When push came to shove Friday night, the Eskimos defence became defiant.
The Ottawa RedBlacks may have marched down the field during the final 85 seconds at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium, but the Eskimos drew a line in the artificial turf at their own 11-yard line.
After Ottawa’s Dominique Rhymes beat Anthony Orange (who was playing his first game since the season-opener on June 14) with an out-and-up play for a 33-yard gain with 59 seconds remaining, the veteran cornerback led the way as the Eskimos disrupted three consecutive Ottawa passes into the end zone.
First, Orange prevented Rhymes from catching a touchdown pass, then Orange knocked down a pass that defensive halfback Monshadrik (Money) Hunter may have already tipped and, finally, defensive halfback Josh Johnson smothered the RedBlacks’ desperation pass on third down before the ball fell harmlessly to the ground, ending the final threat of an Ottawa comeback.
“It’s not easy,” Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas said after the 16-12 victory in front of 27,951 spectators. “To do what they did on that last drive with three chances at the 10-yard line to shut a team down, tremendous effort.
“And they were all contested plays,” Maas added. “They weren’t easy plays. Guys stood on their heads and made plays. A lot of belief in that locker room in each other and it just grows from here now.”
Eskimos quarterback Trevor Harris admitted after the game that the only time he gets nervous in football is when he’s not in control (when he’s not on the field).
“It’s those nervous moments,” he said about the Eskimos’ game-saving defensive stand, “but there’s no other defence in the CFL I’d rather have in that situation. They did a good job of holding them out of the end zone, breaking up passes and almost picked off the last one.”
The Edmonton offence ran the final 31 seconds off the clock as the Eskimos improved to 5-3 and moved into a three-way tie for second place in the West Division with the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“It’s an ugly win,” Harris said, referring to four Eskimos turnovers in Ottawa’s half of the field. “It’s still a win. You still get two points for it. But to be there in the West (playoffs), you’ve got to string (wins) together. We can’t keep this pinball back and forth between wins and losses.”
The Eskimos, who visit the Toronto Argonauts, 1-6, at 5:30 p.m. next Friday at BMO Field, have alternated wins and losses since the second game of the season.
“So just one week at a time,” Harris added, referring to the Eskimos motto of taking it one game at a time. “Next week we’ve got to go 1-0.”
Looking a little further down the road, Edmonton will play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who currently lead the West Division standings with a 6-2 record, at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23, at The Brick Field.
The Eskimos defence also stood tall three times deep in its own zone in the first half. Late in the first quarter, defensive end Kwaku Boateng tackled RedBlacks running back John Crockett for no gain at the Edmonton three-yard line, forcing Ottawa to settle for a 10-yard field goal by Lewis Ward, while Hunter stopped Ottawa receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes at the one-yard line on a two-point convert attempt after Rhymes’ 67-yard pass-and-run touchdown that gave the RedBlacks a 9-7 lead.
The Eskimos also prevented the visitors from completing back-to-back passing plays from the Edmonton nine-yard-line late in the second quarter, with Ward booting a 16-yard field goal to extend his CFL-record streak to 69 consecutive field goals. That marked the only time prior to Ottawa’s final drive that the RedBlacks offence was in Edmonton territory during the final three quarters.
“I know the first half wasn’t what (the Eskimos defence) would like and what they were happy with, but that second half, they came out and played football, and it was great,” Maas said. “I kept saying it over and over to myself, we had the best defence in the league in my opinion, and I know there’s a lot of great ones out there, but they’re rated No. 1 in a lot of categories right now.”
The Eskimos came into the game having allowed the fewest points, fewest yards of net offence, fewest average yards per play and fewest first downs. So surrendering a season-high 385 yards of net offence won’t sit well with them. But 277 of those yards came in the first half when Ottawa scored all of its points.
“We honestly have dogs throughout the whole defence,” Boateng pointed out. “Everybody is aggressive. Everyone wants to be selfish and make the play. But because we have a common goal, we work together so well.
“It doesn’t matter how the other two phases of the game (offence and special teams) are going, we want to go on the field and dominate,” he said about the defence.
Meanwhile, it was a story of missed opportunities for the Eskimos offence, which opened the scoring with a 28-yard scamper by running back C.J. Gable at 9:23 of the first quarter.
“Finally, I got in there,” Gable said about his first rushing touchdown of the season. “It took a while, but I got it.”
