Injuries limited Jon Cornish to just nine games this season. Unfortunately for the Edmonton Eskimos, two were against them.
Cornish ran for 272 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries (eight-yard average) in the contests — both Calgary wins. Despite his abbreviated season, Cornish led the CFL in rushing with 1,082 yards, with just over a quarter coming against Edmonton.
So Cornish will again be a focal point when the Calgary Stampeders host Edmonton in the West Division final Sunday.
But Calgary also beat Edmonton 26-22 at Commonweath Stadium on July 24 without Cornish, last year's CFL outstanding player. The Stampeders were 3-0 against their provincial rivals and accounted for half of the Eskimos' regular-season losses while posting a CFL-best 15-3 record.
A big part of the Stampeders' offensive success this season — they averaged a CFL-high 28.4 points per game — was a league-best rushing attack that averaged 143.9 yards per game. Calgary was ranked seventh overall in passing (234 yards per game) although quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who'll make his first career playoff start but is 4-0 versus Edmonton, threw 22 TDs and just eight interceptions.
Edmonton also runs the football well, finishing second behind Calgary (136.6 yards per game). Running back John White (852 yards) was second overall behind Cornish and had 134 yards on 17 carries in last weekend's 18-10 West semifinal win over Saskatchewan.
Sunday's forecast calls for a high of -1 C (and low of -7 C) with winds of 15 kilometres an hour, so the ground game will be important for both clubs.
Unfortunately for Edmonton, one of its top run threats is ailing. Mike Reilly was the CFL's top-rushing quarterback with 616 yards (7.8-yard average, eight TDs) but is reportedly nursing a broken bone in his foot.
Reilly, who's 0-5 lifetime against Calgary, is still expected to start Sunday. But an Edmonton offensive line that allowed 46 sacks — fourth-best in the CFL — must keep the Stampeders' front seven off the Eskimos quarterback.
An effective Stampeders running game would also help counter an Edmonton defence that had 55 sacks, second-most in the CFL. Both units also finished tied for most interceptions (20 each) as Calgary's Jamar Wall and the Eskimos' Dexter McCoil had a league-leading six apiece.
It's almost unfortunate for Calgary that this isn't a road game. The Stampeders were a league-best (8-1) away from McMahon, including two wins at Edmonton.
Calgary wasn't bad at home, either, finishing tied with Edmonton and Hamilton with a league-best 7-2 mark. The Eskimos were 5-4 on the road.
Rarely this season have the Stampeders beat themselves. They've recorded a league-low 29 turnovers and are the CFL's least penalized team. By comparison, Edmonton had 41 turnovers (fourth-most) and led the CFL in penalty yards.
But Calgary is just 13-19 in the West final and has dropped its last two post-season games ('12 Grey Cup to Toronto, '13 West final to Saskatchewan). Since winning the '08 Grey Cup, the Stampeders have a 3-4 playoff record.
It's also difficult to fathom Calgary beating Edmonton a fourth time this year but the Stampeders a) have a rested Cornish b) are coming off the bye c) are home d) play disciplined football and e) have a shot at playoff redemption.
Pick — Calgary.
East Division Final
Montreal Alouettes versus Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Montreal is brimming with confidence following its 50-17 home semifinal win over B.C. The Alouettes split their season series with Hamilton 1-1 but the Tiger-Cats clinched first in the East — and home field for the division final — on point differential following a 29-15 win over the Als Nov. 8 at Tim Hortons Field.
The Ticats are 6-0 there, allowing just 12.7 points per game.
Montreal ran for over 200 yards and four TDs against B.C. Brandon Rutley, making his first CFL start, had a game-high 98 yards and a TD on 17 carries while Chris Rainey had a 64-yard touchdown run and finished with 71 yards on three carries.
The biggest beneficiary of the strong ground game was Jonathan Crompton, who completed 14-of-21 passes for 155 yards and two TDs. Crompton is 9-2 as Montreal's starter despite having not cracked the 300-yard passing plateau and often forcing his receivers to make acrobatic catches because of errant throws.
On Sunday, Montreal faces a Hamilton's defence that allowed a league-low 76.8 yards rushing per game. However, with a 60 per cent chance of rain Sunday — and a balmy 8 C high forecasted — both offences will have to try and establish the run.
Montreal had just 17 yards rushing on 12 carries Nov. 8 while Hamilton's Nic Grigsby had 93 yards on 19 carries and a TD. Quarterback Zach Collaros was 20-of-28 passing for 207 yards with a touchdown and interception while adding 35 yards rushing on six carries.
With no running game, Crompton threw 35 times, completing 18 for 284 yards and a TD. Montreal also fumbled three times, losing two, and surrendered an easy TD when Rainey couldn't control a lateral that Hamilton's Brandon Stewart recovered in the endzone.
Hamilton slotback Andy Fantuz (hamstring) remains questionable but Collaros still has sophomore Luke Tasker (72 catches, 937 yards, five TDs). Another weapon is versatile Brandon Banks, a threat catching and running the ball as well as returning kicks.
Both teams have made resounding turnarounds as Hamilton lost six of its first seven games while Montreal started 1-7. And as confident as the Alouettes are, there's something about Tim Hortons Field that works for the Ticats.
Pick — Hamilton.
Last week: 2-0.
Overall record: 57-26.