MONCTON, N.B. — The Edmonton Eskimos needed some East Coast scenery to energize their dwindling playoff hopes.
Running back Calvin McCarty scored two touchdowns Sunday as the Eskimos defeated the Toronto Argonauts 24-6 in the CFL’s first ever regular season game in Atlantic Canada.
“At some point in time we have to start winning football games. Each one becomes more important,” said Eskimo coach Richie Hall who has been trying everything to wake up his troops — even changing pre-game routines.
“This was a defensive game going back and forth. I always believe that defence wins championships and we can be better. We need to be better.”
While the offence seemed to struggle at times quarterback Ricky Ray did go 15 for 18 in passing and McCarty carried the ball in twice on 46 and one-yard runs before 20,725 enthusiastic fans at Moncton Stadium.
Edmonton’s secondary had a field day picking off Toronto quarterback Cleo Lemon six times to help keep playoff hopes alive with six regular season games remaining.
“That’s the thing about our defence, they’re playing so well. They didn’t let our mistakes hurt us,” said Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray.
“We had a couple of turnovers in the score zone that could have hurt us but our defence bailed us out.”
The Eskimos, the worst team in the league at 3-9, can still climb into third in the west if they can keep pace with the B.C. Lions who they trail by just two points.
Lemon was injured and left the game in the fourth quarter after throwing his sixth interception.
He was hit hard by Edmonton’s Maurice Lloyd and slammed into one of his own players in a helmet-to-helmet collision before dropping to the turf.
“I’m not too good. I have a concussion. I’m dealing with some issues right now,” said Lemon in the locker room after the game.
Argos coach Jim Barker said he couldn’t comment on the injury.
Barker was almost apologetic for his team’s performance at the league’s showcase event before an Atlantic audience, many of them openly supportive of the double blue.
“It was a great week and I appreciate that the fans stayed until the end of the game … we just played poorly with too many turnovers.”
Fans started streaming onto the University of Moncton campus a couple of hours before kickoff, chowing down on barbecue and washing it down with cold beer at a massive tailgate party.
“I love the fact that the CFL might come to the Maritimes,” said Mark Peterson of Kentville, N.S., as he stood outside a food tent proudly wearing an Eskimos jersey.
“I’d like to see it more in Halifax than I would in Moncton, but it’s nice to see it at least on the East Coast.”
A few metres away, banging on a drum and dressed head-to-toe in Argos double blue, Toronto native David Chung said he couldn’t believe the enthusiasm surrounding the game.
“My wife and I drove down. We can’t believe you don’t already have a team here,” said Chung. “You sure like your football.”
That’s the kind of comments league commissioner Mark Cohon has been hearing all week.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience — the entire week,” said Cohon. “We’re very excited by the potential here and we’d really like to work on getting a multi-year commitment here.”
Cohon said he intended to start working the phones on Tuesday, the day after New Brunswick’s provincial election, touching base with government officials about the way forward.
“I also have to cultivate relationships with the business leaders here,” he said.
Edmonton opened the scoring just over nine minutes into the second quarter when Eskimo defensive back Chris Robinson tipped a Lemon pass into the hands of teammate Rod Davis who carried it 74 yards for the touchdown.
Noel Prefontaine’s convert was good.
Five plays into their next possession the Argonauts replied when Jeff Johnson punched in from the one yard line but Justin Medlock’s convert attempt was blocked.
Prefontaine put the Eskimos up 10-6 with a 44-yard field goal eight plays into Edmonton’s next possession.
They almost stretched that lead with a second interception when safety Elliott Richardson picked off Lemon and took it 86 yards for what was initially ruled a touchdown but overruled on a Toronto challenge.
On review officials said Richardson was down by contact at the one yard line.
NOTES: Edmonton had six interceptions for 247 yards, marking the second most interception return yards in CFL history. Saskatchewan had 291 interception return yards against Calgary on August 27, 1972.