November 9, 2019

Eskimos take positive approach to playoffs

The Eskimos are using the power of positive thinking as they approach Sunday’s East Division Semifinal against the Montreal Alouettes.

Game time is 11 a.m. MT at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium in Montreal (TSN, 630 CHED).

“It’s all about belief,” said Eskimos cornerback Arjen Colquhoun. “It’s nothing crazy. There’s no recipe to it. You saw what happened with the (Washington) Nationals. They won four games on the road (in Major League Baseball’s recent World Series championship).

“That’s the talk right now – belief,” Colquhoun continued. “There’s stuff that’s happening right now in the world that hasn’t happened before so why not let us be the first team to cross over to the East (Division) and win the Grey Cup.

“What we’re talking about is people who are doing amazing things. We talked about this marathon runner (Kenya’s 34-year-old Eliud Kipchogewho, an Olympic champion) who ran a marathon in under two hours.”

Kipchoegewho’s time of one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge at Vienna, Austria, in October will not be considered an official world record because the event was not a race but held in a controlled environment.

“So a lot of things are being done this year that hasn’t been done,” said Colquhoun. “That’s the belief, and that’s what we’re going to stick with, and we’re going to do something that hasn’t been done yet.”

Another component of the Eskimos’ positive approach this weekend is throwing out the 2019 regular season as if it was as meaningless as used bathwater with its negativity of a 2-7 record in their last nine games and a 3-6 record on the road.

“Everybody’s win-loss record right now is the same (0-0),” said General Manager/Vice President of Football Operations Brock Sunderland. “Our focus is entirely on Montreal. Everything that’s happened before this point doesn’t matter anymore.”

The most positive aspect the Eskimos can hang their hat on right now is believing that a healthy Trevor Harris at quarterback and a healthy CJ Gable at running back can make a world of difference.

Harris, who passed for 4,027 yards – second-most in the CFL – in a little more than 12 full games, will play only his second game in two months while Gable will play for the first time in five weeks.

The Esks, who clinched a playoff berth on Oct. 12 and rested a handful of veterans in the final game of the regular season last weekend, had an 8-10 record this year while the Als finished at 10-8.

“To have your starting quarterback back and healthy at this time of year is great,” Head Coach Jason Maas said. “We’ve been without him for a number of weeks now. We’ve done what we needed to do to get to this point, but now he’s ready to roll. This is the reason we protected him the last game and, really, the last five weeks. Hopefully, this is going to pay off for us.”

Harris, who said his injured throwing arm feels like it’s 12 years old again, hadn’t played since Sept. 7 when he stepped into the lineup against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Oct. 26. He then felt all the emotions of “a really super-passionate fan who had been rooting for the Eskimos my whole life” while watching last week’s final game of the regular season against the Riders from the sidelines in Regina.

“As much as you want to treat every game the same and you do – you always bring the same energy, the same focus, the same effort – there’s something different in the air when playoffs come here,” said Harris, who delivered two huge playoff performances in the East Division with the Ottawa RedBlacks during the past two years. “We’ve been waiting for this moment ever since we found out we had clinched (a playoff berth) and we were going to be crossing over.

“Obviously, we wish that things would have gone differently this year and we were in the West with a first-round bye, but that’s not the case,” he added. “But these are the games that have a lot of weight to them. These are the ones you play for … so it’ll be a lot of fun.”

Harris, who will be playing in the East Division playoffs for a seventh time in eight years, completed 37 of 60 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-20 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 2017 East Semifinal and made good on 29 of 32 passes (a sizzling-hot 90.6 completion percentage) for 367 yards and a CFL playoff-record six TD receptions in last year’s East Final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – a 46-27 victory.

“That’s what he’s capable of every time he steps on the field,” Maas said. “Any time you’ve done it before means you can do it again.”

The Eskimos will also have their full complement of receivers back in the lineup, including slotback Greg Ellingson, who had 86 catches for 1,170 yards this season – his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard performance. Ellingson’s former teams (Hamilton in ’13 and ’14 and Ottawa in ’15, ’16 and ’18) have played in five of the last six Grey Cups.

“All you’ve got to do is get in the dance,” Ellingson said. “I’ve been on teams who’ve been through this before where you’re below .500, and you make a run. As long as you’re playing your best football right now and you to play that day and move on to the next round, that’s all that matters.

“We feel like we’re a good team,” he continued. “We’ve felt like that all year. Not every game is going to go your way, but you’re going to learn lessons throughout the year in wins or losses, whether they’re close or by a big margin. This is the time of year you put all that together and make it stick. It’s win or go home, so you better learn from what you’ve had adversity-wise … and make sure that each play means something.”

Ricky Collins, Jr., was also a 1,000-yard receiver with 1,103 yards on 78 catches while DaVaris Daniels (54 receptions for 738 yards in 13 games) was the deep threat, with four pass-and-run plays of 51 or more yards.

Of course, there’s also rookie wide receiver Tevaun Smith, who leads the team with six touchdown catches, including five in his last eight games.

“I think you’re seeing flashes of what he can be and what he will be in the future,” said Harris, who has a lifetime record of 8-3 against the Alouettes.

