EDMONTON – Their quarterback went down, but the defence was there to pick the Edmonton Eskimos back up on Saturday afternoon.
Linebacker Dexter McCoil scored a pair of touchdowns and backup quarterback Matt Nichols was solid when called upon as the Eskimos held on to win their third game in a row, defeating the Toronto Argos 41-27.
The Eskimos improved to 7-1 on the season, something they last accomplished in 1989. That was the same year Edmonton started 9-1 and finished with a CFL record 16 victories (16-2).
The win looked to have come with a high cost. Quarterback Mike Reilly suffered a hand injury early in the game and was unable to return, putting the ball in Nichols’ hands for the majority of the contest. However, post-game reports indicated it is not expected to be a long-term absence.
Nichols said he was relieved to be able to help the team capture the win, despite having a bit of rust to deal with.
“Aside from the pre-season, where you get a lot of basic looks, this was my first game action since 2012 where the defence was changing things on the fly and bringing different blitzes,” he said. “I felt like, overall, I handled it pretty well and executed our game plan.
“We were able to get first downs when we needed to, the defence obviously kept us in it, but that last drive, we went out there and got three first downs and really sealed the game for us.”
Eskimos head coach Chris Jones wasn’t thrilled that his team had to come up big at the end of the game to seal the victory, especially after holding a commanding 31-10 lead at the half.
“The second half, we didn’t play as good,” he said. “We were, quite honestly, a little bit flat in the third quarter, had some turnovers and things like that. But still, you’ve got to come out and shut the door on people.”
The Argos lost their second straight game to drop to 3-6, but remain in first place in the struggling East Division.
“The way we played in the first half, the next thing you know we are down by three frigging scores,” seethed Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich. “You can’t do that against a good team. You have to come out of the tunnel ready to go. You have to have the guys cranked up.
“I was not pleased.”
Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray agreed that his team did a lot of damage to themselves.
“We just had too many bad plays there and kind of dug ourselves a hole,” he said. “Our defence got us a couple of early turnovers and we just didn’t capitalize on that. Then we turned the ball over and they had some big plays. We dug a hole that was hard to fight back out of. It’s tough to do against a good team like them, to give them that much.
“They are a good defence and when you play a good team like that, you can’t spot them a lot of plays early on and expect to come back and win.”
Ray fell short of his goal of becoming the youngest quarterback in CFL history to hit the 50,000 yards passing mark, only getting 277 of the 369 yards he needed to reach the milestone.
Both teams’ defences looked sharp in the early running, with Toronto catching the first big break when Nichols had the ball knocked loose into the arms of defensive lineman Tristan Okpalaugo, although the Argos couldn’t make any headway after the play. Nichols came in early after Reilly left the field to have his throwing hand looked at, eventually going for X-rays in the second quarter and not returning to the game.
Edmonton coughed the ball up again in their own territory with six-and-a-half minutes to play in the opening quarter as Devon Bailey reeled in a Nichols pass but then fumbled on his own 41, with Argo Brandon Underwood recovering the ball.
This time Toronto took advantage, as the turnover eventually led to a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ray to Jason Barnes for a 7-0 Argos lead with three minutes to play in the first.
The Eskimos pulled even less than two minutes later, though, as Kendial Lawrence took a handoff and slipped off a tackle before turning on the jets and burning 61 yards into the end zone. It was Edmonton’s longest offensive play of the season to date.
The Eskimos got the ball back at the Toronto 48 early in the second quarter on an interception by McCoil. On the next play Nichols hit A.J. Guyton with a hitch pass and Guyton sped across the goal-line to put Edmonton up 14-7.
Edmonton added to its lead midway through the second frame on a 49-yard Grant Shaw field goal.
The Eskimos defence got in on the scoring with a highlight reel play with six minutes to go in the second. Odell Willis blocked a Ray pass and then plucked the ball out of the air and headed 18 yards towards the end zone before pitching it back to McCoil, who took it the remaining 28 yards to give the Green and Gold a 24-7 lead.
Edmonton padded its lead with a minute left in the first half as third-string QB Pat White came in and called his own number for a five-yard TD run.
Toronto responded with a 36-yard Swayze Waters field goal to make for a 31-10 score at the midmark.
The Argonauts added another field goal to start the third quarter on the heels of an Underwood interception, then Waters kicked his third field goal of the game midway through the third quarter from 42 yards out to close the score to 31-16.
Toronto kept coming and made it a ball game again with three minutes to play in the third as Ray hit Chad Owens with an 11-yard TD pass to make it an eight-point game.
Toronto cut that to seven points on a punt single early in the fourth.
Edmonton finally got some positive momentum going the other way as Ryan King forced a fumble on a punt and J.C. Sherritt picked it up on the Toronto 30-yard-line. The turnover led to a 26-yard Shaw field goal to make it 34-24 for the Esks.
Waters kicked a 46-yard field goal with 1:44 remaining to put the Argos within a touchdown once again, but Edmonton put the game away for good as McCoil picked off Ray and ran the ball back for a 19-yard touchdown with 12 seconds remaining.
Both teams return to action on Labour Day Monday, as the Argos travel to Hamilton and the Eskimos head down the highway to face the Stampeders in Calgary.
Notes: The Argos had a key component back in the lineup as receiver Chad Owens returned after missing the last four games with a left foot injury. Owens was the CFL’s leading receiver and punt returner when he got injured in Toronto’s 34-15 loss to Calgary in Week 3. … One of Edmonton’s top receivers, Fred Stamps, missed his third consecutive game with injury. … The Eskimos also saw the return of a key component as linebacker J.C. Sherritt, the 2012 most outstanding defensive player, came back for just his second game this season due to a foot injury. Sherritt was limited to primarily special teams work. … The Esks came into the contest leading in 13 of the league’s 25 defensive categories and ranked second in another nine. … Eskimos head coach Chris Jones was hit with a $5,000 fine on Friday for “disregarding pre-game timing protocol during their last three road games.” The last straw in the tardiness getting onto the field for games came in their last game in Ottawa when the Eskimos failed to make it out in time for the national anthem. … It was the first home game at Commonwealth Stadium in a month, due to a bye week and then the U-20 Women’s World Cup soccer hitting town. … The attendance for the game was 33,767.