CALGARY — The Calgary Stampeders are a win away from capping a stellar season with a Grey Cup.
After matching the franchise’s best record of 15-3, Calgary will play the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the CFL’s championship game Nov. 30 in Vancouver.
The Stampeders were efficient and versatile in a 43-18 win over the Edmonton Eskimos in Sunday’s West Division final. With the Eskimos limiting the top rushing offence in the league, the Stampeders won it in the air.
Calgary claimed the Grey Cup in John Hufnagel’s first year as head coach and GM in 2008.
Upset losses at home in the West final to Saskatchewan in 2010 and 2013 — when Calgary’s records were 13-5 and 14-4 respectively — were deflating conclusions to outstanding campaigns.
Despite a regular-season record of 88-37-1 in Hufnagel’s seven seasons at the helm, Calgary’s only other appearance in a Grey Cup was in 2012 when they lost to the Toronto Argonauts.
“We’ve been working for so long and we’ve experienced so much disappointment,’’ Stampeder running back Jon Cornish said.
“I want to win this Grey Cup, not for personal gain, but for every single person in this locker-room, every single person on the support staff and every single coach. They’re the people that deserve this.’’
The Stampeders went 15-3 three straight seasons from 1993 to 1995, but did not win the Grey Cup under Wally Buono.
Stampeder quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell threw a pair of touchdown strikes to Eric Rogers, had touchdown throws to Cornish and Marquay McDaniel and ran the ball in for a TD of his own against the Esks.
Cornish scored his second touchdown of the game on a two-yard run late in the fourth quarter. The CFL’s rushing leader was held to 54 yards on 14 carries, but Cornish made his impact in the game as a receiver.
He totalled 120 yards on four catches. One of them was a 78-yard rumble for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Edmonton starter Mike Reilly was 20-for-33 in passing for 216 yards and was intercepted twice. He threw touchdown passes to Paris Jackson and Adarius Bowman in the third quarter when he was injured on the last two plays.
Reilly did not return for the fourth quarter, when backup Matt Nichols completed nine of 15 passes for 92 yards. Hugh O’Neill kicked a 42-yard field goal for the visitors.
Cornish, who is from New Westminster B.C., said he spent some time at his mother’s condominium in Vancouver in the off-season, looking across the water to B.C. Place and thinking about the 2014 Grey Cup.
“I sat out and just thought about what it would feel like to go to B.C. Place,’’ Cornish recalled.
The Tiger-Cats earned their second consecutive trip to the championship game with a 40-24 win over the Montreal Alouettes in the East Division final.
So this year’s Grey Cup will feature teams who have been disappointed in it recently.
Hamilton lost 45-23 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders last year in Regina, while Calgary fell 35-22 to the host Argonauts two years ago.
“We had the trouble in 2012 winning the Grey Cup and they had trouble winning it last year, so we’re both hungry,’’ Mitchell said. “Neither team is going to be celebrating this win too long. It’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be a dogfight.’’
With weather a non-factor indoors, the Stampeders will be the favourite against a team that was 9-9 in the regular season. Calgary was 2-0 versus Hamilton this season with scores of 10-7 and 30-20.
The Stampeders offence had the ball for 12 and a half minutes in Sunday’s first half compared to Edmonton’s time of possession of 17:34. Mitchell made the most of his time with the ball.
He threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns on just eight passes as well as rushing for one himself. The 24-year-old Texan won his first career playoff start completing 14 of 22 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns without an interception.
“We had to make some hay in the air because we weren’t doing very much on the ground, especially in the first half,’’ Hufnagel said.
“I thought Bo played an excellent football game. He threw the ball with great accuracy, he handled the pressure, kept his poise and didn’t make any major mistakes.’’
Winning the division and earning a bye week in the post-season helped Calgary get healthy on offence as Mitchell had multiple targets with which to work.
The temperature at Sunday’s kickoff was zero under cloudy skies with a light wind out of the south. Attendance was announced at 31,004, but there was ample room in McMahon Stadium’s stands.
Reilly can inflict damage with his legs, but his mobility was compromised by a late-season foot injury that’s been reported as a broken bone.
The Eskimos quarterback looked winded when he was sacked by Simpson late in the first half. Reilly remained in the game to throw a pair of touchdown passes in the third quarter.
He was tackled hard by Shawn Lemon and sacked again by Simpson on the final two plays of the quarter. Reilly was taken by motorized cart to the visitors’ dressing room early in the fourth quarter.
Reilly indicated he’d reinjured his foot on the Lemon tackle.
“It made my whole leg sore, knee and everything,’’ Reilly said. “I don’t think that it really did much damage and then the last play that I was in, I’m not really sure what happened, but when I went to stand up I just couldn’t put any pressure on it.’’
Eskimos head coach Chris Jones was Hufnagel’s defensive co-ordinator from 2008 to 2011 and held the same position with the Argonauts when they beat Calgary in the Grey Cup two years ago.
Edmonton held Calgary’s running game in check, but the Eskimos backfield was beaten by the athleticism of receivers Rogers and McDaniel and the relentless legs of Cornish.
“Unfortunately we didn’t play our best football tonight,’’ Jones said. “Calgary’s a very, very well coached and very good football team. You’ve got to give all the credit to them. They came out with a good game plan. They executed and kudos to them.’’