Eskimos Defeat Tiger-Cats 24-21 in East Division Semifinal
HAMILTON – Let the title defence officially commence.
The Edmonton Eskimos opened the 2016 CFL playoffs by edging the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 24-21 in Sunday’s East Division semifinal.
Inside the wind tunnel that was a packed house, 24,182 strong inside Tim Horton’s Field, the Eskimos earned themselves a Grey Cup rematch next Sunday against the same Ottawa Redblacks they hoisted the trophy over last November.
Except this time, they’re meeting in the East Division final in the nation’s capital, after having opened the post-season this weekend with a crossover victory for the second time in club history.
On Sunday, the Eskimos and Ticats met for just the third time in CFL playoff history, and the first of those that wasn’t the Grey Cup final.
And this one could have gone either way.
Tied 21-21 with 85 seconds left and Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly on the sidelines with an injury to his non-throwing arm, Ticats quarterback Zach Collaros was intercepted by rookie linebacker Kenny Ladler to set Edmonton up in the red zone.
Running back John White followed up by recovering his own fumble off a botched handoff before scampering for 23 of his 160 rushing yards on the night, setting up a nine-yard winning field goal by Sean Whyte in the dying seconds.
“Unbelievable, I mean, he certainly is unbelievable,” Eskimos head coach Jason Maas said of his tailback, who averaged eight yards a carry on the way to scoring the first two touchdowns of the game (from 10 and 19 yards out) to take a 14-3 lead.
And he did it with a dislocated finger suffered in pregame warmups.
“We talked about at the beginning of the game throwing haymakers on every play and I think he gave us every single ounce he had, and it was enough,” Maas said.
A single point off a Grant Shaw kickoff and Whyte’s first of three field goals on the night gave Edmonton an 18-3 lead at halftime.
But the Ticats showed why they were the comeback kings of the CFL this season, in a second half that saw them claw back with a two-yard touchdown run by C.J. Gable that capped an eight-play, 59-yard drive, only to have Brett Maher miss the convert kick and cut Edmonton’s lead in half.
It was one of four points the Ticats kicker left on the field, going two-for-three between the uprights while missing a 35-yard field goal in the first half that saw Hamilton unable to convert a blocked punt by Terrell Davis into any points.
“Yeah, that was one key that was the difference in the game,” said Ticats head coach Kent Austin, also pointing to a poor start, offensively. “We didn’t have an opportunity to kick a field goal on our first drive of the game, they stopped us on third-and-one. Our third-and-one has been pretty good all year, so that was big.
“We had an open throw on the second drive and only got three out of that, so all those plays matter.”
Before heading to the sidelines to be examined by trainers after having his left arm banged up on a five-yard rush where he took a hit from linebacker Simoni Lawrence, Reilly completed 10 of 19 passes for 133 yards, while rushing five times for 20 more.
“Obviously I took a pretty good hit in the game and we went back in the locker-room to check it out,” Reilly said on the eve of fatherhood, as his wife, Emily, is expected to deliver their first baby on Monday.
He fully expects to play in next week’s final in Ottawa.
“I’ve played through worse than anything I’ll be dealing with,” Reilly said.
Collaros completed 20 of 31 passes for 236 yards and the interception in his first playoff game since the 2014 Grey Cup final.
Eskimos 24, Tiger-Cats 21
Big ground game in the wind.
Wasn’t pretty, but certainly effective enough.
Special teams: B
Punt return let them down.
Jason Maas gets playoff win No. 1 as a head coach.
John White, Eskimos RB
Had 20 carries for 160 yards and two touchdowns to pave the way for an Eskimos victory.
Hamilton’s opening drive of the game stalled out 32 yards in on a failed third-and-one attempt by QB Jeremiah Massoli, setting the tone for the game and giving the ball to Edmonton on the way to their first touchdown.
With their main return man benched in order to get two RBs into the game, Eskimos WR Brandon Zylstra had to recover his own fumble on his first punt return attempt and watched Hamilton recover their own punt late in the game.
Eskimos QB Mike Reilly saved a sure touchdown by sprinting to recover a fumbled ball by RB John White in the second quarter, knowing full well he’d end up at the bottom of the pile.
Ticats S Courtney Stephen (shoulder) was injured on Edmonton’s opening drive of the game and tried to come back before heading to the locker-room for the day. DB Mike Daly had to be helped off in the third quarter … Eskimos QB Mike Reilly appeared to hurt his non-throwing wrist early in the fourth quarter.
The Eskimos will face the Ottawa Redblacks in the nation’s capital on Sunday, Nov. 20.