B.C. Lions head coach and general manager Wally Buono gathered his team after practice this week and told his players to treat Friday’s game against the Edmonton Eskimos like any other.
Sure, first place in the CFL’s West Division is on the line, not to mention the season series and a potential playoff tiebreaker after the Eskimos (4-0) defeated the Lions (4-1) to open the schedule, but the ever-cautious Buono didn’t want to put too much emphasis on July contest.
“Whether it’s Edmonton or whoever else you play, they’re all physical,” said Buono. ”They’re all tough.”
Eskimos head coach Jason Maas, meanwhile, went with a decidedly different approach.
“It’s 4-0 meets 4-1, it’s for first place, it’s for the season series,” Maas told reporters in Edmonton. “You live for moments like this. I told our guys at the beginning of the week, ‘You’ve put yourself in this position, so love it, own it. Make the most of this.’
“It’s not just another week. You try to say that, but we’re all human, and when the games get bigger because you’re winning, you’ve got to love that.”
B.C. fell 30-27 to Edmonton in Vancouver on June 24 in a game where the Lions stormed back from a 27-17 deficit to tie it up late, only to see Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly connect with Brandon Zylstra on a 76-yard completion in the final minute to set up Sean Whyte’s game-winning field goal.
Edmonton then beat the Montreal Alouettes by four and the Ottawa Redblacks by two before a fourth close call last week in a 31-28 road victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats where Reilly had to engineer another late scoring drive.
The Lions have also grabbed four straight victories, including last Friday’s wild 45-42 home victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers where they dug themselves out of a 15-point hole in the fourth quarter.
“The league is as balanced as it’s been in many years,” said Buono. ”Edmonton’s got a very good football team. They’ve played hard. They’ve had their ups and downs in games, but they’ve always found a way to win.
“When you look at our team, we’re not that much different.”
Like their coach, B.C.’s players are trying to keep this week’s preparations on an even keel.
“It’s not the Grey Cup, even though it might feel like it,” said Lions defensive back Ronnie Yell. ”It’s not the second round of the playoffs. It’s another game. We’ve got to stay calm.”
B.C. backup quarterback Travis Lulay threw for over 400 yards for the second straight week with starter Jonathon Jennings out with a shoulder injury against Winnipeg, and will get the call again in the Alberta capital.
“Hit him early, often … get him off his rhythm a little bit,” Maas said when asked how the Eskimos will try to slow down the veteran QB. “He can make the throws. He’s not going to give up on any plays.
“He’s got a lot of weapons.”
Both teams appear ready for the first-place showdown, it’s just that one is more vocal — at least publicly — about what Friday means.
“You always want to test yourself against the best,” said Maas. ”We’re both playing really good football. There’s so much riding on this game, and I want our guys to feel that.
“Let’s own the moment and live up to it.”