EDMONTON — The Edmonton Eskimos punched their ticket to the CFL West Division final by capitalizing on a bizarre turnover Sunday to beat the Calgary Stampeders 33-19.
Eskimo linebacker Damaso Munoz said he couldn’t believe his eyes when Calgary quarterback Drew Tate, with the Stampeders up 8-3 in the second quarter and threatening to score again, just dropped the ball as he prepared to throw it.
Munoz scooped it up and rumbled 77 yards for a touchdown to give the Eskimos a lead they would never relinquish.
“Up front they were getting after Tate, putting all that pressure on him and we got him rattled early, man” said Munoz.
“He just dropped the ball and I just picked it up and I took it in for the score.”
He said that was the turning point in the West Division semifinal, played before 30,183 fans on a chilly afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium.
“We took the breath out of them on that play. We kept the momentum and we got the W.”
Tate, speaking to reporters as he left the field, agreed.
“If I don’t fumble we probably win this game – bottom line,” he said.
The Eskimos will travel to Vancouver next Sunday to play the B.C. Lions for the right to represent the West in the Grey Cup.
The Eskimos rolled to a 25-9 halftime lead and then the defence took over, holding the Stampeders to three field goals and a single in the second half to seal the victory.
“I can truly say that our defence stepped up to the plate tonight,” said Edmonton head coach Kavis Reed.
The win spoiled Tate’s playoff debut.
The 27-year-old Texan was starting in his first CFL post-season game after taking over from starter Henry Burris with three games left in the regular season.
He completed five passes on 10 attempts with one interception before being pulled for Burris at the start of the second half.
“We changed quarterbacks to try to change some momentum on offence,” said Calgary head coach John Hufnagel.
“We just weren’t making plays, a mixture of protection breaking down a bit, a bad throw, things you can’t do against a good football team and still win.”
The first 30 minutes told the tale.
Edmonton took an early 3-1 lead but Calgary answered back late in the first quarter on a four-play, 78-yard drive that was ignited by a perfect 58-yard strike from Tate to a streaking Romby Bryant.
The Stamps then ran running back Jon Cornish up the middle on three straight plays for nine yards, six yards and then finally five yards as he rumbled into the endzone standing up.
The drive seemed to deflate the Eskimos.
On the ensuing drive, quarterback Ricky Ray was sacked twice before Edmonton punted.
The Stamps then took over from their 32 and, with two long runs from Cornish, were deep in Edmonton territory threatening to score again with 11 minutes to go in the half.
Tate took the snap from centre. But as he switched the ball to his throwing hand, he fumbled it, leading to the Munoz score.
The Eskimos padded the lead five minutes later on a five-play, 94-yard drive that was sparked by 56-yard catch-and-run from Ray to receiver Adarius Bowman.
On the play, Bowman caught a swing pass and appeared to be caught for no yards. But instead of wrapping him up, Calgary defensive back Brandon Smith dove weakly at Bowman’s ankles, barely touching him, springing him free for the long run.
On the next play, running back Jerome Messam ran seven yards untouched over the goal line to extend the lead to 18-8.
Bowman said he felt something on his foot, brushed it off and ran to daylight.
“I felt the guy grabbing the ankles but he didn’t take me down and my receivers were up blocking,” said Bowman. “It was a great play.”
Edmonton added one more major as time expired in the half on a drive that had stalled at midfield, but gained new life when Stampeder Junior Turner ran into punter Damon Duval for a penalty.
That resulted in an Edmonton first down.
The Eskimos then marched down the field, collecting three first downs. With just seconds to go on the play clock, Ray threw a four-yard quick out pass to receiver Jason Barnes for the major to extend the lead.
Ray was 14 for 17 for 217 yards and one touchdown.
Calgary was poised to make a game of it midway through the fourth quarter.
They were on Edmonton’s 16, but the drive stalled when Burris threw a strike to an uncovered Nik Lewis on the goal line only to have the ball slip through Lewis’ hands, bounce off his chest and hit the turf.
Calgary had to settle for a 23-yard Rene Paredes field goal and never threatened again.
Edmonton kept Calgary’s big guns in check. Cornish ran for 86 yards on eight rushes while receiver Lewis had one catch for 17 yards.
Lewis came up limping after taking a helmet to the knee from Eskimo defensive back Weldon Brown in the first half and appeared to be hampered by it for the rest of the game.
The Stamps returned the favour as time ran out in the third quarter.
Messam caught a swing pass only to have Calgary defensive back Demetrice Morley dive in and spear his knee with his helmet, sending him cartwheeling to the turf. Messam stayed down, grimacing in pain, and didn’t return to the game.
Messam said his knee will be evaluated Monday to see if he can play against the Lions.
It was the Green and Gold’s first home playoff game in seven years.
The Eskimos missed the playoffs in 2010 but finished second in the West in the regular season this year with an 11-7 record.
The Stamps also finished the regular season at 11-7 but Edmonton beat them two out of three games in the regular season to capture the tiebreaker.