Winnipeg Blue Bombers vs Edmonton Esks
The Eskimos made it personal on Saturday after spending the previous week working hard and enjoying their final days together as a team.
C.J. Gable became the first Eskimos running back to rush for 1,000 yards since Jerome Messam accomplished the feat in 2011 while middle linebacker J.C. Sherritt completed an amazing comeback from a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2017 by making 100 defensive tackles this season to highlight several milestones and/or individual accomplishments by Edmonton players.
The Esks overcame the disappointment of being eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in five years to down a shorthanded Winnipeg Blue Bombers team 33-24 in front of 27,749 at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.
With the victory, which gave Edmonton an impressive 7-2 record at home, the Eskimos finished the season tied for fourth place in the West Division with BC at 9-9, but the Lions were awarded the crossover playoff berth in the East Division Semi-Final because they won the season series with Edmonton 2-1.
“It was a great ending to a week that was unexpected, but we made the most of it, and that’s something to be proud of,” said head coach Jason Maas, who told his players after the game that he “loved” coaching them. “I’ve never been more proud of them the way they came together this week under circumstances that were out of our control and to go to work and still get something out of this and come together – tighter than ever – and then come out and win a football game against a great team, if you ask me.”
The Eskimos dominated the time of possession 37:05 to 22:55 as Winnipeg left starting quarterback Matt Nichols, two receivers, an offensive lineman, kicker Justin Medlock and two defensive starters on the bench in a meaningless game for the Bombers. Star running back Andrew Harris also left the game after only five minutes when a 31-yard run took him past Ottawa RedBlacks’ William Powell for the CFL’s rushing title.
Edmonton took the lead for good midway through the second quarter when Gable scored his first of two touchdowns. The two-yard run also gave Gable the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his six-year CFL career.
“I wasn’t even trying to think about it,” said Gable, who didn’t keep the milestone ball because he didn’t realize he had reached it at that point. “I said if it happens, it happens. I’m just going to go out there and try to win this game, and that’s it.”
Gable, 31, has always believed he was capable of reaching the 1,000-yard goal that every running back dreams about if he was given enough opportunities, so the proof is finally in the pudding. He averaged only eight carries per game during 4-1/2 seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats before being traded to Edmonton in October 2017.
He had a career-high 196 carries in 16 games with the Eskimos this year, although that was still only an average of 12.3 carries per game.
“I knew I had in me, but I just needed the carries, and I finally got them,” Gable said. “It feels great. The line helped me out big time and the receivers (helped) with downfield blocking.
“It wasn’t easy. I just need the carries. I didn’t get as many as I could have had, but I did what I did with what I got. I just stayed positive about everything.”
Gable was kept busy in the season finale with 18 carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns. It was his second 100-yard game of the season and the ninth of his CFL career.
“I get those 100s when I get the ball a lot,” he said. “I know that for sure.
“It was fun having that last game with the fellows. It was just great being out there. I told myself I’m going to go hard no matter what. I’m going to make them stop me. I wasn’t going to go down on the first hit.”
The six-foot, 219-pound Gable, who almost never goes down on the first hit, said he loves every game he plays because “I never know when it’ll be my last (one).”
Meanwhile, Sherritt had a game-high nine defensive tackles to reach the century mark for the second time in his eight-year career. The five-foot-nine, 218-pound veteran, who set a CFL record with 130 tackles in 2012 (since eclipsed twice by BC’s Solomon Elimimian), ranks fourth overall on the Eskimos’ all-time defensive tackles list behind linebackers Willie Pless, Larry Wruck and Singor Mobley with 507.
Only Pless (five times), Danny Bass (twice) and Sherritt (twice) have ever made 100 tackles in a season for the Esks.
“You take what you can from years like this and move forward,” said Sherritt, who also knocked down a Winnipeg pass late in the game. “Obviously, I’m disappointed the way the season turned out, but to be able to give back to the organization that believed in me, to show them that they made the right decision meant a lot to me. They gave me a chance when they didn’t have to.
“To finish on a win was huge,” he added. “It just says a lot about everybody in this room. Our week was awesome; the way we approached it. We could have shut down easily, and I’m sure that’s happened on some teams, but we had a great week and then to go out and just finish with a win was awesome.”
