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A lot still on the line for playoff-bound Toronto Argonauts, Calgary Stampeders

CALGARY — Joshua Coker feels ready for his second career CFL start because his first was trial by fire against the defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The Calgary Stampeders' offensive lineman draws in at left tackle Saturday against the visiting Toronto Argonauts because decorated lineman Derek Dennis is out with a cracked fibula.

Coker started at right tackle Aug. 25 in Calgary's 31-29 loss to Winnipeg. His job was protecting quarterback Jake Maier from the likes of veteran defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat.

"There's nothing like game experience," Coker said Friday. "I was able to get my spots and feel what it's like to go against Willie Jefferson and Jeffcoat and guys that have proven they're successful in this league. It gave me good experience.

"It's one game, but I'm comfortable with tackle so I was able to look at the film, see what I can do well, and kind of get the reads I think they'd get on me."

Dennis, a three-time division all-star named the CFL's most outstanding offensive lineman in 2016, cracked his fibula in Calgary's 25-11 win over the host B.C. Lions last Saturday to secure a playoff berth for a 17th straight season.

"It is big shoes to fill, but the type of room we have, everyone's prepared," Coker said.

The 24-year-old Rhodes College product was a practice roster player up until August.

"He's always been a high-effort, high-motor guy. I trust Josh," Maier said. "Playing left tackle is one of the most difficult positions in football. You tend to take on the other team's best pass-rusher. He's ready for it."

The Argonauts (8-5-0) atop the East Division ride a four-game win streak into McMahon Stadium. Toronto secured a home playoff game with last week's 45-15 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks. 

Toronto's target is now retaining first in the East to host the division final Nov. 13 at BMO Field. The Montreal Alouettes, who are in Edmonton on Saturday to face the Elks, were four points back of the Argos.

"Montreal is on our heels," acknowledged Argonauts coach Ryan Dinwiddie. "They're playing good football right now and their best football at the right time. We feel like we're doing the same thing but we've got to take it one week at a time. 

"That's the only way we're going to get there. That's our end goal. Our next goal is to win first place."

Heading into the weekend, Calgary (9-5-0) was neck and neck with B.C. (10-4-0) in a race to host a home playoff game in the West Division. The Bombers are the West's front-runners and in strong position to host the division final. The race for second place and a home division semifinal Nov. 6 is tight.

Calgary is 4-0 against East Division clubs this season, but 3-3 at home.

"This game is going to be about having a sense of urgency," Maier said. "We haven't played that great at home. We need to change that.

"This is the time of the year where you want to be playing championship-level football. We know where we're at in the standings and we know where we stand in the league. We feel like we're one of the top teams in the league, but we have to prove it now."

Toronto's last loss was Aug. 20 to the visiting Stampeders in Bo Levi Mitchell's last start for Calgary. Trailing 16-10 at halftime, Calgary turned to Maier in the second half. He completed 14 of his 18 passing attempts for 156 yards in a 22-19 win.

The 25-year-old Californian has been Calgary's starter since then with a 3-2 record. The Stampeders further solidified Maier's status as their No. 1 by signing him this week to a contract that keeps him in Calgary to the end of the 2024 season.

"They're playing confidently with Jake," said Dinwiddie, who was Calgary's quarterbacks coach from 2016 to 2019. "I think (Maier) has been pretty efficient keeping the offence on the field and having sustained drives."

Argonauts starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who leads the CFL in passing yards with 3,672, sees Saturday's clash as a chance for two playoff-bound teams to take a measure of each other.

"We let Calgary come in here and steal one from us so we have some payback to do for sure," Toronto's pivot said. "They're a very good team, they're playing good football and have also clinched (a playoff berth) as well. 

"We're going to play playoff football and we want to play it against playoff teams so there's no better opponent than the one of the best teams in the West and potentially one of the hotter teams in the league. These are the games we want to play."

Calgary's offence averages a league-best 30.9 points per game, while Toronto's defence allows a league-low 22.5 points per game. 

"They ride momentum great," Maier said. "They're always around the football, whether it's pass breakups, gang tackling or intercepting throws. They do a great job of forcing turnovers. We have to take care of the football. 

"If you give a team like them any life or any confidence, they play even better than they are and they're already pretty good as it is, so we don't want to give them any momentum."

Notes: Linebacker Cameron Judge, who leads Calgary in tackles (64), returns to the lineup after serving a one-game suspension for punching Lions receiver Lucky Whitehead … Stampeder receiver Malik Henry needs just three receiving yards for 1,000 this season … Argonauts long snapper Jake Reinhart of Guelph, Ont., announced his retirement Friday in his eighth season with the team. He reinjured an elbow injury from last season and wasn't able to finish out 2022.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press