EDMONTON -- The Edmonton Eskimos had their biggest offensive showing of the year, while getting a little help from their top-ranked defence as well on their way to a 28-20 win over the rival Saskatchewan Roughriders at Commonwealth Stadium on Friday night.
Joe Burnett picked up a loose ball along the sideline and brought it back to the house for his second defensive touchdown of the season, while Calvin McCarty scored on a third down gamble from the six to provide exactly the fourth quarter surge the Esks needed to come away with the win.
Quarterback Steven Jyles, meanwhile, had his best game as an Eskimo, completing 18 of 23 pass attempts for 282 yards, including a 30-yard strike to Cary Koch in the first half.
The Riders set the tone on the game’s opening drive, when first-year running back Kory Sheets made his impact known right away, first getting a 22-yard gain on a nifty catch-and-run on second and nine to keep the chains moving early.
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The rookie standout had 52 yards of offence on the opening drive, eventually setting up a 25-yard field goal attempt from the recently-signed Sandro DeAngelis.
On the following drive the Esks found themselves pinned on a second and long early, but a penalty for roughing the passer gave Jyles and the offence a fresh set of downs. The Double E took advantage quickly and efficiently, but like the Riders, also stalled in the red zone.
That would lead to a 23-yarder for Grant Shaw to even the score with just over four minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Just as the defences began to settle in, Jyles found a wide open Nate Coehoorn in behind the Riders’ secondary, connecting for a 49-yard gain to set the Esks up in Rider territory at the end of the first quarter.
But as the Esks threatened, the Riders red zone defence stepped up on first down, getting to Jyles on a sack from non-import Shomari Williams.
That wasn’t enough to stop Jyles though, as the Eskimo gunslinger responded on second and 23 with a strike along the sideline to Koch, who kept his feet in bounds and found the end zone to score the game’s first major.
With the touchdown pass, Jyles was off to his best start to a game this season, completing six of his first seven passes for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Once again the defences appeared to be hitting their stride, but for the second time this game, a big play came out of nowhere. On what seemed like a routine incompletion, Riders pivot Darian Durant's pass was deflected of a foot and then off the hands of a defender, before receiver Taj Smith got his mits on the ball and scampered for a 57-yard gain.
That set the Riders up deep in Eskimo territory, and from there it was backup quarterback Drew Willy taking the plunge over the pile from a yard out to tie the ball game.
Durant had a quiet but efficient first half, going 13/16 for 181 yards as neither team turned the ball over.
Jyles, meanwhile, was forced out of the game when his hand was hit on a pass late in the second quarter. Former Rider and 2007 Most Outstanding Player Kerry Joseph played the final two drives, but Jyles returned to start the second half.
The third quarter opened with a long delay and quite a scare, when defensive back Ronnie Prude stayed on the turf after an awkward hit. Prude was carried off on a stretcher and taken to hospital for precautionary reasons, but had feeling in all extremities.
The Riders then picked up the action from there, as Durant picked up exactly where he left off at the end of the second half. After a quick drive to get into Edmonton territory, the shifty Rider pivot found room to run and charged into the end zone with a 27-yard run to put the Riders ahead 17-10.
On the ensuing drive, the offensive madness continued as Jyles found an open Matt Carter to set the Esks up within striking distance once again. The drive stalled, but Shaw booted his second field goal of the game from 17 yards out to cut the deficit to 17-13.
The Riders looked to fire back quickly, but on the next drive, they couldn't avoid disaster. On a Durant completion to Dressler, cornerback Chris Thompson forced the ball out of the hands of number seven, and the Esks' big-play man Joe Burnett picked up the bouncing football and ran it back the other way.
It was a 44-yard touchdown for Burnett, his second defensive touchdown of the season, to give the Esks their first lead of the second half, 21-17.
After that, the defences played their tightest stretch of football of the game, with the score sticking until just over six minutes remaining in the game. With the Esks driving and hanging on to a four point lead, Reed opted to gamble on third down and a long yard from the Rider six yard line.
That was when McCarty took a handoff and put his nose down, fighting his way through tacklers to find the goal line, putting the Esks ahead 28-17 with a much-needed insurance marker.
But even with time winding down, it's become an accepted fact in the CFL that no lead is safe, and it was a motto the Riders looked to embrace instantly on the next drive. Kory Sheets got the ball in his hands on second down, slipping through several Eskimo defenders to not only get the first down, but to burst all the way down to the five yard line on a 76-yard run.
From there, the league's top red zone defence stood tall, forcing DeAngelis out to kick his second field goal of the game, this one from 17 yards to get the Riders to within eight points.
A quick two-and-out then restored hope for the Riders, but on the next drive, Sherritt grabbed an errant pass by Durant over the middle. The Riders wound up getting one last chance with a minute to go after Esks' punter Burke Dales had pinned Durant at his own five, but they couldn't move up and down the field quickly enough to get the tying points, as Durant was intercepted in the end zone by Thompson on one last heave.
With the win, the Esks avenged a 17-1 road loss to the Riders back in Week 2, and more importantly move into a first-place tie with the BC Lions at 4-2.
The road doesn't get any easier for the Riders next week as they visit the red-hot BC Lions. The Esks, meanwhile, stay home to battle the Als.