The Edmonton Eskimos built a big enough lead early in the game that it didn’t matter what the Montreal Alouettes did in the second half.
After taking a 22-point lead over the Als into the dressing room at halftime at Percival Molson Stadium on Friday night, Edmonton staved off Montreal’s second-half comeback to hold on for the 33-23 victory.
The loss extended the last-place Alouettes’ losing streak to four games.
“We played the first half really well,” said Eskimos coach Chris Jones, who spent six years as a defensive coach for the Als, from 2002 to 2007. “If you can mirror the first and second half, that would be great. Unfortunately. We came out flat in the second half and let a good football team hang around. It was closer than what it should have been.”
With Edmonton leading the Alouettes 30-8 at the half, Montreal was seemingly en route to a third consecutive blowout loss - the Als lost back-to-back games by a combined score of 72-10 coming into Friday. But the Eskimos only scored three second-half points, giving a desperate Montreal side a glint of hope in the process.
Down by three scores, Montreal (1-5) put their best drive together at the start of the third quarter. The Als made five consecutive first downs - as many as they converted in the first half - for a 53-yard drive that lasted more than six minutes. But they couldn’t find the end zone, and were forced to settle for the field goal.
After cutting Edmonton’s lead to 16, Montreal was given a small lifeline early in the fourth quarter when Eskimos kick returner Jamal Miles dropped the ball after a punt. The fumble was recovered by Montreal at Edmonton’s 30. After yet another two-and-out, the Als kicked a field goal to make the score 30-17.
With their team at the bottom of the standings with the worst record in the Canadian Football League, Alouettes fans let the team know they were unhappy with the decision to go for the three points instead of the touchdown.
“That was an excellent call,” said Als coach Tom Higgins, defending his team’s choice. “Anybody who thinks differently, that’s okay, that’s their opinion. It was third-and-ten. Two two-point converts? That’s probably not going to happen. It doesn’t play to your favour. The decision, in my mind, is absolutely correct.”
It was all too little, too late for the Alouettes, who finally found the end zone in the game’s final minute - the team’s first touchdown in 12 quarters. Brandon Whitaker scored his second TD of the year at 14:31 of the fourth quarter after completing a 43-yard pass-and-run.
“We didn’t give up,” said Higgins of the second-half attempted comeback. “We didn’t beat ourselves, we didn’t take foolish penalties, we caught the ball a little bit better, and we were able to get some first downs. We came out and played a lot better, disciplined football, the way it needs to be played.”
Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly threw for two touchdowns and 208 yards, with 171 of those coming in the first half. Edmonton’s offense was stagnant in the second, punting the ball away five times to Montreal’s two. The Eskimos held onto the ball for just 12 minutes in the second half.
“For whatever reason, we couldn’t get anything going offensively in the second half,” said Reilly, who threw his only interception of the game after the restart. “We left our defence out on the field way too long. Luckily we did enough to get the win, we built up a good lead in the first half.”
Now in first place in the West Division, Edmonton (5-1) got off to the quick start it was looking for, as the visiting team opened the score just 2:28 into the game. On a drive that started at their own 51-yard line, the Eskimos moved down the field quickly. After a 20-yard run by Kendial Lawrence, Reilly found his running back all alone on the edge of the end zone for the 35-yard touchdown.
After an Edmonton field goal and a couple of singles by Montreal’s Sean Whyte to make the score 10-2 for the Eskimos, the Als capped off back-to-back drives with field goals of their own to bring it to within two.
John White restored Edmonton’s comfortable lead with a 58-yard run at 4:52 of the second quarter to make it 17-8 - by far the longest run of the game. The TD was White’s second of the season.
The Eskimos kept rolling in the second quarter, adding another 10 points before the half. Reilly finished off a 93-yard drive when he connected with Adarius Bowman’s diagonal run for the 25-yard score at 12:23. Bowman leads the league with 433 receiving yards.
Despite the poor first-half showing by Montreal’s offence, Higgins decided to keep quarterback Troy Smith in the game. Smith was pulled in the second half of Montreal’s previous two losses.
On Friday, Smith went 8-for-18 and threw for 102 yards in the first half, including a 52-yarder to Duron Carter. Smith, who has started all six games for Montreal this season, ended the match 20-for-45 with 231 yards.
With another poor performance, Smith’s job could be at risk.
“We need to win games, and if it’s somebody else that can help us out, then that’s the way to go,” said Smith. “I’ve prepared for the worse, and hope for the best. The whole time I’m here, I’ll continue to do that. There are multiple guys on your team for a reason.”
The end of the game was marred when linebacker Eric Samuels was taken off the field on a stretcher after taking a hit to the head. Samuels laid motionless on the field for several minutes before showing any signs of consciousness.
Notes: The West has now won 14 of 16 inter-divisional matches this season. Als slotback S.J. Green (ribs) was not in the lineup. Montreal has yet to win a game this season when trailing after the first quarter (0-4). The attendance at Percival Molson Stadium was 20,054. The Alouettes go on the road for the next two games, with games against the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers over the next two weeks. The Eskimos welcome the Ottawa RedBlacks to Commonwealth Stadium next Friday.