Sean Whyte kicked a club-record and career-high seven field goals Thursday night, but that was like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
While Whyte was kicking three-pointers to account for all of the Eskimos’ scoring, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers put four touchdowns on the scoreboard to defeat Edmonton 28-21 in front of 25,336 witnesses at IG Field.
“All this tells us is that we’re not going undefeated,” said Eskimos rookie Brian Walker (three defensive tackles, a quarterback sack and an interception), who is filling in for Don Unamba at strong-side linebacker. “Nothing more. Nothing less.
“I’m proud of the defence,” he added on the 630 CHED post-game show. “This is a building block for us. We played a real good team. We know we can definitely beat them. It was one of those nights that we can learn from and build from.”
The Eskimos, 2-1, have a bye week coming up followed by their second of three consecutive road games on Thursday, July 11th, against the BC Lions.
“It would have been great to be 3-0 right now and have that win in Winnipeg,” said Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas, “but the group, the effort, the fight, everything but the finish was what we want out of our guys. I don’t want anyone in this locker room hanging their heads. They fought until the very end. Ultimately, we came up a couple of plays short. But there’s lots to build on; lots to get better at.
“We know if we improve some things and clean up some things, we’re going to be a tough out for anybody.”
Defensive penalties were again costly early in the game when defensive end Nick Usher’s roughing the passer penalty gave the Blue Bombers new life on their second possession.
“We had them off the field again, and we give up a penalty on a second-and-20, and it’s a foolish penalty,” Maas said. “We can’t have that. They went down and scored a touchdown. If you take that touchdown off the board, what’s the game? It’s different. Our guys have to keep that in mind.”
A pass interference call against cornerback Josh Johnson two plays later moved the ball to the Edmonton 42 and then Winnipeg wide receiver Nic Demski took over with runs of 35 and seven yards to open the scoring.
“Our defence, when they don’t have penalties, they’re tough to drive the ball on,” Maas said.
Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols improved to 5-2 against his former team despite completing only 13 of 21 passes for 200 yards because rookie receiver Lucky Whitehead exploded for a couple of big scoring plays. Whitehead had a 75-yard pass-and-run touchdown to give the Bombers a 14-3 lead late in the first quarter and a 41-yard pass-and-run TD after catching a hitch pass at the line of scrimmage late in the third quarter to push Winnipeg’s lead to 28-12.
But Maas showed his faith in the defence when he opted to have Whyte kick a 33-yard field goal on first down with 122 seconds left in the game to narrow the deficit to seven points.
“When it came down to it at the end of the game, we stepped up,” Walker said. “We knew we had to get a stop or a force turnover. It happened we got both.”
Maas also made the same call to kick a field goal and then count on his defence to stop the opponent and get the ball back for the offence to try to score the game-tying touchdown with time running out last year at BC.
“Everybody was like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ” Maas recalled. “We were about the exact same situation. We couldn’t get the stop last year. This year, we get the stop, and you see why you make that decision.
“With a minute left in the game, we were in great field position because we got to kick it deep. They thought we were going with an onside (kickoff). We pin them back. We get a sack. Call time out. We get the ball back with a minute. I mean, we’re right there.
“Obviously, it looks bleak and then all of a sudden, they have to run the ball out again, and they fumble, and our defence did a tremendous job, so we got two more opportunities. That’s playing complementary football. When you have faith in your defence, and you put it in their hands, they’ve got to be able to do their job and get it back to you. Not only that, but they punted, and Martese (Jackson) had his best return of the night to get us back to the 50-yard line.
“Ultimately, we had some opportunities on offence,” Maas continued. “We just couldn’t capitalize on the good fortune of our defence and special teams.”
A couple of dropped passes ended that drive, but the Eskimos got the ball back right away when rookie linebacker Vontae Diggs poked the ball out of Winnipeg running back Andrew Harris’s hands, and safety Jordan Hoover recovered it at the Edmonton 51 with 54 seconds remaining.
The Eskimos weren’t able to capitalize when quarterback Trevor Harris (35 of 54 passing for 345 yards) was unable to complete his last three passes in a row.
“At the end of the day, that’s what football comes down to,” said Maas. “That’s why we’d like to clean up some things earlier in the game, so it doesn’t come down to this. We were poor in short yardage at times during this game, and it cost us a third-and-one where we turned the ball over, and there was a couple of other short-yardage (situations) that we didn’t pick up. If we get the ball in the end zone, it’s a different ball game at the end.”
Despite losing their first game, the Eskimos still had a positive outlook afterwards.
“I’m very proud of this group, very proud of this team’s effort and the way we are coming together,” Maas said. “This game will make us stronger. We’ll correct it. Nobody’s going on their bye week (Friday). They’re going to have a day off, and then they’re going to have to watch this game (film) and correct it. Then they’re going to go home, but they’re going to be right back to work and excited to be around each other once again.”
“We’ve got to improve from this game and we will,” said Harris. “…There’s no ounce of panic in this locker room. We’re going to keep grinding, and we’re going to be a good team this year, I can promise.
“I think this (team) has the capability of being as good of a team as I’ve been on up here and I’ve actually seen up here,” he added, referring to the CFL. “We’re just going to band together and keep fighting. We’re going to be just fine.”
Whyte, with 519 points as an Eskimo, has made 10 consecutive field goals in the last two games. His other kicks Thursday were from 30, 20, 10, 45, 31 and 37 yards. Whyte previously had a six-for-six game with both the Montreal Alouettes in 2013 and the BC Lions in 2011 and had a six-for-seven outing with the Eskimos in 2015.
He still needs one convert to tie Tom Dixon (126) for fourth place on the Esks’ all-time list. It was only the fifth time in 54 Edmonton games that Whyte hasn’t booted a convert.
Kenny Stafford (eight catches for 108 yards) and Ricky Collins, Jr., (eight catches for 107 yards) were the Eskimos’ busiest receivers as Edmonton compiled 440 yards of net offence compared to only 270 for Winnipeg. It was only the third time that Stafford, a seven-year veteran, has had a 100-yard receiving performance in his 66-game CFL career.
For Collins, it was his second 100-yard game of the season.
The Eskimos also dominated the play clock, having possession of the ball for 36 minutes and 20 seconds, but took 13 penalties for 139 yards.
Running back C.J. Gable ran for 82 yards on 17 carries, ending his three-game streak of rushing for more than 100 yards.
Fullback Tanner Green, a 2018 draft pick, led the Eskimos with three special teams tackles and also caught his first CFL pass (11 yards) in the second quarter.
Harris, who made it through the first two games without being sacked, was finally tackled for a loss with the ball on the second-last play of the third quarter.
Defensive back Monshadrik (Money) Hunter led the Eskimos with five defensive tackles while nose tackle Almondo Sewell had two defensive tackles and his second sack of the season. Defensive back Forrest Hightower had a knockdown while Diggs (two tackles, one special teams tackle) recovered the other Winnipeg fumble.
“The first two games were real good for us,” Walker said. “The defence set a standard of playing fast and physical football. The offence is high-powered as we know.
“Right now, it feels like we’re on a good pace. We’re heading in a good direction.”