Eskimos suddenly fighting for playoff lives

Where the Edmonton Eskimos are concerned, there was more than winter in the air as snow blanketed Commonwealth Stadium Thursday.

EDMONTON — Where the Edmonton Eskimos are concerned, there was more than winter in the air as snow blanketed Commonwealth Stadium Thursday.

There was also a distinct hint of desperation.

Losers of two straight games and four of their last five, the 6-7 Eskimos suddenly find themselves in a battle for their playoff lives as they host the B.C. Lions today (TSN, 6:30 p.m. ).

Better than many expected in the warmth of July and August, the Eskimos face the Lions with a defence shot full of holes by injuries and an offence that went cold long before October took its icy grip in what stacks up as a must-win game.

“What it’s come down to is a five-game season,” coach Richie Hall said. “The most important game is this game we’re playing now.

“We’ve lost our last two and four out of the last five. Two weeks ago we were tied for first place, now we’re tied for last. The urgency is there. We have some West Division games. We’re all playing against each other.

“There’s not a big difference that separates one from four. The only way you can help yourself out is go out and win football games.”

When training camp broke this summer, Hall talked about the process of building a team and the kind of momentum that would see the Eskimos be better in October than they were in July. But, after a 5-3 start, the Eskimos have struggled mightily, a reversal of fortune that saw them beaten 27-17 in Winnipeg their last time out. If they can’t turn things around against the 6-7 Lions, who thumped them 40-22 on July 16, they’ll be dead-last in the CFL’s West Division.

“You remember,” quarterback Ricky Ray said, asked about the last meeting.

“They beat us pretty good here on our home turf. They’ve been a good football team the past five or six years. This year they got off to a bit of a slow start, but we know what to expect from them.”

While the Eskimos offence ranks first in the CFL in passing yardage and third in total yardage, it’s seldom looked as disjointed as it did against the Blue Bombers.

“We were sitting pretty good heading into the Labour Day games at 5-3,” Ray said. “We felt like we were getting better as a football team and doing some good things.

“That middle part of the season, we just didn’t play up to expectations and to our level. It’s been kind of a letdown for us. The good thing is we’ve got five games left. Whatever we do with these next five games is going to determine how our season ends. We’ve just got to find a way to go out there and get it done.”

Ray and his receivers have looked out of sync. Rookie Arkee Whitlock, who is closing in on 1,000 rushing yards with 139 carries for 760 yards, has been the lone bright spot recently. The Esks can certainly use more of what he’s been providing as the mercury drops.

“This is an opportunity,” said Whitlock, who says he welcomes the blast of winter despite playing just one game in snow during his three seasons at Southern Illinois University.

“Hopefully, the footing is horrible for everybody else and I’ll use it to my advantage. I’m looking forward to that.”

B.C. quarterback Buck Pierce and his offence will be facing an Edmonton defence that’s last in the CFL in total yardage allowed (4,943) and passing yardage allowed (3,799). Edmonton is also last in points per game allowed at 30.5.

When Ray and the offence has been sharp, the defence has struggled. When the defence has been good, the offence has sputtered.

Then, there is special teams. It’s been rare, indeed, when the Esks have had all three facets of their game together at the same time.

“It’s just frustrating regarding the inconsistency of our football team,” Hall said. “It’s been somewhat of a roller-coaster.

“We feel that if we can ever get two out of those three, or three out of those three on a consistent basis, some special things can possibly happen.

“The reality is, other than the Montreal Alouettes, I think that’s the common denominator of all the CFL teams. We’re all too inconsistent to be consistent. Whoever puts a string of games together here late in the season is the one who is going to finally emerge.”

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