(With files from Postmedia)
EDMONTON -- The Esks and Riders meet for the second time of the season on Friday, as both teams look to return from the bye week with an important divisional win at Commonwealth Stadium.
With a share of first place on the line and Week 2’s heated defensive battle still in mind, both teams enter Friday’s matchup well aware of what’s riding on the result of this one.
And if the last two weeks or so provided any kind of test on the character of these teams, coming off stinging losses before their bye week, they each passed it with flying colours.
|Related: Riders at Esks|
After an impressive start to the season, the Riders will look to snap a two-game losing streak in which they surrendered an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter of both games. That alone could be enough to break anyone’s spirits, but that’s something Darian Durant wasn’t about to let happen.
“It's a long, long season. You're going to lose some games. If you get too high when you win, then you're going to come falling down and crashing hard. If you get too low when you lose, then you're not going to be able to pick it back up,” said the 29-year-old pivot, now in his seventh year with the Riders.
“I've been around here long enough to know how mood swings go in this province. I just don't buy into it. I just go out there and try to do my job each and every day to the best of my ability and get wins.”
It’s the right attitude to take into Friday’s game, as the Riders get set for one of their more difficult tests of the season – on the road against the league’s stingiest defence. The Esks enter the contest with the league’s highest-ranked defence, allowing just 15.8 points per game – an average that hasn’t been recorded over a full season since 1979.
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The last time these two teams met was on July 8, and while the Riders walked away with a 17-1 win, their offence was held well in check all night. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that they finally got on the board with a touchdown, when impressive rookie running back Kory Sheets sealed the game on a pretty little scamper along the sideline.
The following week, it was the running game again that helped close out a statement win against the dominant BC Lions at Mosaic Stadium, when Sheets successfully moved the Riders from deep in their own end and helped burn most of the remaining clock to propel the Riders to 3-0.
That’s the kind of success they need in the fourth quarter that’s eluded them over the last few weeks, and it starts with making sure their first-year back gets the ball in his hands a little more.
“We would like to get him the ball more, regardless of whether it's carries or catches,” Durant began. “It's all about finishing games. Even with Kory having less touches in the passing game, we're still putting up 30-plus points and we still had teams beat. It's all about finishing, so that's what we have to do.”
Durant’s been to three Grey Cups and started in two of them during his tenure with the Riders, and he’s seen and experienced just about everything possible in this league. That explains why even though his team could easily still be undefeated right now, he’s been able to keep the room focused – through the good and bad.
“You have to put things in perspective,” said Durant. “When we were 3-and-0, I kept telling you guys (in the media) every day that it's a long season. You guys were praising us and thought we were on the way to 18-and-0, but I kept it in perspective. That's what we do in the locker room.”
Durant, meanwhile, is off to a great start in 2012, on pace to reach over 4,900 passing yards and a passer rating of 98.3, which would shatter his career high of 87.2.
He also enters Friday’s contest with just two interceptions of 170 pass attempts, putting him well ahead of his usual pace in interception percentage as well. But the Esks have always been his toughest opponent, holding him to a quarterback rating of 74.0 and a record of 4-5.
|The last time they met|
In one of the finest defensive showings of the season for both teams, the Riders outlasted the Esks in a low-scoring clash at Mosaic Stadium to improve to 2-0 on the season. Kory Sheets scored the game's first major on a 34-yard dash along the sideline in the fourth quarter to clinch the win for the Riders, who had six sacks and held Steven Jyles to just 91 yards passing and 10 completions. Durant was efficient and careful on offence, throwing for 203 yards and avoiding any turnovers in the win.
Eskimo pivot Steven Jyles hasn’t quite had the same success, at least statistically, heading into his team’s rematch with the Green Riders. The 29-year-old has the fewest passing yards and touchdowns among starting quarterbacks, but in wins over Toronto, BC, and Winnipeg managed the ball well in leading his team to victory.
Jyles brings plenty of leadership and CFL experience to the Esks, and as he familiarizes himself with the offence and continues to show improvement every week, his teammates have his back. That became most evident after they came to his defence following a late fumble against the Bombers before the bye.
"We win as a team, we lose as a team," slotback Fred Stamps told reporters following the game. "It's not a one-man game. Nobody can put anything on Steven, anything like that because it's a team effort.”
Head Coach Kavis Reed echoed the statement, in the wake of what likely turned out to be Jyles’ best performance of the year.
“He did everything possible in a difficult environment to give his team a chance to win,” Reed said of Jyles. “Unfortunately he made a mistake at the end, or they made a play at the end, probably better stated and they won the football game.”
Whereas Durant was the voice of calm for the Riders heading into the bye, it was Reed who tried to keep his team’s emotions in check.
“It’s an extremely difficult loss, but I’m extremely proud of the way this football team played,” he said. “Once again, the character of this football team showed. Give credit to Winnipeg. They did everything they needed to do to get the win, and they deserved it.”
The key to this game for Edmonton will be managing the turnover battle, which likely made the biggest difference in its previous meeting with the Riders.
Heading into this week, 89 per cent of teams that have won the turnover battle also won the game, with the five most recent winning teams turning the ball over zero times. The Eskimos in particular are 18-1 since 2010 when winning in turnovers, with the one loss coming two weeks ago against the Bombers.
That bodes well for Jyles, who’s thrown just three interceptions on the season, and none over his last two starts. Durant, meanwhile, has thrown just two so far in 2012, both of which came against the Stamps back in Week 4.
Kickoff is at 9:30 P.M. ET and can be seen on TSN’s Friday Night Football, or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca.