The Eskimos had high hopes of doing the impossible in the CFL playoffs and become the first West Division crossover team to represent the East Division in the Grey Cup.
But all the Eskimos will get for the next week is a few restless nights, tossing and turning and wondering what might have been.
An interception, lost fumble, and illegal punt helped the Hamilton Tiger-Cats score 13 unanswered points in the first quarter of Sunday’s East Division Final at Tim Horton Field.
That’s all the Tiger-Cats needed to take control of the sudden-death playoff game en route to a 36-16 victory over the Eskimos in front of a sold-out crowd of 25,177 and advance to next Sunday’s Grey Cup against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium.
“It was an uphill battle from the beginning,” Edmonton receiver DaVaris Daniels said on the 630 CHED post-game show. “We know how good their offence is with Speedy (Brandon Banks) and all the playmakers they have on that side. It was a tough battle for our defence. We just fell short, man.
“Later in the game, we couldn’t really punch it in the end zone,” he added. “We were kicking field goals or punting the ball.”
The Eskimos closed within seven points of the Ticats with Daniels’ 21-yard pass-and-run touchdown plus a pair of Sean Whyte field goals (49 and 17 yards) in the second quarter, but Lirim Hajrullahu booted his third of four field goals on the last play of the first half to restore Hamilton’s early 10-point advantage.
Hamilton increased its lead to 28-13 with five more points in the third quarter on another Hajrullahu field goal, and a safety Edmonton conceded after being pinned at its three-yard line following a Tyquwan Glass interception.
Whyte kicked a 30-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to make it a two-score game, 28-16, but the Eskimos couldn’t get any closer.
“Credit to Hamilton,” said Esks quarterback Trevor Harris (29 of 41 passing for 319 yards). “They were the better team today, and they did a great job, but we had a few opportunities, and we just didn’t get it done. It’s crushing.
“I’m frustrated,” continued Harris. “It’s really difficult because I love this team, I love this group of guys. … You look at the way this team fought and the adversity that we’ve been through this year, it’s hard, man. You just have so many goals and so many things you want to accomplish as a team when you get to this point, and we had this opportunity in front of us, it’s hard, it’s hard.
“We didn’t get it done today.”
Upsetting Hamilton on its home turf was going to be a big enough challenge on its own for the Eskimos, who had an 8-10 record during the regular season and played almost six full games without Harris while he recovered from an injury to his throwing arm. The Tiger-Cats were a perfect 9-0 at Tim Hortons Field during the regular season, had a league-leading 15-3 record overall and swept the season series with Edmonton for the second year in a row.
The Eskimos were also attempting to become the first West Division crossover playoff team to advance to the Grey Cup out of the East Division, but instead became the 12th team to fall short and the fifth to lose the East Final since the inception of the crossover rule in 1996.
“It was a hard-fought game,” said Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas. “If we would have executed just a bit better here and there, you never know where it goes. But I tip my hat to Hamilton. They’re a great team for a reason. They find a way (to win), and today they did it again.
“We knew going in that playing these guys, I wouldn’t say we had to play a near-perfect game, but you’ve got to play like we did last week (in the East Division Semifinal at Montreal), which was take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, stay on the field, finish drives with touchdowns, things like that.
“We made it a very close game still in the second half … but a 10-point lead after you give up 10 quickly (on turnovers in the first quarter), you feel pretty good about yourself and what you can do. It just comes down to execution in the second half, and we didn’t execute as well as they did.”
Maas said the loss of American running back Shaq Cooper, who was injured in the first half, limited the options of the Eskimos offence in the second half. Cooper presented a change of pace threat different than C.J. Gable’s power running up the middle.
“Missing Shaq the entire second half was a big thing for us because a good chunk of game-plan plays were with him involved and you kind of get taken out of those things right off the bat in the second half,” Maas said. “Those were going to be something we were going to be able to hang our hat on a bit in the second half and be able to make some plays with.”
The Esks had high hopes coming into Sunday’s game, riding the momentum of their East Semifinal victory over the Montreal Alouettes and the return of a healthy Harris to the starting lineup.
But Harris had his third pass of the game intercepted by Ticats defensive back Richard Leonard at the Hamilton 41-yard line. Hajrullahu eventually kicked a 48-yard field goal to open the scoring.
On the Eskimos’ next offensive play, Gable lost a fumble at the Edmonton 48 after a 13-yard run. Hamilton cornerback Frankie Williams returned the ball to the Edmonton 31, and backup quarterback David Watford scored his first of two two-yard touchdown runs in the game five plays later.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Hugh O’Neill’s 11-yard punt from the Hamilton 52 at the end of Edmonton’s next series. Because the ball went out of bounds between the 20-yard lines, a 10-yard penalty was assessed for an illegal punt, and the Ticats got the ball at their 51. A 48-yard pass to Bralon Addison moved Hamilton to the Edmonton 11, with Hajrullahu kicking a 19-yard field goal for the 13-0 lead.
After the Eskimos got on the scoreboard with Daniels’ TD early in the second quarter, the Tiger-Cats came right back with a two-play scoring drive of 69 yards on passes of 22 and 47 yards to Banks, who was falling to the ground at the Edmonton one-yard line as he caught the touchdown pass.
Despite the score, Edmonton’s defence held its ground for most of the game, limiting Hamilton QB Dane Evans to only seven completions on his first 16 passes, although five of those plays went for 156 of his 219 passing yards in the first half.
“We did take the ball away from them as well,” Maas said. “We just didn’t capitalize as well as we would have liked.”
Defensive back Josh Johnson (a team-high six defensive tackles) got the Eskimos’ only quarterback sack on the second-last play of the first half, Glass (three defensive tackles) made his fourth interception of the season in the third quarter, and second-year cornerback Godfrey Onyeka recovered a Ticats fumble created with a Don Unamba hit at the Hamilton 36 early in the fourth quarter to set up Whyte’s final field goal.
That’s when the Tiger-Cats finally put together their best drive of the game, marching 76 yards on six plays capped by Watford’s second touchdown run.
Maas said the Edmonton offensive line did a good job of handling Hamilton’s defence until late in the game “when they got some pressure on us and sacked Trevor a couple of times. Before that, I don’t know how much he has really touched the whole entire game.
“I thought we were able to do some really good things. Now could we have made more plays, sure. But our guys up front were doing their jobs.
“At the end of a game like that, when they can pin their ears back (and come hard after the quarterback), that’s what we didn’t want to have happen,” Maas said. “We wanted to keep them off-balance the entire game. When you get down three scores, your hand is kind of shown at that point, and you can see how dangerous that can be.”
Sunday’s game was only the second time the Eskimos and Ticats have met in the playoffs (not counting Grey Cups). Edmonton won the East Semifinal 24-21 at Hamilton in 2016.
The Eskimos have been a West Division crossover playoff team four times (2008, ‘12, ’16 and ’19) and reached the East Final on three of those occasions.
Daniels led the Eskimos receivers with seven catches for 109 yards while Greg Ellingson had seven catches for 73 yards.
Gable finished with 55 rushing yards on 15 carries while Harris ran seven times for 26 yards.
Rookie defensive halfback Brian Walker also had six defensive tackles and knocked down a pass while WIL (weak-side) linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox had three defensive tackles, two special team tackles and two knockdowns. Unamba and Godfrey also had knockdowns in the game.