CALGARY – Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell may be light on CFL playoff experience, but head coach John Hufnagel is confident his starter’s regular-season form will continue into Sunday’s West Division final against Edmonton.
Mitchell is 15-2 in career starts, including a 12-2 record this season. The 24-year-old from Katy, Texas, was one of three different starters Calgary employed last season. Mitchell beat out Drew Tate in training camp this year to earn the No. 1 designation.
But Mitchell hasn’t had the opportunity to start a post-season game until now. He came in and completed one of three pass attempts for six yards in last year’s 35-13 loss in the division final to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
He saw more post-season action in 2012, when he was 6-for-9 in passing for 80 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown throw in a Grey Cup loss to Toronto. He also scored a touchdown on a one-yard plunge and threw a 42-yard pass in the West final.
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“I don’t think the game will be too big for Bo,” Hufnagel said Monday at McMahon Stadium. “Any time you get playoff experience, it helps. Bo has managed the game every time he’s been on the field.
“He can forget about a bad play and get back on the field and make something good happen. We call it re-loading and he does it very well.”
Calgary (15-3) and Edmonton (12-6) meet at McMahon in an all-Alberta division final for the first time since 2001, when the Stampeders won 34-16 en route to claiming the Grey Cup.
The Stampeders and Eskimos last met in the post-season in the 2011 division semifinal, which the Eskimos won 33-19 at home.
Calgary last hoisted the Grey Cup in 2008, while Edmonton’s most recent appearance and victory in the CFL’s championship game was in 2005.
Sunday’s winner advances to the Grey Cup on Nov. 30 in Vancouver to face the victor of the East Division final between Montreal and Hamilton.
How Mitchell will fare in his first playoff start is one of the West final’s subplots. The mobility of Eskimos counterpart Mike Reilly, who reports say has a broken foot, is another.
Edmonton head coach Chris Jones, Hufnagel’s defensive co-ordinator from 2008 to 2011, has said Reilly will get the ball in Calgary.
Reilly didn’t play in Edmonton’s final regular-season game, and he stayed on the sidelines of Sunday’s 18-10 division semifinal win over Saskatchewan until six minutes into the third quarter.
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He then completed six of eight passes for 53 yards in relief of starter Matt Nichols.
“He didn’t do much as far as running,” Hufnagel observed. “Whether that has any factor with his health or whether that’s just how the game was, he didn’t look any differently to me as far as what he was able to do on the field.
“I believe he’ll be the starting quarterback and be Mike Reilly.”
The Stampeders swept the season series 3-0 with wins of 41-34 on Sept. 6, 28-13 on Sept. 1 and 26-22 on July 24.
“It’s been quite a while since we played them,” Reilly told reporters Sunday in Edmonton.
“We’re a different team at this stage of the game and so are they. They’re still a very good football team, so we definitely need to figure out ways we can attack them. We want to put up more points than 18, that’s for sure.”
Mitchell should have more offensive weapons with the return of receiver Maurice Price and CFL rushing leader Jon Cornish to the lineup. Both men were following concussion protocol when they sat out the regular-season finale.
Hufnagel said he was “optimistic” that defensive end Charleston Hughes, the CFL’s defensive player of the year in 2013, would return for the division final after missing seven games with a leg injury.
Calgary and Edmonton rank first and second in the CFL in average rushing yards per game at 143.9 and 129.4 respectively. John White led the Esks in rushing with 852 yards to Cornish’s league-leading 1,082. White ran for 134 against Saskatchewan on Sunday.
The Eskimos and Stampeders are also second and third respectively in defending the rush.
“I believe the team that has more production on the ground will have more of a chance to succeed,” Hufnagel said.
“I also believe the biggest factor in winning the football game is turnovers. In a playoff game, you just can’t give the other team unnecessary opportunities, which a turnover does create for them.”
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Sunday’s forecast for Calgary is a high of minus-3 with occasional flurries. The Stampeders practised in bitter cold during their bye last week, but the temperature will be more comfortable for their preparation this week.
“I believe the whole week’s going to be around zero or one or two degrees above,” Hufnagel said. “Hopefully the sun is shining and I don’t think the wind is going to be a factor on Sunday either.
“It should be a great day for a football game with two very good football teams playing against each other with a lot of similarities with one goal in mind.”