“Winning always feels better than losing and we tried to get that good feeling one more time before the season ended,” said quarterback Mike Reilly, who completed 29 of 35 passes for 320 yards to claim the league’s passing title for the third year in a row, this time with 5,562 yards.
Reilly joined Doug Flutie (1991-94) and Anthony Calvillo (2002-05) as the only CFL quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 or more yards at least three years in a row.
“The guys came out and played passionately for the city and the organization, but also for the coaching staff and for each other, and the coaches did the same,” Reilly said. “(The coaches) came in and put in a long, hard week of work and made sure they gave us the tools necessary to come out and win.”
Reilly threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to slotback D’haquille (Duke) Williams late in the first quarter to become only the third Edmonton QB to throw 30 or more TD passes in consecutive seasons (Tracy Ham in 1989-92 and Warren Moon in 1981-82 were the others), but failed to get a rushing major to tie Flutie’s CFL record for a quarterback and former teammate James Franklin of the Toronto Argonauts at 14.
“Finally, I had to take some (touchdowns) from Mike because he took all of them this year,” Gable said with a laugh. “I’ve got to get them next year if he’s here. (laughs again) He’s going to be here!”
Williams, who left his feet to make a sensational diving catch near the back of the end zone for his 11th touchdown of the season, tied Hamilton’s Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker for the league lead in receiving TDs.
He also became the third different Eskimos receiver to win the CFL’s receiving title in as many seasons, following Brandon Zylstra in 2017 and Adarius Bowman in 2016. Williams finished his second season in Edmonton with 88 catches for 1,579 yards (the ninth-best performance by a receiver in Esks history).
“It’s an honour to be the top receiver in the league because the ones who were chasing me were amazing receivers,” Williams said, listing players like Ottawa’s Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson, Hamilton’s Brandon Banks and Jalen Saunders and his own injured teammate, Derel Walker (51 catches for 875 yards in 11 games).
Williams, who had three catches for 45 yards in Saturday’s game, called Walker his mentor.
“Once he got hurt, I knew I had to step up … I had to take over for him,” Williams said. “That’s like my big bro.”
Unfortunately, Walker sprained his AC joint shoulder ligaments in the Labour Day Rematch game against the Calgary Stampeders and played hurt the last six games.
“After the Calgary game, every game was a struggle for me because I was one play away from hurting my shoulder,” Williams said. “It was bad … but I just had to sacrifice myself for my teammates.”
Bryant Mitchell, who led all CFL receivers with 635 receiving yards on 44 catches during the last seven weeks of the regular season, had a game-high 104 receiving yards on eight catches while Vidal Hazelton also caught eight passes for 86 yards to surpass the 1,000-yard mark during his two injury-interrupted seasons with the Eskimos.
Kicker Sean Whyte made all four field goal attempts (from 47, 25, 38 and 35 yards) to extend his current streak to 14 in a row and added three converts for a 15-point outing to finish with 148 points. Whyte had a 90-per-cent success rate on field goals (36-of-40) this year and made all but two of 42 convert attempts from 32 yards.
Veteran defensive back Aaron Grymes (three defensive tackles) played his first game at cornerback since his rookie CFL season in 2013 while veteran safety Neil King had to shift over to the strong-side linebacker/nickel back position after Chris Edwards broke his hand in the second quarter.
“It was a blast,” said King, who made three defensive tackles and knocked down a pass late in the game. “It was a great way to end the season just playing free and having fun.”
King, 30, regularly practices as a backup at the nickel position, but this was his first chance to play there all season. He did previously play the position with the Edmonton Wildcats (junior) and the Saint Mary’s University Huskies.
“I’ve been in that territory before, and I understand fronts and gaps and stuff like that, so I understand where you’ve got to hit it,” he said. “You’ve got to be a little bit quicker with those big boys down here in the CFL, so you’ve got to hit them a little bit harder.”
Besides Edwards, defensive halfback Brandyn Thompson, who was playing his first game since tearing his Achilles tendon last year, offensive guard Travis Bond and kick-returner Martese Jackson were also injured in the game.
“Injuries suck,” Maas said, “but now they’ve got a whole off-season to repair and be ready. We’ve got guys in that locker room like J.C. Sherritt and (defensive back) Mercy Maston who have gone through horrible injuries and come back stronger.”
Defensive tackle Jake Ceresna (three tackles) executed a much better cartwheel this time after his eighth quarterback sack of the season.