Heading into Saturday night's game in Regina, the Edmonton Eskimos had everything to play for. The B.C. Lions' win over Hamilton earlier in the day meant that the Eskimos needed a victory of their own to clinch the third and final West Division playoff berth and complete their turnaround from arguably the league's worst mess to a playoff team. However, they came up short, falling 31-23 to the Roughriders and giving B.C. the final playoff berth in the process.
Edmonton didn't miss by much, however. For the second straight week, instant replays of an onside kick involving Saskatchewan played a crucial role in preserving B.C.'s playoff hopes. Last week, the Lions narrowly survived against the Riders thanks partly to a failed Saskatchewan onside kick in the final moments. This week, Edmonton marched down the field with less than two minutes left and pulled with eight points on a Ricky Ray touchdown run, and they almost came up with the onside kick on the ensuing play.
Rookie kicker Derek Schiavone executed the kick near-perfectly, booting it high in the air and giving his guys time to get under it. Wide receiver Jamaica Rector raced down the field and soared upwards to try and get a hand on the loose ball. Despite battling Saskatchewan's Chris Getzlaf, he was successful, tipping it out of bounds. Normally, that would result in Edmonton getting the ball back and getting another shot to However, it was ruled on the field that he'd missed it and that it had gone straight out of bounds. With the game inside three minutes, that meant a booth review, and they came to what seemed like the right conclusion from this corner; Rector did in fact hit the ball, but his arm was over the out-of-bounds line at the time, meaning it had already gone out. That gave Saskatchewan the ball back, allowed them to kill more of the clock and forced a last-second Jared Zabransky Hail Mary that failed.
For Edmonton, this has to be horribly disappointing. Since hiring general manager Eric Tillman midseason, they had largely turned their season around (with Tillman acquisitions like Daniel Porter, Jason Armstead and Derick Armstrong playing crucial roles in that revitalization). They had won three straight games in a row, including the crucial Oct. 16 clash in B.C. that gave them the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Lions, and heading into today, they were a heavy favourite to clinch that last spot. All they needed was a Hamilton victory or a win of their own against a Riders' team whose final standings wouldn't be affected by tonight's game.
This was never going to be a particularly easy game for the Eskimos, though. For one thing, Regina's Mosaic Stadium is quite probably the most intimidating road environment in the CFL. For another, the Saskatchewan coaches, players and fans were more motivated than usual for a season-ending meaningless game, as the Riders had lost their previous four games and were looking to bump that slump heading into the playoffs. Saskatchewan had faced a lot of criticism recently, with their coaches and players handling that in different ways off the field. On the field, though, they appeared to use that criticism to motivate themselves.
Head coach Ken Miller has been blasted this year for making calls that go against traditional football thinking, but one of those paid off in spades Saturday on a goal-line third-down gamble that featured a brilliant double-run fake before quarterback Darian Durant (pictured, top) strolled in for the touchdown. Despite the loss of star linebacker Barrin Simpson early on, Gary Etcheverry's much-maligned defence held a desperate Edmonton team to just 23 points and had a solid night overall. Durant had one of his best games of the season, completing 26 of 38 passes for 345 yards and a touchdown without a turnover and spreading the ball around; six players caught passes for the Riders, none went over 100 yards. Wes Cates ran 11 times for 42 yards and a touchdown (pictured, right, with teammate Chris Szarka looking on and celebrating), and Andy Fantuz had a great receiving performance with 77 yards and a touchdown on five catches. With that night, Fantuz became the first Canadian to lead the CFL in receiving yards since fellow University of Western Ontario alumnus Dave Sapunjis did it for Calgary in 1995. Those were just a few of the Riders who had strong days, so Saskatchewan looks to be in good shape heading into next week's playoff game against B.C.
It was appropriate, though, that it was Jim Daley's much-criticized special teams that delivered the most important performance of all for Saskatchewan. After some early struggles, including two missed field goals, Ryan Grice-Mullen delivered a 43-yard kickoff return and Eddie Johnson made a perfect coffin-corner punt to pin the Eskimos deep. The Riders' cover teams were better than usual, and o the final critical onside kick, Daley had his guys in the right positions to make plays. Without Chris Getzlaf being there and battling Rector for the ball, there might have been an Edmonton recovery and a drastically different ending. Daley was an understanding professional through all the criticism and steadfastly refused to cast the blame on his players. Despite a rough start, they repaid the favour and stepped up for him today.
It wasn't a bad day for the Eskimos, and they don't have much to be ashamed of. Ray delivered a solid performance in his return from missing two weeks thanks to injury, completing 21 of 33 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown without a turnover. Porter had a great rushing night, picking up 153 yards on 19 carries against a battered Saskatchewan defence. Fred Stamps caught nine passes for 118 yards and a touchdown and eventually forced the Riders to double him, and Armstead made some big plays on special teams. If not for a couple of fumbles from Ray and a couple of bad breaks, Edmonton could be gearing up to face Saskatchewan next week instead of preparing for the offseason. That's football, though, and the margin between victory and defeat is often like crawling along the edge of a straight razor. The Eskimos slipped this time, and their late-season comeback ended in a nightmare rather than a dream.