EDMONTON — The Edmonton Eskimos will get a big boost Saturday when they take the field against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a game that may decide their playoff fate.
Veteran quarterback Ricky Ray will return to the lineup in Regina after missing two games with an injured muscle in his throwing arm.
“Ricky has that calming factor,” offensive co-ordinator Kevin Strasser said. “When he walks into the huddle he immediately commands respect. He doesn’t get fluttered, it opens up our running game. He’s still very good at the shovel (pass) , which opens up a few more things in the pass game.”
By the time the 7-10 Eskimos take to the field against the 9-8 Roughriders (TSN, 7 p.m. ET), who have lost their last four games, the final playoff spot in the West Division may already have been decided. If the B.C. Lions lose to Hamilton in the afternoon game, the Eskimos will be in the post-season. If the Lions win, however, the Eskimos will need to beat the Riders to secure their spot.
Having Ray back — and he will start regardless of the playoff situation — is a huge plus for the Eskimos who have turned around their season by winning five of their last six games, including the last two with Jared Zabransky at quarterback.
Ray declared himself fit and ready to go this week when he could throw without any pain. By Thursday, he had his timing back.
One of the keys for the Eskimos on Saturday will be, as it has been all season, the performance of the offensive line that underwent major changes in mid-season and appears to have jelled at just the right time.
“That’s where it starts,” said Strasser. “That’s where we, believe it or not, tried to start in training camp. You’ve got to be able to protect the quarterback and you’ve got to be able to run the ball. Early in the season we had a tough time doing either. But their emergence has been a pleasant surprise.”
The O-line turned around its performance after coach Jeff Bleamer was replaced by Tim Prinsen, tackle Joe McGrath was released and the line was revamped to make room for Jeremy Parquet and Greg Wojt at the ends.
Parquet will miss his second straight game with a knee injury, meaning Patrick Afif will get his second straight start at left tackle. Left guard Kyle Koch, who also missed last weekend’s game, returns to his spot.
Wojt said the arrival of Prinsen had a major impact on the linemen.
“He developed a new attitude along the line and we just kind of rolled with it, went along with what he told us and so far, it just seems we’re working well together, we’re communicating a lot better and coming out with a much better attitude,” he said.
“Saskatchewan has a complicated defence so a big part of this game is communicating and making sure we’re all on the same page because they have a real unique defence. Working together is definitely going be a key.”
The Eskimos will start Daniel Porter at running back over Arkee Whitlock because of a salary cap issue if Whitlock had been brought back off the nine-game injury list. Receiver Kelly Campbell will also miss the game with a leg injury suffered in practice Thursday.
The decision to stay with the rookie Porter and not deal with the cap issue by recalling Whitlock was easier than it could have been because of Porter’s performance the last three games. He ran for 171 yards in a critical 31-20 win in Vancouver over the Lions, racked up 121 in a 39-24 victory over the Riders and rushed for 102 and the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Winnipeg last weekend.
While Porter was pleased to stay in the lineup, Whitlock wasn’t a happy camper.
“I won’t be playing, I won’t be dressing. I think it’s a salary cap issue,” he said is a subdued voice. “I can’t even explain in words (the disappointment), but it’s a business decision. They do what’s right for the team and I’m all right with that.”