Jon Cornish and the Calgary Stampeders are heading into the CFL playoffs on a nice roll.
Calgary ended its regular season with a fourth straight victory, a 30-27 decision over the Edmonton Eskimos on Friday night. The Stampeders (12-6) had already clinched second in the West and the right to host the division semifinal Sunday but will do so with the CFL’s second-best record behind B.C. (13-5) after winning eight-of-10 games since Sept. 3.
Calgary will host Saskatchewan in playoff action next weekend. The Riders (8-10) were one of two teams to beat the Stampeders down the stretch, registering a 30-25 victory on Sept. 23.
But while Calgary is the CFL’s hottest team heading into the playoffs, the Riders are limping in, having lost four straight.
The Toronto Argonauts (9-9) will host Edmonton (7-11) in the East Division semifinal Sunday. The Argos finished second in the conference, while the Eskimos were last in the West but grabbed the crossover berth by posting a better record than the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers (both 6-12).
Saskatchewan will also have to contend with a formidable Calgary ground attack anchored by Cornish.
The native of New Westminster, B.C., was the CFL’s leading rusher this season with 1,457 yards and the first Canadian to be the league’s top runner since Ottawa’s Orville Lee in 1988. Cornish also surpassed the legendary Norm Kwong (1,437 yards in ‘56) as the top-rushing Canuck in a season.
But Cornish is by no means the lone offensive weapon in Calgary’s arsenal.
Veteran slotback Nik Lewis had a league-high 100 catches and was fourth overall in receiving yards with 1,241 and also had 10 TD grabs.
Toronto’s Chad Owens enjoyed a record-setting 2012 campaign, establishing a new combined yards mark of 3,863 to break the previous mark of 3,840 held by former Argo Mike (Pinball) Clemons. But Owens also was the CFL’s top receiver with 94 catches for 1,328 yards and six TDs and led the league in kickoff returns (71 for 1,588 yards).
Remarkably this season, no Canadian-born receiver surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving plateau in 2012. But a player born north of the border led the CFL in yards from scrimmage for the first time since 1967 when Calgary’s Terry Evanshen recorded the feat.
B.C. Lions running back Andrew Harris, a native of Winnipeg, rolled up 1,830 yards (1,112 yards rushing, 718 yards receiving) to finish just 35 yards ahead of Cornish, the first time Canadians finished 1-2 in the category. Harris and Cornish both surpassed the previous high by a Canadian, that being Evanshen with 1,662 yards 45 years ago.
Harris also narrowly missed out becoming the first player since Willie Fleming of the 1963 Lions to finish the season as his team’s rushing and receiving leader. Slotback Shawn Gore was the Lions’ top receiver with 720 yards, two more than Harris.
B.C. head coach Mike Benevides, a Toronto native, had quite the rookie campaign, posting a league-best 13-5 record.
Hamilton’s inability to reach the post-season tarnished a record-setting performance by Chris Williams. The diminutive receiver registered a CFL-record six return TDs and finished with a league-leading 17 touchdowns. Not surprising, last year’s top rookie is the Ticats’ nominee for the 2012 outstanding player award.
Ticats quarterback Henry Burris was the CFL’s top passer with 5,367 yards and 43 TDs — both career highs. He also finished with a league-best 104.4 passer rating as Burris and B.C.’s Travis Lulay — last year’s outstanding player award winner — were the only players to end the year with a passer rating over 100.
Despite the prolific offensive accomplishments in 2012, Edmonton linebacker J.C. Sherritt had a season to remember. The Eskimos star registered a league-record 130 tackles, breaking the mark of 129 set by Toronto’s Calvin Tiggle in 1994.
The defending Grey Cup-champion Lions boasted the CFL’s top defence in 2012 as the unit led in 18 of the league’s 25 categories, including fewest points (19.7 per game), yards allowed (294.6, only team under 300) and sacks (47). Defensive lineman Keron Williams was the league’s top pass rusher with 12 sacks, one ahead of Calgary’s Charleston Hughes.
Lions linebacker Adam Bighill was stellar in 2012, second overall in tackles with 104 while also adding nine sacks. Offensively, B.C. also set a CFL record for fewest turnovers (23) with the previous mark being 28. Montreal also did a good job of protecting the football with 28 giveaways.
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