WINNIPEG — Odell Willis scored on a pick-six and Mike Reilly did the rest with his legs, as an overpowering defence led the Edmonton Eskimos to a 26-3 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Thursday night at Investors Group Field.
In a battle of two undefeated teams that pitted the league’s top-ranked defence against the top-ranked offence, both defences stole the show as Reilly and Bombers’ quarterback Drew Willy were heading for the hills from the get-go. In the end a misplay off the hands of Nic Grigsby and the ensuing interception return for Willis against his former team held up to be the difference, sending the Bombers to their first loss of the season.
Reilly completed 18 of 31 passing attempts for 192 yards and a touchdown to go with one interception, including a game-sealing 15-yard touchdown pass to AJ Guyton in the fourth quarter. His most impressive contribution however was on the ground, as he escaped from a hungry Bomber pass rush multiple times and gutted out a 10-carry, game-high 96-yard rushing performance.
Running back John White meanwhile continued his emergence for the Double E, rushing for 92 yards on 18 carries and ultimately helping the Eskimos keep Willy and the Bomber offence on the sideline. Guyton meanwhile finished with a game-high 56 receiving yards on seven catches, while National receiver Shamawd Chambers had two grabs for 52 yards.
The Bombers’ Willy on the other hand barely completed 50 per cent of his passes in the face of immense pressure all night, completing 14 of 27 passes for just 180 yards and an interception.
The Eskimos won the coin toss and deferred their choice to the second half, putting their top-ranked defence on the field first – and after the teams swapped punts, the decision paid off in a big way.
Grigsby couldn’t handle the pass in the flat from Willy, and there to intercept the deflection was the former Mayor of Swaggerville himself, Willis. Willis took it back 16 yards to the house, giving the Eskimos an early 7-0 lead and taking some of the bite out of a hostile Blue Bomber crowd.
The defences only asserted their dominance from there, as Bruce Johnson then had his first career interception on the Eskimos’ Reilly to cap off a first quarter that saw a combined 24 offensive yards.
In the second quarter the Esks finally got their offence headed in the right direction, thanks to the elusiveness of Reilly. The 29-year-old escaped steady pressure several times on second down, putting the Esks in scoring position for the first time in the game. A roughing the passer penalty after a second-down stop gave the Esks new life and a fresh set of downs at the two, but two incompletions from Reilly led to a Grant Shaw field goal to cap off a 14-play, seven and a half-minute drive.
Reilly continued to show his ability as an escape artist on his team’s next possession, as he appeared to be bottled up on second down before eluding a swarm of Blue and Gold then sprinting up the middle for a 30-yard gain. That led to another field goal for Shaw, putting the Esks ahead 13-0.
After six two-and-outs in the first half, the Bombers finally found some life on offence when Willy found a man deep in Clarence Denmark for a 50-yard gain. Edmonton’s stingy red-zone defence wouldn’t allow any more however, forcing the Bombers to take three heading into the half.
Reilly gives Esks a leg up against Bombers
Mike Reilly might be a professional quarterback, but he did most of his damage against the Bombers on Thursday on the ground. He had 10 rushes for 96 yards, including a 30-yard run in the second quarter to keep the chains moving all game.
The defensive struggle continued in the second half, as the Bombers began to show more signs of moving in the right direction until Nick Moore fumbled following a 17-yard pickup and Willis scooped it up to give the Esks the ball back.
But the Blue and Gold battled back and the battle for field position continued into the fourth quarter with the Eskimos protecting a 13-3 lead. Early in the fourth with the Bombers hanging around, Reilly led the Eskimos on another long offensive drive, one that with the help from a rough play penalty by the Bombers wouldn’t end with just a field goal.
Reilly culminated a nine-play, 70-yard scoring drive with a delivery to a wide open Guyton, putting the Esks ahead 20-3 with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. That marked the game’s first offensive touchdown and further silenced the crowd at Investors Group Field.
Shaw added two more field goals, while the Eskimos defence closed out the game with another stellar performance, holding the Bombers out of the end zone and preserving the team’s perfect start to the season.
With the win Head Coach Chris Jones moved to 4-0 in his first season with the Eskimos, moving him within a game of Kavis Reed’s franchise record of five straight wins to open a head coaching career. He’ll try and accomplish the feat next weekend as the first chapter of the Battle of Alberta unfolds in Edmonton next Thursday.
The Bombers meanwhile look to avenge their first loss of 2014 on the road in their first meeting of the season with Kevin Glenn and the BC Lions.