OTTAWA — In case they forget, which they never would, the Calgary Stampeders will have a little reminder on Sunday of what happened the last time they played in a Grey Cup.
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For them, getting to the 105th Grey Cup presented by Shaw — their third championship game in four years — is special in itself. But last year’s 39-33 loss to the Ottawa REDBLACKS is a painful reminder that in this league, there is no consolation for second.
“It’s crazy to be able to look up and see ‘2016’ right behind our bench,” said Stampeders safety Josh Bell, pointing to the banner hanging along TD Place nearly one year after the biggest upset in CFL history. “They won in 2016, and we’re right here. And if you can’t put that together and get a few goosebumps rolling across your skin . . . We’re going to come out now, hair on fire.”
The Stamps will take on the East Division Champion Toronto Argonauts in front of a full house at TD Place on Sunday night in the CFL’s pinnacle game in the nation’s capital.
For the Red and White, Sunday’s rumble is a story about redemption. Unfinished business. How last year, after finishing the season 15-2-1 and falling just shy of the single-season wins record, the Stampeders also fell to the 8-9-1 REDBLACKS in the game that mattered most.
The Argos’ story is equally compelling. A win on Sunday would cap off a turnound of epic proportion, not only from a 5-13 season a year ago but from a franchise that, just nine months ago, went into free agency with neither a head coach nor a general manager.
Enter Jim Popp and Marc Trestman, who needed merely months to change the culture for the Argos, leading them to a 9-9 record and their first division title since 2013.
“It’s been a long journey for a lot of us,” said Argos starting quarterback Ricky Ray. “Just with all those changes and trying to come together with the new coaching staff, a new GM, a lot of new players – we’ve kind of had to start from ground zero and build that back up.”
While the Stampeders find themselves the favorite for the second straight year, the game on paper suggests these cross-division foes, who last met in a Grey Cup in 2012, are much closer than they appear.
The Stamps swept the season series with Toronto, outscoring the Argos 64-31 in two games. But while the Stamps dominated their previous meeting, holding Toronto to 18 rushing yards and not allowing a single offensive point, the Argos are a changed team since then.
Trestman’s club has gone 6-2 down the final stretch of the season, with the losses coming on the game’s final possession against strong opponents in Edmonton and Saskatchewan.
The turnaround started with the emergence of James Wilder Jr. and one of the CFL’s most dominant running games, which went from averaging a league-low 65.4 rushing yards per game through 11 contests to 120.1 per game the last eight.
“We’re a different team,” said Ray. “We’ve been playing a lot better since August, we’ve improved a lot as a football team. I understand that they’re probably a different team too and they’re playing at the top of their game as well, but that’s how we feel. I think the rest of the guys feel we’re playing our best football at this point in the season and that’s been the difference.”
The Argos’ newfound success on the ground has taken some pressure off the quarterback and also helped to isolate a talented trio of receivers in S.J. Green, DeVier Posey and Armanti Edwards.
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Wilder, meanwhile, can do it all, coming into Sunday’s contest with 1,405 yards from scrimmage this season. His catch downfield on a late third-and-five helped the Argos manufacture an eight-play touchdown drive, leading the Argos to a 25-21 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Eastern Final.
Also key to the Argos’ late-season run has been their defense. The addition of Mitchell White has shaved 10 yards per game off the Argos’ pass defense, with that unit ranking third in the CFL against the pass (267.9 yards per game) and second in total defense (329.1).
Toronto’s run defense led the CFL in allowing 82.8 yards per game, while only the Stampeders could match the Argos’ pass rush, with both teams leading the league with 50 quarterback sacks.
At the end of the day, for the Argos, it’s all about Ray. The runner up for Most Outstanding Player led the CFL by throwing for 300-plus yards on 13 occasions. He went over the 5,000-yard mark in a season for the fourth time in his career. He also operated at an efficient 71 per cent completion rating.
Staying healthy has been the key for the 38-year-old veteran — Ray missed one game this season due to a shoulder injury — allowing him to compete in the fifth Grey Cup of his career. A victory for the Argos’ signal-caller would give him the all-time lead for Grey Cup victories by a starting quarterback.
