CFL Pass

Offences sputter in Battle of Alberta without Mitchell, Reilly

Fans on both sides of the Battle of Alberta have long wondered — and worried — about what this rivalry would look like without Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell.

On Saturday night, they got a look at it.

And likely winced.

Offence — to say the least — was lacking in a 24-18 win eked out by the host Calgary Stampeders over the Edmonton Eskimos in front of 26,597 fans at McMahon Stadium.

That’s not to take anything away from the defences, mind you.

Both gave the quarterbacks plenty to think about, ensuring there wasn’t much in the way of clean offence.

So if it was defence you were looking for from the season’s first instalment of the Battle of Alberta, you got that in spades.

But it’s not something fan bases in Edmonton and Calgary are used to in these much-hyped CFL episodes.

“Obviously, Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell are top-echelon quarterbacks in the CFL,” said Stampeders receiver Eric Rogers. “So … yeah … it’s a little different.”

The tempo, for sure, seemed different.

It was, after all, the first time since Nov. 2, 2012 without one or both of Mitchell and Reilly starting an Eskimos-Stampeders contest, ending a run of 16 such games in the Battle of Alberta. (The starters that day were Drew Tate for the Stamps and Matt Nichols for the Eskimos.)

And during that span, fans were treated to a ton of offensive fireworks, with the two superstar quarterbacks slinging the ball around and cutting through even the best of defensive gameplans and units.

This one?

Not so much with Nick Arbuckle and Trevor Harris at the helm.

The good news for Stamps fans is Mitchell is returning from injury soon — likely prior to the Labour Day doubleheader with the Eskimos.

The good news for Esks fans is Harris got better as the game progressed and does seem to be able to find ways to win, unlike Reilly before him in the last few frightful seasons.

“It just started slow, our defence kept us in it,” Harris said. “It was a few things here or there, small things that prevented us from scoring drives, and we’ve just got to clean them up. But you can feel the progress, we fought back.

“It’s a credit to the Stampeders, too — they have a good defence,” continued the Esks QB. “They gave us quite a few looks that they haven’t showed and they pressured a lot more than they have been all year. They did a good job in the first half, and we just had to make adjustments and start rolling.”

But Harris couldn’t find victory this game — despite a surprising 401 yards of offence after just 78 in the first half and a last-play pass to the endzone that was knocked away — thanks to a staunch Red & White defence.

“We miss Bo, but we still have to go out and do what we have to do,” said veteran Stamps defender Brandon Smith. “But we as a defence still have to do what we have to do, whether it’s against Mike Reilly or Trevor Harris, and Harris is a good, formidable quarterback over there.”

The Stamps, meanwhile, could only muster 220 game-wide.

“I’m just trying to do what the coaches need me to do to win games and just trying to contribute in any way I can,” Arbuckle said. “Make sure I don’t turn the ball over, try to avoid negative plays, keep our offence on the field by driving to keep our defence well-rested. I want to manage games and try not to force anything.”

He’s 4-1 since taking over from the injured Mitchell, and this one got the Stamps a portion of first place in the CFL’s West Division with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who they play next week.

But Saturday’s triumph wasn’t easy or pretty.

“All week you hear about how good Edmonton’s defensive line is — and they are,” Arbuckle said. “Our offensive line answered the call, though. I did take some sacks, but I think the majority of the sacks were coverage sacks or blitzes where they sent too many guys for us to pick up and you can’t really do much.”

The first half was littered with missed passes, unwise attempts and an overwhelming lack of execution from both offences.

Marches were short in both time and real estate gained.

The fact is a couple of pick-sixes and a fumble runback for a touchdown should have lit up the scoreboard before Rene Paredes finally broke a scoreless draw with a 47-yard field-goal 3:32 into the second quarter.

But the defences couldn’t quite find the handle to provide points, leaving both offences to continue their stumbling and bumbling in their bid to move the ball and find paydirt. Even converts were tough to come by, with the Stamps missing a pair of the two-point variety and the Esks’ Sean Whyte missing a single-point attempt.

Thank the football gods for second-half energy to give the game a pulse and create excitement and a game that went down to the wire.

But even the long touchdown bomb by the Esks was thanks to broken coverage by the Stamps.

And then it was up to special teams to win it on Terry Williams’ punt return of 103 yards coupled with a forced fumble by the punt-return team that led to the only TD by the host side three plays later.

In the end, there was drama …

Just not quite like it would unfold in a Reilly-Mitchell matchup.

“Yeah … it still got pretty testy out there,” said Rogers, who caught the only Stamps TD. “We still don’t like each other very much, no matter what. It doesn’t matter who’s at quarterback, we still have that animosity towards each other just because everybody hypes it up.

Agreed Smith: “Stand toe-to-toe and see who’s the last man standing, right? We came in knowing it was going to be a dogfight, and it was every bit of it. Fortunately, we got enough punches in to come away with the victory.”