It was a game played on Labour Day, but it was hardly a classic and it went the way so many others have in recent years – to the Calgary Stampeders.
On a day when defences dominated, the Stampeders defeated the visiting Edmonton Eskimos for the 12th consecutive time in CFL regular-season play, this one by a 16-7 score.
The game, played before an announced crowd of 35,400 at McMahon Stadium, marked Calgary's fifth consecutive victory this season. It enabled the Stampeders to open up a two-game lead over the Eskimos atop the Western Conference standings, with the teams set to play a rematch this coming Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.
Even the unexpected return of quarterback Mike Reilly, just days after being activated off injured reserve, could not get the Eskimos' offence going, though Reilly showed tons of mobility for a player coming off knee surgery. And he seemed to galvanize the Eskimos for a time.
By contrast, James Franklin – coming off a solid debut as the Eskimos' starting quarterback last week – struggled to sustain any kind of drive, prompting coach Chris Jones to turn to Reilly. It was a move made out of desperation, but also a sign that the Eskimos will likely go as far this year as Reilly can take them. As he gets into his rhythm, so should the Eskimos offence.
"Absolutely," Reilly said when asked if he was ready to play in the rematch. "I think today I was happy that I had to take off and run a couple times and get tackled a few times. That was really the last thing that I needed to test … whether I could take off and sprint and take a tackle and have my knee feel the same. Today, we learned that information. I feel good about where it's at, but again, that's up to the coaching staff to decide. My job now is … to go out and try to prove every day that I'm ready to go out and play and to get ready to play these guys again."
Stampeders coach John Hufnagel said his team played "good, solid defence" against Franklin: "We made him hold the ball a little bit, which got our defensive line on to him. The best way to defend a quarterback is to bother him – and we bothered him."
Coming off a 38-point outburst against the Toronto Argonauts, the Eskimos' attack ground to a halt against an inspired Stampeders defence, which limited Edmonton to 59 net first-half yards, including only five on the ground. It was a 3-1 cliffhanger deep into the second quarter until the Stampeders scored 10 quick points in the final 2 minutes 20 seconds of play to open up a 13-1 lead at the half. Greg Wilson recorded his first CFL touchdown on a 10-yard toss from quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
That turned out to be the only TD of the game.
From there, the Eskimos managed the only points of the third quarter, on a 23-yard field goal from Sean Whyte that was set up after former Eskimo defensive back Joe Burnett fumbled a punt. Calgary lost punt returner Tim Brown in the second quarter when he landed on his head returning one of Whyte's 14 punts, so Burnett was pressed into service.
Charleston Hughes made an impact in his return to the Stamps' defensive line, helping Calgary register four quarterback sacks, all of them punctuated by a new dance invented by the line.
"It was just something we made up on the fly with my D linemen," Hughes said. "We thought, 'No, let's change it up and just do a Gator Roll and then a kick.'"
"This is the beginning of something good," he added. "This is one of our better games, but we can do better."
As for seeing Reilly on the field, Hughes said: "I was surprised. Even when he was running on the field, I was talking to him. I said, 'What are you doing out here at this time?' I'm pretty sure we're going to see him play this weekend. It is what it is."
"It feels awesome," Burnett, the former Eskimo, said when asked how it felt to be on the winning side of the annual Labour Day game. "I'm all smiles right now, just the fact that I finally got a win on the Labour Day game. I'm glad to be on this side now, on the team that's winning games now."
As for being sent out to return punts, Burnett said: "I'm always licking my chops to get the ball in my hands. I got into a little glitch with punt returning, down in my career.
"I wanted that fumble back. You never want to fumble and turn it over, especially in your own territory to give the other team a chance to score. I wish I could have that one back."