Unfortunately, the Eskimos had four unsuccessful short-yardage plays – a quarterback sneak by Harris at the Ottawa one-yard line, Gable lost three yards at the Ottawa 25, a pass to DaVaris Daniels resulted in no gain at the Ottawa 48 and Harris lost a fumble at the Ottawa 24 – plus Daniels had a 72-yard pass-and-run touchdown wiped out by a holding penalty in the fourth quarter and kicker Sean Whyte missed a 45-yard field goal attempt.
“We weren’t very good at them,” Maas said about the third-down gambles. “If we weren’t that bad in third-and-short situations, that game probably doesn’t come down to the last play. … We’ll have to go back to the drawing board and, obviously, look at what we did and improve upon it. It’s always better to do that after a win, but we’ll still be very hard on ourselves. I’ll be hard on my play-calling and all that stuff.
“But, ultimately, when it’s third-and-one situations, you’ve got to feel like you can get those yards. They’re hard, but you’ve got to be able to get them.”
Gable, who had his first 100-yard rushing game (he finished with 116 yards) since opening the season with back-to-back triple-digit outings, also scored on a two-yard run in the fourth quarter to give the Eskimos their first lead since Gable’s first TD.
“The (offensive) line pancaked everybody and smashed them down,” he said. “I just did a jump-cut to the right, and I was open.”
Gable also made a jump-cut to the right on his first TD and had clear sailing for the final 20 yards to the end zone.
“That’s the (offensive) line, man,” he said. “They’re blocking hard for me. I’m just reading the holes and running hard.”
Gable had only 32 rushing yards on five carries in the first half but ran for 35 yards alone on the Eskimos’ game-winning drive near the midway mark of the fourth quarter.
“We saw that we were killing them on the run, so we were like, ‘Let’s keep going,’ ” Gable said. “The line was up for the challenge. (Ottawa) knew we were running and (Edmonton’s offensive line) still opened up the holes for us.”
Gable’s second touchdown was set up by receiver Greg Ellingson, who caught a 14-yard pass at the Ottawa 13 and then bulled his way another 11 yards until a couple of RedBlacks defenders were finally able to bring him down at the two-yard line.
Maas gave credit to Offensive Line Coach Mike Gibson for the success of the run game despite a change in personnel. Special teams standout James Tuck had to step in to block from the fullback position after 2018 draft pick Tanner Green, who was making his first CFL start with Calvin McCarty sidelined, was injured.
“Gibby did a tremendous job calling the runs,” Maas said. “He stayed in my ear about which runs were good. We kept calling them and the O-line and CJ and the receivers, with everyone blocking, it was a concerted effort.”
- The Eskimos took 10 penalties for 100 yards in the chippy game, but Maas suggested that it could have been worse. “I give kudos to our guys for staying composed and staying disciplined,” he said. “It was a physical game. They definitely brought that to us. We don’t back down from nothing, though. I was very proud of the composure (our guys) showed because there was a lot of stuff going on. But we only had one really bad penalty when they had two on the one drive.”
- The Eskimos had 437 yards of net offence, with Harris (33 of 40 passing) throwing for 327 yards, and dominated the play clock in the second half, controlling the football for 20 minutes and 52 seconds (Ottawa had the ball for only nine minutes and eight seconds).
- Edmonton’s D-line didn’t get a quarterback sack for the first time this season because Ottawa quarterback Dominique Davis kept making quick throws to the sidelines.
- National receiver Natey Adjei led the Eskimos with seven receptions for 68 yards.
- Whyte, who booted a 44-yard field goal in the second quarter, averaged 40.8 yards on six punts and 60.3 yards on three kickoffs in his first game replacing the injured Hugh O’Neill.
- Kick returner Christion Jones had 73 yards on five punt returns (an average of 14.6 yards per return) and 88 yards on four kickoff returns (22.0) in his Eskimos debut.
- Orange led the Eskimos with six defensive tackles while defensive end Nick Usher had five tackles, including a shoe-string tackle down the field.
- National cornerback Arjen Colquhoun, with his second career interception, and safety Jordan Hoover, with his second pick of the season, set up the Eskimos’ 10 points in the first half while Johnson had a game-high three knockdowns.
- The Eskimos collected 66,000 pounds of food/donations for the Purolator Tackle Football campaign benefitting the Edmonton’s Food Bank on Friday night.