Face to face

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:03 PM ET

CALGARY -- It was Tom Higgins's first playoff game as a head coach. Calgary at Edmonton. The 2001 Western Final.

It was a playoff pratfall.

Seldom, if ever, has an Eskimos team made such a mess of a game in the post-season. A dozen turnovers. Five on fumbles. Four on downs. Three on interceptions.

Higgins lost it 34-16.

Fast forward ...

Today is Higgins's first playoff game as head coach of the Stampeders and Danny Maciocia's first playoff game as head coach in his career.

SET UP FOR THIS

Since the day Higgins was fired by the Eskimos and hired by the Stampeders and Maciocia promoted to head coach in Edmonton, it's been set up for this.

"There couldn't be a bigger treat than playing the West semifinal versus Edmonton,'' said Higgins in remarkable, for him, candor at his press conference yesterday.

Few games come along with this much hair on it in a dozen different directions. But it starts with the coaches and the quarterbacks. It's been there all season long and now it's down to this as they both take their 11-7 teams into a win or go home game, one with a quarterback who is hot and the other with one not-so-hot.

"Let the game be played and let's see how it turns out,'' said Higgins.

"Either a head coach stinks or is good or the quarterback stinks or is good.''

Higgins, in his own Ned Flanders sort of way, came close to lecturing his former offensive co-ordinator about how he handled the week.

"I wouldn't have reacted to it,'' he said of the criticisms and controversy about coaching and quarterbacking in Edmonton after the Eskimos' pre-playoff pratfall here last Sunday which prevented the Eskimos from finishing first and playing host to the Western Final.

"It'll all come out in the wash. You've got a 60-minute game starting at 4 p.m. to do it. That's it.''

Why Ricky Ray didn't say, "Listen, I haven't thrown a touchdown pass in five games and we just lost a big one, I'm the quarterback and I expect some heat,'' I don't know.

Why Danny Maciocia didn't, say "Hey, we just blew a chance to finish first and have a home playoff game and we deserve all the controversy and criticism that's going to come as a result,'' I don't understand.

Instead they whined about it all week. We'll see if they take it into today and if it'll work as a positive or a negative.

Higgins said it's simple.

"If they can get rid of all the demons, it'll be a football game. It won't if they don't.''

He expects they will.

"They'll be prepared and ready to go.''

Ricky Ray included?

"I don't think there is any team in the CFL that wouldn't want Ricky Ray. He's a dynamic young quarterback.''

Higgins has spent the entire week trying to keep his team grounded.

"Each day I slap them on the face to wipe the smiles off,'' he joked.

Maciocia was still bothered by the rough ride from the media and fans.

"If we win we overcame bad coaching. If we lose we got out-schemed,'' he said.

But maybe that works from the us-against-the-world mood and attitude they've brought down here this weekend.

"We believe in one another,'' said Maciocia.

"The first thing I said to this team at training camp was 'Let's build this ship, sail it and don't let anybody on it.' "

Maciocia says he has no clue from the week of practice which team will show up.

"I talked to Wally Buono this week,'' he said of the B.C. Lions head coach.

"I asked him 'How do you gauge it?' He told me 'I haven't figured it out yet.' STUNNED BY RESULT

But Maciocia says he was stunned the way it turned last Sunday.

"If you told me last week, especially after our first drive for a touchdown ... it just turned around and snowballed on us.''

That said, he says he believes.

Maciocia says he's not nervous going into his first playoff game as a head coach.

"I was more nervous for my first regular-season game,'' he said. "I'm as calm and cool as I can get 24 hours before a game.

"I expect they'll have attitude, intensity, passion and play to their ability.

"The only thing I can tell you is to stay tuned.''


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