CFL balls are photographed at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers stadium in Winnipeg Thursday, May 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

A look at the Canadian Football League at the halfway mark

It’s Labour Day in the CFL, and for many, the unofficial start of the season.

It’s Labour Day weekend in the CFL, and for many, the unofficial start of the season.

For some teams, it’s an opportunity to begin their playoff push against a bitter rival. For others, it’s time to start separating themselves from the pack and secure a post-season berth.

The action started Friday night with the East Division-leading Ottawa Redblacks hosting the last-place Montreal Alouettes. On Sunday, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (5-5) visit the Saskatchewan Roughriders (5-4) with both teams fighting for third in the West Division.

The Calgary Stampeders (CFL-best 8-1 record) put their 5-0 home mark on the line Monday afternoon against the visiting Edmonton Eskimos (6-4), who are second in the West just two points ahead of Saskatchewan and Winnipeg. On Monday night, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (4-5) entertain Toronto (3-6) with a chance to move four points ahead of the third-place Argonauts.

“It’s just one of those games where I feel like everything is understood,” said colourful Ticats linebacker Simoni Lawrence. “I love Labour Day just because especially over here in Hamilton the whole city, that’s what everybody looks forward to.

“We’re going to have a big crowd and it’s a rivalry game. The thing about rivalry games is everything is understood, you don’t have to do too much talking, you know what kind of game it’s going to be.”

Marcus Ball, Toronto’s rugged linebacker, said Labour Day in Hamilton is a huge grudge match.

“Growing up … there’s always one game, one opponent, one guy you always wanted to go against, the backyard brawl so to speak,” he said. ”It’s exciting being an Argo because we get to go against the Ticats every Labour Day and it’s always a hard-nosed, 12-round bout type of game

“You can throw the records out, they don’t matter. It’s all about us beating those boys.”

All nine CFL teams have played a minimum of nine regular-season games thus far. While many trends have been established, there’s no shortage of questions that remain unanswered heading to the playoffs and, ultimately, the Grey Cup game Nov. 25 at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.

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Here’s a review of the first half of the season and what’s to come heading into the stretch run.

IMPORTANT GAMES

Hamilton, Calgary and Saskatchewan could strengthen their respective situations with Labour Day sweeps of Toronto, Edmonton and Winnipeg, respectively. Yet a split wouldn’t hurt any of those clubs, either.

Calgary visits Hamilton on Sept. 15 and hosts Saskatchewan on Oct. 20. The Riders handed the Stampeders their only loss this season, a 40-27 decision Aug. 19 at Mosaic Stadium.

Hamilton visits Toronto on Oct. 12 to conclude that three-game series. Six of the Ticats’ nine remaining games are against East Division competition, including a home-and-home series with Ottawa (Oct. 19 at TD Place, Oct. 27 at Tim Hortons Field).

Receiver Duron Carter isn’t expected to play in either of Toronto’s next two games versus Hamilton. If that holds true, his first game in an Argos uniform could be Sept. 22 at BMO Field versus Saskatchewan, the team that released Carter on Aug. 11.

Edmonton plays West Division rivals in six of its final eight regular-season games. After facing Calgary, the Eskimos take on Winnipeg twice (at Commonwealth on Sept. 29 and Nov. 3) and visit both B.C. (Oct. 19) and Saskatchewan (Oct. 8). The two East Division games are against Ottawa (at TD Place on Sept. 22, Commonwealth on Oct. 13).

Winnipeg faces Saskatchewan a final time Oct. 13 at Mosaic Stadium. The Bombers also will play Edmonton twice as well as host Calgary (Oct. 26). Their two East Division contests are versus Montreal (Sept. 21) and in Ottawa (Oct. 5).

Six of Saskatchewan’s nine remaining games are versus West Division teams, including three against Winnipeg. The Riders also host Edmonton and B.C. (Oct. 27) and will visit Calgary while taking on Ottawa (Sept. 15), Toronto (Sept. 22) and Montreal (Sept. 30).

TOP PLAYER AWARD

Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly is making a strong case to secure the honour for a second straight season. Reilly leads the CFL in pass attempts (349), completions (234), yards (3,296) and TDs (22) as well as rushing touchdowns (eight). The Eskimos are tied with Winnipeg for touchdowns scored (32) and lead in passing TDs (22), passing yards (331.2 per game), average gain per pass (9.5 yards) and quarterback rating (91.8).

Other candidates include Winnipeg running back Andrew Harris (CFL-high 805 yards rushing, 5.8-yard average) and Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell (2,614 yards passing, 20 TD passes, 25 completions of 30-plus yards).

Top East Division candidates would include Ottawa quarterback Trevor Harris (2,735 yards, 10 TDs) and Hamilton pivot Jeremiah Masoli (2,884 yards, nine TDs, 314 yards rushing, 8.3-yard average).

TOP CANADIAN

Like Reilly, Harris is looking to capture this award for the second straight year. The Winnipeg native has registered three 100-yard efforts so far. Harris also has 40 catches for 311 yards and two TDs.

Also garnering consideration are Ottawa receiver Brad Sinopoli (league-high 63 catches, 775 yards, three touchdowns), Calgary linebacker Alex Singleton (team-high 55 tackles) and kickers Lewis Ward (24 straight field goals, 27-of-28 on the year) of Ottawa and Brett Lauther (28-of-31 field goals, CFL-leading 101 points) of Saskatchewan.

TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER

A change of scenery hasn’t bothered Charleston Hughes. In his first season with Saskatchewan, the veteran rush end has a CFL-high 12 sacks, which is what Toronto has as a team. The Riders have 23 overall, tying them with Calgary for the league lead. The six-foot-one, 246-pound Hughes, in his 11th CFL season after spending a decade with the Stampeders, also has registered 25 sacks, forced three fumbles and returned one of his two fumble recoveries for a touchdown.

Other worthy candidates are Winnipeg linebacker Adam Bighill (58 tackles, one sack, two interceptions one of which has been returned for a TD) and Singleton (55 tackles, two forced fumbles).

Montreal’s Henoc Muamba and Chris Ackie are tied for the CFL lead in tackles with 64 apiece.

PLEASANT SURPRISES

Kwaku Boateng has quickly established himself with the Eskimos. The six-foot-two, 275-pound defensive lineman has five sacks this season, his second in the CFL after being taken in the fifth round, No. 41 overall, in the 2017 CFL draft. The native of Ghana, who grew up in Milton, Ont., had four sacks and 21 tackles last year.

Lions quarterback Travis Lulay has thrown for 1,696 yards and completed 61.6 per cent of his passes in five starts this season. Not bad considering Lulay suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2017. But the 34-year-old, in his 10th season with B.C., has come back strong.

Meanwhile, it’s been quite a start for Ward. The rookie’s 96.4 per cent success ratio on field goals is tops among all CFL kickers. The former Ottawa Gee-Gees star is 19-for-19 within 40 yards and has hit eight of the nine converts he’s attempted.

ROAD WOES

B.C. (3-6) is 0-5 away from B.C. Place Stadium while Toronto (3-6) is 0-4 on the road and has scored a CFL-low 70 points in those four contests.

Coincidentally, the CFL’s two best road teams are Calgary (3-1) and Ottawa (3-2), the West and East Division leaders, respectively.

WESTERN DOMINANCE

West Division teams are 16-9 against their Eastern rivals, with Calgary being an impressive 5-0. The Lions (1-2) are the lone Western team to have a losing record against the East.

Ottawa (3-2) is the only East team with a winning record against the West.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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