EDMONTON – The Edmonton Eskimos jumped out to a large lead and then had to fend off a Toronto Argonauts comeback in a 41-27 win Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium. The win improved the Eskies record to 7-1; the first time they have done so since 1989.
It wasn’t all good news for the Eskies however, as starting quarterback Mike Reilly left the game on the club’s first drive of the game, leaving Matt Nichols and a dominant defence to help lead the way.
Edmonton seemed to have this game locked up at halftime, up 21 points, but the Argonauts rallied in the third quarter and got within seven points before the Green and Gold pulled away when it mattered.
Entering the game just 367 yards behind the 50,000 career passing mark, Ricky Ray was making just his second return to Commonwealth since being traded to the Argonauts in December of 2011.
Ray’s first possession ended in a punt; a result he would more than take in comparison to his counterpart Mike Reilly.
On Reilly’s first possession, he conceded a sack where it seemed to injured his right thumb (on his throwing hand). Matt Nichols entered the game but his first two series ended in turnovers. On his first pass, Nichols had the football tipped, falling into the waiting arms of Toronto defensive end Tristian Okpalaugo.
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The Eskimos defence bailed their backup quarterback out on that drive but could not repeat the effort on the next possession.
Following a Devon Bailey fumble, the Argonauts scrimmaged from the Eskimo 41 yard line. After three consecutive plays to running back Curtis Steele, Ray spotted Jason Barnes for a first down before the two connected for a 17-yard touchdown a play later when the veteran pivot spotted the former Eskimo receiver down the sideline in broken coverage.
Providing a boost to the Argonauts offence was the return of slotback Chad Owens who entered the contest with 339 yards despite only playing in just three contests. During his five game absence, Owens remarkably remained in the top 10 in league receiving and had the best average yards per game with 113 – a testament to how much his production was needed in what could be best described as an up-and-down Toronto offence in the season’s first third.
Down their starting quarterback and seven points in the first quarter, the Eskimos looked to the ground to light a spark on offence. Kendial Lawrence took it upon himself to do just that when he scraped off a Calvin McCarty block and jetted through the middle of the Argos’ defence for a 61-yard touchdown run to tie the game just before the opening frame expired.
Lawrence’s second touchdown of the season put a bit of life into an Eskimos offence that was adjusting following the loss of their leader in Reilly.
From that point on it was all Eskimos in the second quarter.
At the 11:45 mark, Ray had a pass picked off by Eskimos linebacker Dexter McCoil whose third interception of the year set up an opportunity for Edmonton to take their first lead of the contest.
On the next play, Nichols strung out a pass to the short side of the field to receiver AJ Guyton whose speed could not be matched as he split a pair of Argos defenders and raced 48-yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
On the other side of the ball, the Edmonton defence was simply unrelenting. Led by former Argos defensive coordinator Chris Jones, the Eskimos front four was punishing anyone who touched the ball including Ray who found himself on the ground more often than completing passes in the second quarter.
After the Eskimos added a field goal, the Eskimos defence snuffed out an attempted screen pass from Ray to Owens that would break the game wide open. Odell Willis got his mitts on a Ray pass at the line of scrimmage, came down with his own interception and rumbled towards the end zone. As Willis was about to get tackled, he pitched the ball to McCoil who finished off the job by rumbling into the end zone.
Offensively, Nichols and the Esks kept picking their spots in the Argos secondary. Nichols completed a deep throw to Adarius Bowman and then dumped the ball to Lawrence for 15 yards before quarterback Pat White finished the next scoring drive off with a quarterback sweep touchdown from five yards out.
Edmonton QB Mike Reilly absorbes a hit before leaving the game with a right hand injury ... Read More.
The Argos would add a field goal on the final play before the break but the Eskimos went into the locker room with a comfortable 31-10 halftime lead.
Despite posting three offensive touchdowns, the story in the first half truly was the defence. Forcing the Argos pocket to collapse on almost every play and shutting down Owens and the Argonauts receivers, the Green and Gold defenders held Ray to just 22 yards passing in the entire second quarter.
In need of adjustments, the Argos looked to alter their game plan on offence to avoid the intense pass rush of the Eskies. Following an early interception by Toronto DB Brandon Underwood, they did just that. Ray found Owens on a quick slant for a gain of 29 to set up a 22-yard Swayze Waters field goal.
Their next possession also resulted in a field goal (42 yards out) after a pair of screen passes to Curtis Steele, netting 39 yards.
Falling short of a major, Toronto chipped away at the deficit, down 31-16 with just under 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
A few quick boots by Waters and the defence hunkered down for the Double Blue. After forcing an incompletion and generating a sack, the ‘D’ got the football back in Ray’s hands and the veteran helped get the Argos back in the contest. An 8-yard rush and a 26-yard reception by Steele helped set up an 11-yard touchdown pass from Ray to Owens who dove for the pylon and cut the Eskimo lead down to eight, 31-23.
The Argonauts had the ball to being the fourth quarter and once again, Ray went to his go-to receiver deep in his own end. Ray threw a 16-yard strike to Owens who made a tough grab over the middle but paid the price. Owens was hit by Eskimo DB Aaron Grymes and needed help getting off the field.
With all the momentum going Toronto’s way it was a veteran working his way back into the lineup that gave Edmonton their best chance to score in the second half. Linebacker JC Sherritt, who has been battling injuries all year, pounced on an Argos fumble with 10:41 remaining to set the Eskies up at the Argos 30 yard line.
The Esks could only muster a Grant Shaw field goal to put the lead to 34-24.
As the game hit the three minute warning, Ray and the Argos continued to fight. Ray connected with Steele for three consecutive first down runs before finding Mike Bradwell for 12 yards. It set up a Waters field goal from 45 yards out to cut the lead to seven with just under two minutes remaining.
The Esks took over with 1:50 remaining and promptly put together a pair of massive first downs to keep the clock moving. With 51 seconds remaining, Nichols conceded a sack and punted away to the Argos giving Ray 20 seconds to work with.
With no Owens and 105 yards to go to tie the game, Ray looked for Barnes who slipped on the play and the ball sailed into the hands of McCoil who had his second major of the game to seal the deal for Edmonton.
The two teams now prepare for their respective Labour Day rivals as the Argos tangle with the Tiger-Cats and the Eskimos head to Calgary to take on the Stampeders.