There is sort of this unwritten mindset that the CFL season truly doesn’t start until Labour Day. That’s no doubt an odd philosophy, especially when you consider the wins in June are just as valuable as they are in September or October. Then you have games like this one: Over the course of franchise history, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger week six matchup than this one for your 4-1 BC Lions. All that is at stake against the 4-0 Edmonton Eskimos on Friday is first place in the ultra-competitive Western Division and perhaps the regular season series, which would come into play if the teams finish with the same record when all is said and done.
Wally Buono has seen it all and done it all in his three-plus decades roaming the sidelines. Naturally, he has learned that even though this matchup in the Alberta Capital is big, it couldn’t and shouldn’t define their season.
“It’s not just another game and it’s not more than game number six,” said the CFL Godfather and master of putting things in perspective.
“Whether it’s Edmonton or whoever else you’re playing, they’re all physical, they’re all tough. The league this year is as balanced as it’s been in many, many years. Edmonton has a very good football team, they’ve played hard, they’ve had their ups and downs in games, but they’ve always found a way to win. When you look at our team we’re not much different.”
Edmonton prevailed 30-27 in the season opener at BC Place and has won their four games by a combined total of 12 points. That tells you just how razor thin these teams are when you separate them.
The Lions did some good things in that game and managed to erase a ten-point 4th quarter deficit before Shaun Whyte’s winning field goal as time expired. The real dagger came when Mike Reilly connected with Brandon Zylstra on a 76-yard yard completion to set them up in field goal range in the dying seconds.
The defence overall has improved greatly since week one, and should relish the opportunity to face the always-dangerous Reilly for a second time. As always, the emphasis will remain on limiting those big plays.
“Everyone knows his name for a reason, he’s a great quarterback and he’ll beat you with his will” said linebacker/special teams ace Micah Awe.
“That (the big plays) is the talk every week, but especially with a guy who can do it. He has a big arm like that and we’ve just got to do our job. Sometimes they’re going to get us, but we just have to make sure we get them when they get us.”
As far as injury updates go for the visitors, Emmanuel Arceneaux is expected to dress after taking limited reps. in practice to rest up lingering shoulder and leg problems. Maurice Morgan has been added to the roster as a precaution and will back up Arceneaux at his inside slot position.
“He feels good and should be ready to go,” said Buono of Arceneaux.
Buddy Jackson will make his Lions debut at halfback, as Anthony Gaitor is still dealing with a leg injury suffered last week. Defensive Lineman Bryant Turner Jr. is out for a second straight game with a wonky ankle.
On the offensive line, Kelvin Palmer makes his season debut at right tackle, ahead of Antonio Johnson. Palmer appeared to win the starting job out of training camp before suffering a knee injury in their final pre-season tune up.
Old Friends Collide
Despite knowing the injury history with both, we were still surprised to dig up the fact Travis Lulay and Reilly have not played against one another since a home and home series in July, 2013, the first season for Reilly in green and gold. Kevin Glenn battled the Eskimos twice in 2014; Reilly was on the shelf in a 2015 visit to BC Place before Jonathon Jennings had the starting job for two meetings at Commonwealth that October. Jennings of course steered the ship in both matchups last season.
The former teammates have exchanged more than a couple text messages leading up to this one.
“This is just the way the football Gods are. It will be fun and it just adds to it a little bit that we’re both on the field,” said Lulay.
“You recognize that football is separate from normal life. Between the white lines we’re both as competitive as it gets, and we’re going to fight like heck for our team to win. We always joke that we hope the other guy plays well, but his receivers drop all the balls. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to check in and say hello before the game.”
In an interview with Esks.com, Reilly initially had some fun when asked to give a scouting report on his former mentor.
“An old, washed up bum. He cannot barely make a throw anymore,” said a clearly tongue in cheek Reilly.
“He’s averaging like over 400 yards. I’m excited to play against Trav. We were talking yesterday that it’s been awhile. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great challenge for us and a great challenge for them to.”
“I guess barring somebody catching a hang nail, we’ll be starting against each other this week.”
