Eskimos have ‘test of character against Bombers before uncertain off-season

As the only West Division team that won’t make the playoffs in a season when the 106th edition of the Grey Cup will be played in their stadium, the Edmonton Eskimos face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Saturday with nothing on the line except pride.

The Eskimos wasted a 5-2 start by going 3-7 in their last 10 games before being officially eliminated from the big pigskin party in their own backyard when the Blue Bombers defeated the Calgary Stampeders 29-21 last Friday. Pride might be cold consolation, but that’s what they’ve got to play for.

“I expect them to go out and do what they’ve been doing. Play together, play hard, fast and physical. I mean, our practices this week have been as good as we’ve had all year,” head coach Jason Maas said.

“Why that’s the case, I’m just thankful they all showed up ready to work. Obviously, they’ve come together. They’ve got a lot of pride in that locker room, a lot of great, veteran leadership that’s shown them the way.”

After a 42-32 loss to the B.C. Lions Oct. 19, the Eskimos hit a bye-week needing help – a win by the Stampeders – to keep their thin playoff hopes alive against the Blue Bombers. They didn’t get it.

The Eskimos can’t even get any meaningful revenge against Winnipeg on Saturday. The Blue Bombers are locked into third place in the West Division no matter what happens, so finishing strong will have to do.

“When I put the jersey on, the green-and-gold jersey, I know the history of this franchise and how this city feels about this team. There’s been a lot of guys that have come through those doors and played before us that took a tremendous amount of pride into building this franchise into what it is. For all of us who step foot onto the field tomorrow, it’s going to be no different,”¬†quarterback Mike Reilly said.

“There’s always pride. You’re always playing for pride. I don’t care if it’s pre-season, regular season, post-season, Grey Cup, when you put on the jersey and step on the field, you’re representing yourself, your family, your team and your city, all those different things. It doesn’t change tomorrow.”

Edmonton general manager Brock Sunderland spent the last week answering questions about what went wrong and what the future might hold for everyone from Maas and his staff to Reilly, who will be a free agent. Those answers will come later. The focus is Saturday and one more game to play.

“You do what you do. You play ball,” said veteran fullback Calvin McCarty. “You only have so many opportunities to leave your mark in this game. It can be taken away at any time. For us to have a chance to go and perform one more time in front of our crowd is big for us.

“This is a real test of character. It shows what guys are made of. It’s easy to go out and perform when everything is in your favour. When that’s taken away, who still wants to play? We’re blessed to have the opportunity to play this game.”

After going 12-6 last season and losing to Calgary in the West Final, many expected the Eskimos to push the Stampeders atop the division this season. Through seven games they did. Then came the 3-7 stretch that has the Eskimos on the outside looking in with the Grey Cup party coming to town.

“When you’re out of the playoffs, finally, and it’s Week 18 but yet you come to work like our guys did, that’s pride,” Maas said. “I was excited to see that, happy to see it.

“Obviously, that’s why I said I’m positive about this week and how I think it’s going to finish.”

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WINNIPEG (10-7) at EDMONTON (8-9)

Saturday, Commonwealth Stadium

LAST TIME – After losing 33-30 to the Eskimos to open the season June 14, the Blue Bombers put on a stifling defensive display in a 30-3 win over Edmonton Sept. 29. Winnipeg held Mike Reilly to a season-low 164 yards passing. Reilly had just 17 completions, no touchdowns and was intercepted twice.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE – Prior to beating Calgary 29-21 last Friday in the game that ended the Eskimos’ playoff hopes, the Blue Bombers had lost nine straight games at home to the Stampeders. Former Edmonton quarterback Matt Nichols passed for 358 yards and two touchdowns in the win.

BOTH WAYS – Winnipeg leads the league in points per game (30.9), offensive points per game (28.4), overall touchdowns (56) and offensive touchdowns (50). Defensively, they’re second in points per game allowed (22.7), offensive points allowed (20.1) and offensive touchdowns allowed (32).

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