On the field, where almost none of the action occurred in a volatile week for the Calgary Stampeders, general manager and head coach John Hufnagel will tell you that it makes no difference to him what it says on running back Jon Cornish’s birth certificate.
That Cornish is a Canadian matters less than his football playing abilities, and on Sunday, when the Stamps take on the B.C. Lions in the CFL’s West Division final, that’s all Hufnagel cares about.
In a week where starting quarterback Drew Tate was ruled out of action because of a fractured forearm, and slotback Nik Lewis got into hot water with the CFL for an offensive tweet, the Stampeders will rely on Cornish’s steadiness and professionalism to qualify for the 100th Grey Cup. Calgary scored a division-leading 535 points this season, mostly with quarterback Kevin Glenn at the controls, but it will be up against a B.C. defence that permitted a league-low 354 points.
In perhaps the most interesting subplot of the matchup, the Stamps and the Lions share a unique luxury – the ability to use a Canadian as a feature back. Accordingly, there is temptation to see the game as a showdown between Cornish and his B.C. counterpart, Andrew Harris.
After all, Cornish, born in Burnaby, B.C., led the CFL in rushing with 1,457 yards this regular season; Harris finished third with 1,112. Harris, born in Winnipeg, led the league in total yards from the line of scrimmage (1,830); Cornish finished in second place with 1,795 yards.
These were unprecedented achievements for two non-import backs and came about in Calgary partly because the Stamps turned the starting job over to Cornish after cutting ties with Joffrey Reynolds.
Cornish responded to his increased workload with a breakthrough season, finishing with more run yardage than any other Canadian running back in history. In 20 weeks, he was selected the CFL’s top Canadian eight times, while Harris won the honour three times. Their respective seasons may lead you to think there’s an evolution going on here, but Cornish is not so sure.
“I’m not sure I’m prepared to say it’s a trend,” he said. “I’m going to say Andrew Harris is a very special athlete. For him to be able to come through the junior program and do what he’s done, it just doesn’t happen. I’m saying he’s a rare specimen.
“For me, I didn’t take the traditional route either. I would say we’ve both established ourselves in different ways, in different places, but I would say it’s more of a rarity than a trend.”
Cornish is the more powerful back, Harris far shiftier.
“I would say he is more of a hybrid runner,” Cornish said. “I would say he’s a better open-field runner than I am. He’s gifted with a great set of talents. Sometimes, I find myself wishing I had some of those talents.
“It’s a good opportunity to go head-to-head. I know he’s looking forward to playing against us. I’m looking forward to it too.”
This will be the 11th time Calgary plays B.C. in the playoffs. Their most recent meeting came in the 2008 final, when the Stampeders won 22-18 en route to their sixth Grey Cup title. Overall, the Stamps have won seven of their 10 previous playoff matchups.
B.C. took two of three games this season, including a 27-22 victory on Oct. 6 at B.C. Place Stadium. Both teams finished the regular season with 10-3 records in their final 13 games.
Indoors, with the roof closed at B.C. Place, the Stampeders anticipate it could be a madhouse. To prepare, they piped in artificial crowd noise over the speakers at McMahon Stadium during practices this week. Cornish thought it was a prudent move, given how when the decibel count rises, “we can’t have a cadence.”
“It gets your mind ready,” Cornish said. “I think they’ve sold 50,000 tickets already, so that’s a big crowd. That’s going to be our biggest crowd of the season. So it’ll be loud. B.C. Place is loud off the bat and it’s going to be closed as well. So we have to be focused and do whatever we need to do to win.”
Calgary enters the game fresh off a 36-30 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division semi-final, in which Cornish ran for 109 yards on 18 carries. Overall, he had 140 yards in three regular-season games versus the Lions, a span that included his worst individual outing of the season – a 34-8 loss in the fifth week, when he was held to a season-low minus-one yard on six carries.
From there, Cornish’s season took off, as did Calgary’s.
“The coaching staff has always told me, ‘Get five. Don’t worry about making big plays, get five yards and do your thing after that,’” Cornish said. “I think we succeeded in that.”