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Two high-stakes Labour Day clashes should be an excellent segue to the CFL’s second half

Ricky Ray and Henry Burris are used to Labour Day rivalries... but not in these jerseys.

The exact meaning of Labour Day weekend in the CFL is somewhat up for debate. Some argue that the holiday weekend rivalry clashes and the nine regular-season games left afterwards in the push to the playoffs are the "real" part of the season, while others say that the eight games before this weekend often determine teams' season-long courses and count just as much in the standings. Regardless of which side of that argument you prefer, though, Labour Day's clearly a turning point. This weekend's games mark the midway point of the 18-game CFL schedule, and Monday's fierce intraprovincial clashes between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts (1 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NBCSN) and the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos (4:30 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NBCSN) both have a lot on the line. In fact, these teams' showings to date might suggest both arguments are valid, as their middling performances through eight games have raised the stakes for both Labour Day and the games to follow. This Labour Day's games in particular could represent a key turning point in the season of every franchise involved; which teams will sink and which ones will swim?

Out East, there's a lot of pressure on Hamilton to come up big in Monday's early game, especially considering that it's the last Labour Day Classic at the old Ivor Wynne Stadium. Beyond the historic significance of this one and the omnipresent desire to beat the Argos, though, there's further urgency for head coach George Cortez and company based on their less-than-stellar season thus far. The Tiger-Cats have lost their last three games and are now 3-5 on the year, much worse than many envisioned following their splashy offseason moves. Most of the offseason hype focused on Hamilton's big-name offensive acquisitions and specifically their talented receiving corps, and the offence hasn't really been the problem; heading into this weekend's action, the Tiger-Cats had scored the most points in the league (236), tied for the most passing touchdowns (19), put up the second-most yards per game (382.4) and were second in both average yards per rush (5.8) and average gain per pass (8.9).

So, why are the Tiger-Cats 3-5? That has a lot to do with the other side of the ball; through eight games, Casey Creehan's defence had conceded league-highs in yards per game (429.8), first downs (190), rushing first downs (74), gain per rush (6.4 yards), rushing yards per game (138.2) and points per game (32.6), amongst other statistics. They had also recorded the league's worst sack (10) and interception (three) totals, and placed last in 16 of the 25 team defensive statistics tracked in the CFL's weekly information update. When your team is the worst in the league at 64 per cent of the crucial defensive statistics, ranging from everything from sacks to yards allowed to points, you have major issues. It won't really matter how good this offence can be if the defence doesn't improve at least slightly.

Fortunately for Hamilton, their opponents have their own issues. Yes, the Argos are 4-4, and yes, they're substantially better than the Tiger-Cats on defence. However, they have problems of their own, and those are coming on the offensive side of the ball. The struggle hasn't been moving the ball, something they've generally managed well, but rather converting field position into points. They haven't been able to do that recently, notching 9, 22 and 14 points in their last three games, and only that 22-point outing against Calgary turned into a win. Hyped offseason acquisition Ricky Ray is playing well by many metrics, particularly the efficiency-focused ones (his 68.9 per cent completion rate leads all current starters), but he really struggled last week against Edmonton and was upstaged by 38-year-old Kerry Joseph. However, those struggles may not be all positive for Hamilton; there's pressure building on Ray, Argos' head coach Scott Milanovich and Argos' general manager Jim Barker, especially in the wake of the inexplicable release of Cory Boyd, and that might just make the Boatmen as fired up to win as their Steeltown rivals. Oddly enough, this game features Ray and Hamilton's Henry Burris, two quarterbacks who have often faced off in Labour Day games, but for Edmonton and Calgary, not Toronto and Hamilton. Both of them will also have a lot to prove in this contest.

Out West, things look slightly more optimistic on the surface for both participants in Monday's late game. The 5-3 Eskimos and 4-4 Stampeders are each coming off a win, and both have been pretty effective on several fronts; Calgary sat third in points per game heading into this week's action (27.1), while the Eskimos were second in points per game allowed (19.3). Beyond those statistics, though, there are some troubling issues for both teams, even in their areas of strength: the Stampeders haven't been able to consistently move the ball, placing sixth in the league with 357.0 yards of net offence per game through eight contests, and both their passing game under Kevin Glenn and their ground game with Jon Cornish have struggled at times, while the Eskimos' impressive points-per-game allowed showing can't completely mask that they were third-worst in the league in yards-per-game allowed before this week's clashes.

There are also worries for each team on the other side of the ball. Edmonton's offence has produced a league-low 311.4 yards per game thus far, and there's no indication that Joseph and their impressive Cerberus-style tandem of running backs (Boyd, Jerome Messam and Hugh Charles) will necessarily change that this week. Meanwhile Calgary's defence had allowed the second-most rushing first downs heading into this week, was third-worst in quarterback sacks and interceptions and sat middle of the pack in just about everything else.

Sure, these teams haven't been bad, and neither would exactly consider losing this game in a close manner to be a full-fledged crisis, unlike their Eastern counterparts. Neither of these squads has really looked all that good either, though, and they certainly haven't been consistent; a win here would definitely alter some perceptions, especially if done in impressive fashion, and even if it's a close victory, a 6-3 Edmonton team or a 5-4 Calgary team might be better set for the second half of the year than whoever loses this one. There are a whole variety of ways this game could go, with the Eskimos' defence shutting down the Stampeders' offence, Calgary's ground game tearing up the Edmonton defence, the Eskimos again unable to do anything to move the sticks on offence, or the Stampeders' defence unable to handle the Edmonton rushing game. Regardless of how it turns out, though, it should be pretty exciting, and it certainly will set the stage for the rest of the CFL season.

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