The defence drew rave reviews during training camp, but it was the offence that gave a star performance in the Eskimos’ season-opener Friday at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.
Quarterback Trevor Harris threw for 447 yards, and three touchdowns in his Eskimos’ debut as the Green and Gold entertained 25,263 spectators with 607 yards of net offence in a 32-25 CFL victory over the Montreal Alouettes.
“The proof is in the pudding,” wide receiver Kenny Stafford said for anyone with doubts about Harris’s ability to replace Mike Reilly. “He threw for over 400 (yards) in his first game as an Eskimo.”
Slotback Ricky Collins Jr., who like Harris was acquired on the opening day of free agency on Feb. 12th, had nine catches for a career-high 175 yards while Stafford scored two touchdowns (28 yards, 10 yards) in the second quarter to match his entire season’s production in each of the last three years.
Running back C.J. Gable also had an outstanding performance, rushing for 154 yards on 20 carries and scoring on a difficult 23-yard reception.
“I wanted to set the bar high for the running backs this year,” Gable said. “I told myself I want to be the (league’s) leading rusher.”
Harris scored the game-winning touchdown with a two-yard quarterback sneak into the end zone behind the Eskimos’ big offensive line with 90 seconds remaining as Edmonton won a season-opening game at home for the first time since 2012.
“This year, our thing is we’ve got to finish and don’t crack under pressure,” Gable pointed out. “When things start getting hard, we’ve got to stay strong and be ready to overcome anything.”
The season-opening victory was the third for Jason Maas in four seasons as Eskimos head coach and improved Edmonton’s all-time record in season-openers to 43-27-1. It was also the Esks’ 11th consecutive victory over the Alouettes dating back to 2014.
“(Harris) was on his game tonight and he had a lot of help,” Maas said about his new QB. “Our guys did a great job up front of protecting him. We spread the ball around – Trevor did a good job of that, reading the defence and putting (the ball) where it needed to be, accordingly.”
Harris completed 32 of 41 passes after starting the game with 10 completions on his first 11 attempts. He was good on 28 of 34 passes after three quarters.
“CJ was a big part of our game plan,” Maas added. “Being able to run the ball is always your quarterback’s best friend, but Trevor was very good (Friday).”
The Eskimos seemingly had the game under control after Gable made an over-the-shoulder catch with his fingertips reminiscent of Fred Stamps – the former Esks receiver who also wore No. 2 and was honoured at halftime with an official retirement ceremony – to score a touchdown and give Edmonton a 25-8 lead 14 seconds into the fourth quarter.
“That one catch was phenomenal,” Maas said. “The one in practice was probably better than that one.”
Gable, who made a one-handed catch on that particular play in practice, had told Harris he would catch the ball wherever the quarterback threw it.
“I wanted to make sure I caught this one in the game,” he said. “I’m happy I could this time. I can catch it. Some people probably forgot about that, but I’m a guy with pretty good hands out of the backfield. I hope (opponents) honour that, but if they don’t, I’m probably going to have some more catches.”
Friday’s receiving touchdown was only Gable’s third in 21 games with the Eskimos and 11th in his eight-year CFL career. The 100-yard rushing game was his sixth since joining the Esks late in the 2017 season and his 11th overall.
“He ran hard tonight, too,” Maas said. “Some of those carries were tough carries, and he ate up some yards after contact. He’s as good as there is in the league when he’s doing that.”
Unfortunately, Montreal stormed back to score a pair of touchdowns three minutes and 12 seconds apart in the fourth quarter, and Boris Bede kicked a 52-yard field goal to tie the game with 2:12 remaining as the Alouettes scored 17 consecutive points.
“You don’t ever want games to come down to that at the end, but when they do, it feels great to come out with a victory,” Maas said. “When your backs are up against it, and you need to make plays, guys did that tonight.”
The Eskimos responded to the game-tying field goal with a series of big plays. Kick-returner Jordan Robinson got the ball rolling with a game-high 37-yard kickoff return to the Edmonton 40. After an incomplete pass, Harris fired a strike to Collins Jr. for a 45-yard pass-and-run play to the Montreal 25. Then Gable broke a 23-yard run to the Montreal two, where Harris pushed his way into the end zone.
“When you’re playing at home, and you have these games, making it tougher on yourselves is not a good thing,” Maas added. “Our guys need to learn from it … but at the end of the day, you’ve got to find a way to win, and you’ve got to find a way to believe in each other and work for one another, and that’s what we’re doing right now, and it’s what I’ve seen all (training) camp. I’m glad in the first game it showed.
“Obviously, discipline was a big part of our plan going into the game, and it was out the window it seemed throughout the game, and you’re disappointed in that, but I told the guys at the beginning of the year, ‘You’re going to be a good enough football team to win games when you don’t play your best, and you’re not as disciplined as you need to be.’ We need to be better no matter what happens, but tonight was evident of that. We gave (Montreal) a lot of drives by penalties, and we hurt ourselves turning the ball over on offence. That stuff can’t happen.”
The Eskimos took 12 penalties for 118 yards and had three giveaways, losing two of four fumbles and turning the ball over on downs when Harris failed to get one yard on a sneak, but it was close enough for Maas to challenge where the ball was spotted unsuccessfully.
“We gave up some plays that we know we shouldn’t have,” veteran cornerback Anthony Orange – another player acquired in free agency – said about the defence. “We had some penalties that we shouldn’t have. They were able to get some points on us and make it close.
“Our standard here is we wanted to shut it out and keep the points high on our end and the points low on their end. It didn’t go that way, but we’re satisfied with the win.”
The Eskimos played without an injured Don Unamba (three defensive tackles, one tackle for a loss on the first defensive play of the game) in the second half. That meant playing newcomer Tyquwan Glass (one tackle) at defensive halfback on the short side of the field while veteran defensive back Josh Johnson (three tackles, one quarterback sack) moved over to Unamba’s strong-side (SAM) linebacker position. National defensive back Jordan Hoover also got some looks at safety.
“We had to make some changes in the back end, and there’s just some little communication stuff that we’re going to clean up in the next couple of days,” Orange said. “It’s little things. It’s the first game of the season. We’re always looking to get better, so we’re not satisfied yet.”
Orange sealed Montreal’s fate when he intercepted a pass from Alouettes backup quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. with 52 seconds remaining.
“We knew he was going to (receiver DeVier Posey),” Orange said. “They’d been throwing it to him all night. He was waggling; I had a running start. I figured they would try to throw it up to him, and I was in a pretty good position and able to get my hands on (the ball). I’m happy I did so we were able to win the game.”
Orange had five interceptions last year with the BC Lions.
“I feel pretty good about getting the ball in my hands and setting the standard for how the season will go,” he said.
The Eskimos are back in action at 7 p.m. Friday against the Lions at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.
SHORT YARDAGE: Sean Whyte missed his only field goal attempt from 53 yards and booted four converts … Defensive end Kwaku Boateng and Johnson had quarterback sacks … Boateng also had a tackle while linemate Almondo Sewell led the Esks with five defensive tackles … Edmonton’s other points in the game came on a pair of safety touches that Montreal conceded in the first and third quarters.