Johnson: Cornish vs. Sheets tops intriguing storylines in Saturday’s Stamps-Riders match
League’s rushing title on the line amid bluster and bravado
As far as Juwan Simpson is concerned, the Calgary Stampeders should be more concerned with Kory Sheets running the rock than running his mouth.
“He can say what he wants,” reasons the predatory middle linebacker. “Free country, right? In this business, you’ve got to be confident.
“He said that, huh? That he’s the best back in the league?” An I-could-care-less shrug. “Well, he’s a GOOD back . . . The best? I’d argue that. We’ve got a back here” — a nod over at rushing leader Jon Cornish — “who’d argue it, too, I’m sure. So would everybody on this team.
“But, like I say, he’s entitled to his opinion.”
“Hey, I believe I’m the best damn linebacker in this league, but I know there are people will argue that, too.”
The mercurial Saskatchewan tailback’s claims of superiority at a recent Riders’ charity event in Saskatoon — “Everybody knows that I’m a better back than he is . . .” and “He knows I’m a better running back than he is . . .” — topped CFL notebooks from coast to coast, and only intensified what is fast becoming the most compelling positional duel in three-down football.
Not that anyone in Stampederland seems to have taken undue offence at Sheets’s comments. At least not for public consumption, anyway.
“If you don’t think you’re the best,” reckons defensive line coach DeVone Claybrooks, “why would anybody else? There’s a fine line between cocky and overconfident. Who am I to judge? Numbers don’t lie. If he says the best . . . we’ve got a guy on our team who can make the same argument.
“Sheets keeps churning, keeps churning. If he makes one guy miss he can take it the distance. He can go downhill, but he also has the speed to turn the corner.
“I’m not going to get into this and that, pros and cons, who said what. We’ll see how it goes.”
The Cornish-Sheets overland rivalry reaches its pre-playoff apex Saturday as their respective employers squabble over first place in the West and that welcome bye through to the Nov. 17th division final. It’s a fascinating subplot, to be sure, a slavish CFL devotee’s version of Magic-Bird or Ovie-Sid: Jon Cornish at 1,690 yards, well within range of Willie Burden’s franchise record 1,896 and still harbouring an outside shot at nudging past the mythic 2,000-yard plateau, Kory Sheets in ardent pursuit at 1,556.
Sheets claims that the two and a half games missed due to a knee injury are the sole reason he is now the hunter rather than the hunted, but regardless of number of starts Cornish has actually carried the ball 42 fewer times and his average of 7.2 per tote puts Sheet’s 5.6 in the shade.
Their competitive give and take is, frankly, quite remarkable. In Edmonton on Friday, for instance, Cornish laid down another gauntlet, slashing for 145 yards versus the Eskies. The next night at a rain-slicked Mosaic (It’ll Always Be Taylor Field) Stadium, Sheets answered back by reeling off 148 of his own to trod the limp Lions under foot.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what’s known as heavyweight sparring.
As the Stampeder players trooped into the covered field house a Kevin Glenn corner-route throw across from Foothills Baseball Stadium for the annual team photo early, 9ish, Monday morning, they were quite content to let the Riders try to figure out how get some sort of handle on Cornish. Their concern was zoned in only on slamming the binders on the elusive Mr. Sheets.
“He’s a guy,” said linebacker Deron Mayo, “who can make a play even when a play’s not there. You’ve got to be disciplined to stop him, everybody’s got to be in their gaps. If one person is missing, he’ll hit that gap and make a big play. He’s a hard guy to tackle in the open field so we’ve really got to wrap up.”
“He does a great job with his eyes, his vision,” chipped in linebacking coach Don Yanowsky. “So we’ve got to do a great job with our eyes, seeing the blocking schemes that develop. He’s got great patience and he can hit a home run on every play. When you play against a guy like that you can’t have missed tackles, everyone has to fit where they’re supposed to fit because if you don’t, it’s not going to be a six-yard gain, it could be a 60-yard gain.
“But I like our chances. Our guys will show up to play.
“They have every week.”
In the two head-to-heads this season, the judges’ scorecards have the title bout at one round apiece. Sheets clearly landed a KO in the opener, 133 yards to 42 at Mosaic. The second, here, belonged to Cornish’s 175 and four touchdowns, even if Sheets did compile 133 yards. No CNN-interrupt-regularly-scheduled-programming that Saskatchewan took home the points in the first game, Calgary in the second.
That only serves to underscore the importance, the impact, the influence of these men.
This third instalment, then, breaks the seasonal tie. A Stampeder victory and first place, the bye and home field, is theirs. Should the Riders prevail, everything funnels down to Week 18 with Calgary at B.C. and Saskatchewan home to the oh-woe 3-13 Eskimos.
The locals surely don’t want to leave it that late, so much to chance, if humanly possible.
Whatever does happen Saturday at McMahon, it’s a given the two warring tailbacks will be at the very heart of it.
“Kory Sheets . . . Kory Sheets,” Juwan Simpson is muttering playfully (he might as well have been winking), on his way out of the field house Monday morning, 9:30ish, the 2013 Calgary Stampeders now preserved for photographic posterity. “Even when we’re not playing them, people are asking about Kory Sheets. Why am I always hearing about Kory Sheets?”
Chances are, he’ll be heard from again before this is all sorted out. Jon Cornish, too.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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