The first meeting of the Calgary Stampeders and defending Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimos this regular season showcases the CFL’s top two quarterbacks.
Edmonton’s Mike Reilly and Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell rank first and second, respectively, in passing yards and touchdown throws heading into Monday’s Labour Day game at McMahon Stadium.
Reilly is the first pivot to amass more than 3,000 passing yards (3,096) at the halfway mark since Doug Flutie’s 3,219 in 1996. He’s thrown 16 touchdown passes to Mitchell’s 15.
Mitchell was 143 yards shy of 3,000 after nine games. The 26-year-old continues to build an impressive resume as a CFL starter. He’s a career 35-7-1 for a league-record win percentage of .826.
The Stampeders (7-1-1) boast the better first-half record.
The Eskimos (5-4) took longer to get going under new head coach Jason Maas and new defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides, but are riding a three-game winning streak into Monday.
Mitchell says he feels Reilly’s influence in a game.
“When you’re playing an elite quarterback and not maybe a rookie because of injury or something like that, there’s a little bit more sense of urgency to score and put up touchdowns rather than field goals because you know the other team can do it in a hurry,” Mitchell said Sunday.
Reilly played down the quarterback showdown.
“There’s not a single position in this league that wins or loses football games,” the 31-year-old stated. “There’s nothing that I’m going to do to win a football game by myself. There’s nothing Bo’s going to do to win a football game by himself. It’s going to be our collective teams and how we play.
“We’re always trying to do better than a field goal. We’re always trying to score touchdowns, but it’s never an issue of you’re going to go out there and press.”
Mitchell’s offensive line will have a different look Monday. Spencer Wilson shifts to centre for the injured Pierre Lavertu with Ucambre Williams making his second start this season at right tackle.
“The only difference with Spencer is obviously the ball spins the opposite way since he’s left-handed,” Mitchell said.
The quarterbacks get top billing for this year’s Labour Day clash, which will feature a flypast of CF-18 Hornets to mark military appreciation day. The forecast is for a high of 17 C and there is a risk of a thunderstorm.
But a key matchup is Eskimos star receiver Adarius Bowman renewing acquaintances with veteran defensive back Brandon Smith.
Bowman is 44 receiving yards from 1,000 this season and has five touchdown passes. Smith wants to get on Bowman’s hip quickly so he doesn’t become a target for Reilly.
“He’s regarded as one of the best receivers in the league, so any time you can line up against a guy like that, it’s always a good challenge,” Smith said.
“We’ve played each other quite a few times. We have mutual respect for each other. We don’t really get into a mouthing-off battle.”
Said Bowman: “I’ve always voted B. Smith as one of the best DBs in this league since he’s been in. He pattern reads very, very well. I always like the challenge when he comes in. I’ve always enjoyed going against this guy.”
Last year’s Labour Day game was a turning point in Edmonton’s season. Although the Esks lost 16-7, Reilly played most of the fourth quarter in his first game action after tearing knee ligaments in the season-opener.
With his arms and his legs, Reilly had his team threatening to pull out a win in a low-scoring affair.
The Eskimos didn’t lose another game en route to a Grey Cup title. That run included a pair of regular-season wins over Calgary and another in the West Division final. Edmonton also beat Calgary 23-13 in the preseason.
“Every year, we look at this as ‘Okay, this is really when we want to start putting a streak of great football together,’” Reilly said.
“It’s hard to do for the length of time that we did last season, but generally, these games are ones that really start to become important. The jostling for position in the divisions really starts to take a turn at this point in the season.”
It will be a short week of recovery for both teams as the Battle of Alberta resumes Saturday in Edmonton.