Shaq) Cooper to play in the Eskimos’ last game against the Lions on Oct. 12. Cooper rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries but was disappointed when he discovered that he had failed to reach the 100-yard mark for a third time in his four CFL starts.
“I don’t get too many opportunities,” Cooper said. “I just make the best of them.”
The 26-year-old running back from Coral Gables, Fla., previously rushed for 128 yards while catching five passes for another 48 yards against the Toronto Argonauts in July. He also ran for 102 yards against the Montreal Alouettes in 2018.
“I’ve been preparing for this moment forever, since last year, and I’m ready,” said Cooper, who had 12 100-yard rushing games and a pair of 200-yard performances during his college career at Fort Hays State. “Just having fun for the most part and telling myself that I can do it. It’s football at the end of the day, so it’s nothing different. Just a faster game. Go out there and execute.”
Playing against the Roughriders, a team, the Eskimos could potentially play in the Grey Cup championship game if they get on a roll during the playoffs is a great measuring stick for Cooper and the Green and Gold.
“I can show the league, and I can show my coaches that they can believe in me and trust me and I can show everybody what I can do against good teams,” he said.
Maas already believes in the five-foot-10, 190-pound running back, whose running style is quite different than Gable’s.
“He’s been effective,” Maas said. “Any time he’s played for us, he’s generally been able to do his job. He blocks well. He catches the ball out of the backfield. He’s explosive every time he touches the ball.”
Maas pointed out that Cooper works hard all the time, even when he’s had to patiently bide his time on the practice roster waiting for another opportunity.
“We give out a practice roster player of the week (award) every week, and he’s won it four times this year,” Maas said. “That just tells you what kind of practice player he is for us, as well, and his willingness to do anything it takes for us to win.
“You root for a guy like him who is able to do that and, when he gets his opportunity to play, he’s going to be able to do that, as well. I expect big things from him.”
Sean Whyte, who celebrated his 34th birthday on Wednesday, has kicked 24 consecutive field goals since Aug. 9. He owns the Eskimos record of 25 successful field goals in a row set over the 2016-17 seasons.
Whyte has scored 168 points this season, making a career-high 46 field goals on 51 attempts, 29 of 30 converts and a punt single. His career high is 193 points, including seven punt singles and a kickoff single, when he played with the Alouettes in 2011.
The Eskimos record for most field goals in a season is 50 by Dave Cutler in 1977. Sean Fleming, the Eskimos’ leader in career field goals (553), kicked 47 three-pointers in 1994. Whyte already broke the club record for field goals in a game by kicking seven on two different occasions this season.
Huge O’Neill needs five punts and 195 punt yards to tie Tom Dixon for ninth place on the Eskimos’ all-time punts (314) and punt yardage (4,120) lists.
Besides Harris, Global special teams player Maxime Rouyer (France) and rookie Canadian wide receiver Tevaun Smith (43 catches for 457 yards and four touchdowns) also return to the lineup this week. Rouyer and Smith sat out the last game.
Rookie backup quarterbacks Jeremiah Briscoe and Troy Williams, who were both on the game roster against BC, have been moved to the practice roster along with Global wide receiver Diego Viamontes (Mexico) and fullback Peter Cender, a 2019 draft pick.