Jon Cornish was late getting to the dressing room after his Calgary Stampeders put the finishing touches on a 28-13 Labour Day Classic victory over the Edmonton Eskimos that was anything but a classic. Calgary won it going away. If these are the top two teams in the Canadian Football League this season, then the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 seems like a very deep chasm.
Cornish had taken time to deliver the game ball to his mother, a sort of belated birthday present.
He’d earned that ball in just his second game after recovering from a concussion – he rushed for 100 yards in the first half alone, and added a back-breaking second-half touchdown en route to a sparkling 163-yard effort.
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But Cornish echoed the sentiments of nearly everyone who watched the now 8-1 Stamps roll over the 7-2 Esks. The Stamps won by 15, but it really wasn’t that close.
Once again, the game was won thanks to the staunch play of the Stampeders’ defensive unit, which hounded Edmonton’s backup quarterback Matt Nichols. Nichols started in the place of the injured Mike Reilly, and was never really able to get a sustained attack going.
“When you’re able to stop teams on the goal line and stop teams in the green zone, it’s huge,” said Cornish. “I mean, it really shifts momentum and demoralizes the other team. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not want to play against our defence.”
For the fourth time in eight games, the Stampeders held an opponent without an offensive touchdown. The Esks’ only TD came after a blocked punt by Willie Jefferson in the first quarter – Otha Foster scooped it up and ran 57 yards to the end zone.
That threatened to shift the momentum of a game that had been going Calgary’s way right from the start. But according to head coach John Hufnagel, the Stamps are an experienced enough team that a little bit of early adversity was not about to deter them.
“We’ve had bad things happen to us before,” said Hufnagel. “The sign of a good football team is, just move on. We can’t get that play back, but we can do a lot of good things on the plays coming up.”
With the victory, the Stampeders moved a game ahead of the Eskimos in the battle for first place in the Western Division. The teams meet again in Edmonton Saturday for the third and final time this season, but Calgary has already won the season series, which is the first playoff tie-breaker if the teams finish the regular season with identical records.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Eskimos head coach Chris Jones. “I told the guys just now it was the most disappointing part of the year. We didn’t bring our A game today. We didn’t have the energy that we normally have and we didn’t fly around, especially defensively, like we have.”
The Eskimos kept it close in the first half, largely because of special-teams play and a couple of key penalty calls against the Stamps. But a roughing-the-kicker call against the Eskimos’ Alonzo Lawrence early in the third quarter kept a 102-yard Calgary drive alive, culminating in Cornish’s three-yard TD plunge.
That gave the Stampeders a 25-10 lead and, after that, they turned to Cornish to help them run off the clock. They lost offensive lineman Dan Federkeil with an undisclosed injury in the first half, but it didn’t seem to affect their ability to push back the Eskimos defensive line when needed.
The closest the Edmonton offence came to scoring came when A.J. Guyton dropped what looked like a sure TD pass from Nichols just before halftime that could have brought the Esks to within a point. Instead, they had to settle for a field goal.
“I felt like we were moving the ball, but then kind of stalling out at midfield,” said Nichols. “We just had some penalties at bad times. I missed on a few throws here and there, a couple dropped balls, just the little things, penalties at the wrong time. Those little things add up and can stall out an offence.”
But according to Jones, a lot of the Eskimos’ struggles on offence came because of how well the Stamps played on defence. The Calgary defensive line was led by end Shawn Lemon, the former Eskimo who had a particularly effective day. And he made it clear this was personal.
“I take a lot of pride in what I do,” said Lemon. “To be released the way I was released in Edmonton, that still sticks with me. I wanted to wreak havoc on them today, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Tried – and succeeded.