The Eskimos have added another option to the offence by having both Gable and backup running back Shaq Cooper (352 rushing yards and 112 receiving yards in five games) on the roster with the possibility of playing both of them on the field at the same time.

“CJ and Shaq both give us great elements and they are both polar opposites in terms of their style and things they do well,” Harris said. “It’ll be a lot of fun to employ both of them.”

The Eskimos will have the same starting offensive line for the fourth game in a row, with rookie Kyle Saxelid (a 2019 second-round draft pick) starting at left tackle. The rest of the O-line, which led the CFL with only 25 quarterback sacks allowed, are veterans Jacob Ruby at left guard, centre David Beard, right guard Matt O’Donnell and right tackle Colin Kelly. All are national players, except Kelly.

Versatile players save the day

The Eskimos aren’t as fortunate on the defensive side of the ball, with veteran defensive back Forrest Hightower, who has played the last three games at field (wide-side) corner, and second-year defensive halfback Monshadrik (Money) Hunter both sidelined with injuries.

On the plus side, Edmonton has a lot of depth in the secondary, with versatile Tyquwan Glass able to shift from field halfback to boundary (short-side) corner this week while veteran Josh Johnson moves from boundary corner to boundary halfback in place of Hunter, who was injured late in Thursday’s practice.

Glass, 25, who played in nine games with the Alouettes last year, has started nine of his 14 games at four different positions in the defensive backfield – field halfback (five games), boundary halfback (two games) and field corner and boundary corner (one game each).

Meanwhile, rookie Brian Walker steps in at field halfback for a third time this year. He also made six starts at SAM (strong-side) linebacker and was a backup at field half in six games.

Godfrey Onyeka, the Eskimos’ second-round pick (10th overall) in the 2018 CFL Draft, replaces Hightower at field corner. It’ll be his fourth start of the season, but first since starting the first three games of the season.

“We still have a lot of guys,” Colquhoun said about the secondary. “We still have AJ (Anthony Orange, who is still on the injured list). We have a loaded roster. That’s what we built this team for, and this is the run we have to make.”

Colquhoun, the Eskimos second-round draft pick in 2016, has missed almost half the season after suffering a partially torn plantar fasciitis in his foot on the Aug. 23 game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He was added to the game roster on Thursday after only one practice.

“It’s just refreshing,” he said about returning to the practice field. “Just to be back out here, running around is awesome. Being cooped up in there, working out all day, being in the training room, it’s not fun. I want to be able to talk to my guys and tell them what I see and be engaged with them.”

Colquhoun said his injury usually takes 10 to 12 weeks to heal, but he was able to come back early because his foot has responded well to treatment.

“It felt good today,” he said on Thursday. “I was really just testing it to see what could happen if they needed me. It was my first practice (in 11 weeks), but I’m good to go.”

The other unexpected additions to the roster are 31-year-old defensive lineman Stefan Charles, who will make his CFL debut six years after being selected by the Eskimos in the second round of the 2013 CFL Draft, and kick-returner Jamill Smith, a six-year veteran who played nine games with the Eskimos over the 2017 and ’18 seasons.

Smith, 28, was one of six players the Eskimos added to the team’s practice roster earlier this week. He takes over from Christion Jones, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 26 against the Roughriders.

“We wanted to bring in people who have done it before in games … and understand the Canadian rules, first and foremost,” Sunderland said. “TraVon (Van) can be a running back, and Jamill can be a receiver, so they’re depth moves. They can play a position, and then they give us the extra bonus of being a (kick) returner, as well.”

The other players the Eskimos signed this week were: American defensive lineman Jake Ceresna, American defensive back Keon Lyn and national offensive linemen Josiah St. John and DJ Sackey. Ceresna (last year) and Van (2017) have previously played with the Green and Gold.

“Our goal and our hope is to be playing for three more weeks and, hopefully, to be in Calgary at the end of the month,” said Sunderland, who had room on the club’s practice roster to add some veteran players who “can help us if need be.”

“So we did thinking long-term,” he added. “A lot of these guys are familiar with what we do scheme-wise, so that was the reason behind it.”

Short Yardage

The Eskimos have 25 players with previous playoff experience. Collectively, they have played in 53 division semifinals, 56 finals and 18 Grey Cups, winning nine CFL championships.

Of those 25 players with playoff experience, 17 have played in the East Division playoffs, including seven players with a crossover team from the West Division. Fullback Calvin McCarty has crossed over three previous times (2016, ’12 and ’08) while defensive nosetackle Almondo Sewell was with the Eskimos in ’16 and ’12.

With the exception of 11 Grey Cup showdowns, the only time the Eskimos and Alouettes have met in a playoff game was the 2008 East Final. Montreal, which won that 36-26, is a perfect 5-0 against crossover opponents.

Since the CFL went to a 16-game schedule, the eight-win season represents the second-fewest wins Edmonton has had and still made the playoffs. They were also 6-12 in 1999.

The East Semifinal will be Montreal’s first playoff game since 2014.

The teams split two games during the regular season, each winning at home.