You could see Reilly’s potential when he got into six regular season games for the Lions in 2012. Count Lulay as not surprised to see his old buddy make a name for himself and lead the Eskimos to a Grey Cup two years ago.
“He had the right mindset about him and he was around good people in places, like Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. You could tell that’s what he wanted, to be a franchise guy and a starting quarterback. It was a hard for him to leave here, but he knew progressing his career was a step he had to take.”
As the week progresses, Lulay knows he has to put more focus into the stout Eskimos’ defence.
“This is a little more of an experienced group than the last two we faced,” added Lulay.
“They are led by their front. Odell Willis has been rushing passers for years and Almondo Sewell is one of the best interior linemen I have ever faced. It will be a good challenge.
The Big Matchup
It has to be the right side of the offensive line against Willis and Sewell. Our old friend Mike Benevides will have a lot of schemes dialled up for what should be an outstanding battle up front all night.
Hunter Steward is embracing the challenge and ready to turn the tide after a week one setback.
“They’re one of the better d-lines in the league, but I think we’re one of the better o-lines in the league,” explained Steward.
“It will be a good matchup and I know it’s going to be a much better game than the first week.”
They only allowed one quarterback sack in last week’s victory over the Blue Bombers and the entire unit as a whole has improved greatly following some struggles in the first couple of games. It’s a credit to how well offensive line coach Dan Dorazio prepares these men, game in and game out.
“It has got to be better every game and that is all you can really ask for as an offensive line, just slow and steady improvement. As long as you’re getting better every week, you’re on the right track,” added Steward.
Three Keys To Victory
Win the line of scrimmage– You knew this would be a factor. The ability to contain Willis, Sewell and company will go a long way. The defensive line will put extra emphasis on pressuring Reilly and stopping the run game.
Limit the Deep Ball- Reilly may figure he can test the secondary early, just as he was able to take advantage of that opening late in the week one rally. Ronnie Yell and the rest of his ball hawks know what they have to do.
Stay on the Field– The more they can tire out the Eskimos defence, the more likely a fifth straight victory becomes. The Lions’ second down conversion rate has helped their cause so far.
“It’s definitely the biggest game I’ve played. In college we didn’t really have a lot of meaningful games unfortunately, so this one’s a pretty big one and I hope there is a lot more bigger ones down the road”‘- defensive lineman Maxx Forde not downplaying the stakes at hand.
Analytical stats of the week: Lulay’s performances have helped them climb into first overall in the following categories: Offensive points (164), offensive touchdowns (17, tied with Ottawa), rushing touchdowns (10), and net offence (2027 yards, 405.4 average per game). Perhaps the most impressive? They remain on top in average time of possession ( 32:00 per game), which tells you just how good they have been at sustaining drives and keeping the defence fresh.
Time to turn the tide. The Lions have lost four straight meetings at Commonwealth, the last victory coming in his matchup against Reilly on July 13th, 2013. Lulay had both a running and passing touchdown in that rain soaked affair.
The lone visit to Edmonton last year was a tight, 27-23 loss where Arceneaux led the way with 164 yards and two touchdown grabs.
Road warriors. You have to go back to the 11-0 start of 2005 to find the last time they won their first four away games in a regular season. They won their first five away from BC Place in 1999, when they finished 13-5 with Damon Allen at the controls.
In a rather odd scheduling quirk, the two Lions meetings are the only Western Division matchups for the Eskimos until a week nine visit from Winnipeg on August 17th. They host Hamilton next week followed by a visit to Ottawa. Their back loaded divisional schedule should make the races all that more intriguing.
TSN 1040 has you covered, beginning with the pre-game show at 4:30PM. Bob Marjanovich makes his debut as play-by-play man, alongside the veteran Giulio Caravatta. Sideline reporter Lowell Ullrich will be on hand in Edmonton as well. Kickoff is at 6:30PM. Viewers can watch on TSN 1 and fans south of the border can tune in on ESPN 2.
Download the roster and depth chart for Friday night HERE!
Matt Baker: email@example.com