After the game, regardless of the result, much of the talk will turn to Ray’s future as Sunday could mark the final game of his career.
From Calgary’s perspective, a three-game losing streak to close out the season feels like a distant memory. The Stampeders were their usual selves in the Western Final, a 32-28 win over the Edmonton Eskimos in which they rolled up 400 yards and did not commit a single turnover.
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Marken Michel, Roy Finch, Marquay McDaniel and Jerome Messam all scored touchdowns for Calgary, which more resembled the team that started 13-1-1 before the late-season slump.
“I think the entire team as a whole, we have a quiet confidence and we’re excited about this game,” said Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. “We are confident about our game plan, we’re confident about one another and we’re confident we’re going to come out here and get the job done as long as we do what we’re supposed to do.”
Mitchell, whose 56-10-2 record as a starter gives him the best winning percentage ever among quarterbacks, says he believes the Stampeders have learned from their Grey Cup pitfall a year ago, when the team may have been a little complacent.
“I feel it, I feel the guys are locked in. Every detail – Dave’s on the guys on details. They understand, they’ve bought in. Honestly I think guys feel good about what we have to do. Last year was different. We were a different team last year. We are locked in, we’re confident. We’re ready to go.”
Offensively, the Stampeders’ offense is trying to regain its early 2017 form. That unit struggled over the back half of the season, averaging 17.1 first downs per game compared to 22.4 per game in the first half. The Stampeders have also lost the time of possession battle in six of their last nine games.
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The Argos will have to be extra wary of Kamar Jorden and Roy Finch. Jorden continues to be the most targeted Stampeders receiver, while Finch sparked Calgary’s offense with a 50-yard touchdown run, part of an 81-yard effort on the day. With another 71 yards on the ground from bell cow back Jerome Messam, the Stamps rushed for 182 yards against their provincial rival.
Whatever happens on offence, be sure that the Stampeders’ defense will keep them in the game. DeVone Claybrooks’ unit led the CFL in points (19.4) and yards (314.7) allowed per game, also leading the league in sacks (50) and takeaways (45).
Sophomore linebacker and Most Outstanding Defensive Player Alex Singleton leads a potent front-seven that will also be boosted by the return of Cordarro Law, playing his first game of 2017. But the pillar of the defense remains a secondary that allowed a league-low 254.6 passing yards per game.
“Our defense has certainly had a great year,” said Head Coach Dave Dickenson. “If we’re on the same page, I like our chances. We really do stress that back end. We’ve asked them to do a lot — potentially too much — but they’ve been able to handle it. [The Argos] are a tough group to beat. It’s going to be a challenge. They’ve got some great receivers. If we play well on the back end that certainly will increase our chances.”
By the numbers:
1 — Touchdown pass needed by Ricky Ray to tie Anthony Calvillo for career Grey Cup touchdown passes (9). Ray can also become the all-time leader in Grey Cup wins as a starter should he win his fourth ring.
3 — Sacks for Argos defensive end Shawn Lemon in the Eastern Final. Lemon had never recorded a playoff sack before that, although he’s had two sacks in the Grey Cup. However, Lemon has never recorded a sack against Bo Levi Mitchell.
7 — Consecutive Grey Cups won by the team that’s rushed for more yards. That puts a greater emphasis on the ground game, especially star running backs Jerome Messam and James Wilder Jr.
8 — Wins in a row for the Stampeders against the Argos, and nine of the last 10 as Calgary continues to dominate head-to-head play. The Stamps led by as many as 16 in both meetings this year, however the Argos also led by a touchdown at one point in each contest.
52 — Games of Grey Cup experience brought to the table by the Stampeders, compared to only 17 for the Argos. Will Calgary’s wealth of experience in big games pay off?
189 — Passing yards needed for Bo Levi Mitchell to pass Warren Moon for 10th all-time in the Grey Cup. Mitchell will also become the first quarterback in Stampeders history to start a third Grey Cup game.
259 — Passing yards per game the Argos have allowed since Mitchell White joined the lineup (7 games). For comparison, Calgary’s league-leading defense has averaged a similar 254.6 passing yards per game in 2017.