Jon Cornish ran for more yards this season than any Canadian ever has in the CFL, but there was a watershed moment in his breakout campaign.
It came July 28 when the Calgary Stampeders running back ran for -1 yards on six carries in a 34-8 home loss to the B.C. Lions. That gave the native of New Westminster, B.C., 199 yards rushing through five games, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry.
But Cornish ran for 170 yards on 20 carries and a TD the following week in a 31-20 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The six-year veteran amassed 1,258 yards over Calgary's final 13 regular-season games (averaging 6.1 yards per carry) for a CFL-best 1,457 yards, breaking Norm Kwong's record for most rushing yards in a season by a Canadian (1,437 yards).
Calgary also rebounded, with the Hamilton win starting a 10-3 stretch that earned it a 12-6 record and second in the West Division behind the defending Grey Cup-champion B.C. Lions (13-5).
B.C. hosts Calgary in the West final on Sunday while the Toronto Argonauts visit the Montreal Alouettes for the East crown. The winners meet in the 100th Grey Cup on Nov. 25 at Rogers Centre.
The Lions won the season series with Calgary 2-1 but the Stampeders took the last meeting 41-21 on Oct. 26.
That contest meant nothing in the standings as both clubs had already clinched their playoff berths. With starter Travis Lulay (shoulder) injured, backups Mike Reilly and Thomas DeMarco took the snaps.
Cornish, the West Division nominee as outstanding player and top Canadian, had 86 yards rushing for Calgary, which had Kevin Glenn, Drew Tate and Bo Levi Mitchell all play quarterback. It was Tate's first action since hurting his shoulder July 7 against Toronto.
All three had touchdown passes against B.C., with Tate earning the start in Calgary's 30-27 win over Edmonton in the regular-season finale before being named the club's playoff starter. Tate was 22-of-36 passing for 363 yards and two TDs in the Stampeders' 36-30 West Division semifinal win over Saskatchewan, including the game-winning 68-yard scoring strike to Romby Bryant with 19 seconds left.
Cornish had 109 yards rushing on 18 carries and was a significant contributor to a Calgary offence that rolled up nearly 500 total yards on a Riders' defence that allowed the second-fewest in the CFL (333 per game).
B.C.'s defence will present a definite challenge. It was first in 18 of the CFL's 25 defensive categories, including fewest points (19.7 per game), total yards (295 per game) and most sacks (47).
Defensive lineman Keron Williams had a league-best 12 sacks. Middle linebacker Adam Bighill was tied for third with nine, while finishing second overall in tackles with 104.
B.C. was also the CFL's stingiest defence against the pass and run. Calgary had the league's second-best rushing attack this season.
The Lions will have Lulay back under centre Sunday. The CFL's outstanding player last season started B.C.'s regular season-ending 17-6 win over Saskatchewan, his first since Oct. 12 against Hamilton.
B.C. also has its own Canadian star running back in Andrew Harris. The Winnipeg native had a CFL-best 1,830 yards from scrimmage — the most ever by a Canuck — and was third in rushing with 1,112 yards.
Harris was also the Lions' second-leading receiver with 718 yards.
Tate will start against B.C. with Glenn available should Tate struggle or be injured. Glenn led the Stampeders to nine wins in the 14 games he started during Tate's absence.
The pre-game rhetoric began Sunday following Calgary's win over Saskatchewan with slotback Nik Lewis predicting the Stampeders will defeat B.C.
"You might as well go through the champs," Lewis was quoted as saying in the Calgary Herald. "We don't back down from nobody. The best thing is, we're gonna be underdogs. Last few games, we were the favourites. We played Winnipeg, we were supposed to win. We played Hamilton, we were supposed to win. We play B.C., 'Ah they're not playing for nuthin' so we're supposed to win. Against Edmonton last week, we're supposed to win.
"Tonight, we were supposed to win, too.
"Next week, for a change, we're not supposed to win. But guess what? We will."
EAST Division Final
Toronto at Montreal
For the fourth time in five years and ninth time since 2000 the road to the Grey Cup in the East Division goes through Montreal, with the Alouettes looking to make a ninth Grey Cup appearance over that span.
The Alouettes won their season series with Toronto 2-1, including a 24-12 decision at Rogers Centre on Oct. 14 that clinched first in the East.
Toronto was minus starter Ricky Ray, who was out with a knee injury. The 10-year veteran has thrown 10 TD passes and only one interception in his three starts since returning to the lineup.
Ray was 23-of-30 passing for 239 yards and two TDs in Toronto's 42-26 East Division semifinal win over Edmonton. It was Ray's first win in three games against his former team after the Eskimos shocked the CFL by dispatching the veteran to Toronto last December.
Ray gives Toronto something it has lacked since Damon Allen's retirement — a veteran presence under centre. He surpassed the 4,000-yard passing plateau for the seventh time in his CFL career and helped make special-teams dynamo Chad Owens the league's top receiver with 94 catches for 1,328 yards and six TDs.
Ray suffered his knee injury in Montreal's 31-10 win on Sept. 23.
Montreal counters with Anthony Calvillo, pro football's all-time leading passer. The 40-year-old finished second in CFL passing this season with 5,082 yards.
Calvillo was 56-of-102 passing for 887 yards against Toronto this season with four touchdowns and four interceptions. However, Calvillo does have two 1,000-yard receivers in S.J. Green and Jamel Richardson.