If only the Edmonton Eskimos could start games the way they finish them. By scoring a barrage of points. By giving rival coaches and defensive co-ordinators grey hairs and nervous ticks.
The Eskimos did that in the 2013 edition of Alberta’s Labour Day clash. They barely showed up for the first half against the Calgary Stampeders and were down 17-0 in a matinee that all the makings of a landslide.
And then, just as they have so often this season, the Eskimos turned a runaway into a fourth-quarter heart murmur, a 37-34 final that ended with the Esks losing for the eighth time in nine games.
But here’s the rub: Edmonton has now lost five of those games by a combined 15 points. And Monday’s defeat was as stunning as it was telling. This team just won’t surrender. Trailing 37-7 in the fourth quarter, having sent many of McMahon Stadium’s 32,217 spectators home early, the Eskimos exploded to life.
They scored on a 35-yard pass to receiver Cary Koch (the following two-point conversion attempt failed), scored again on an 18-yard pass to running back John White, and recovered an onside kick with 4 minutes 11 seconds left. That set up a 33-yard touchdown toss to Matt Carter. All of thatcame in roughly five minutes.
Then, it was Edmonton defensive lineman Almondo Sewell stripping the football from Stampeders receiver Jabari Arthur, handing it to Eskimos defensive back Chris Thompson, who ran it back to Calgary’s seven-yard line. One play later, quarterback Mike Reilly hit slotback Fred Stamps for the touchdown. That made it 27 points in roughly six minutes.
Calgary head coach/general manager John Hufnagel did his best to use his side’s narrow win as a teaching lesson.
“What turned the game was the fumble [by Arthur],” Hufnagel said. “I told our players, ‘Let’s learn from this.’ We played carelessly in the fourth quarter.”
The Stampeders were as careless as Edmonton was relentless. Reilly was sacked seven times, three by Charleston Hughes. And still, Reilly pitched four touchdown passes, made good on a third-and-20 situation and came within a three-yard completion of giving the Eskimos a chance at a long-range, game-tying field goal.
Little wonder the 7-2 Stampeders were thankful for the win.
“Reilly is tough,” Calgary defensive lineman Cordarro Law said. “The last two weeks, he’s taken a bunch of hits. He keeps on battling. They all do on that team.”
“The fourth quarter was great,” Reilly said. “But we didn’t play football for 3 1/2 quarters. That was probably the worst 3 1/2 quarters I’ve ever been involved with. Our defence kept us in, then we finally turned it on. We can’t wait that late and expect to win.”
The Edmonton rally was abetted, in part, by a knee injury to Calgary quarterback Kevin Glenn. He left the game in the second quarter and didn’t return. Bo Levi Mitchell came in as the replacement and threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns to receiver Maurice Price, who was next to unstoppable all game.
“He could have played,” Hufnagel said of Glenn, who was diagnosed with a bruised knee. “But he wouldn’t have the mobility I thought we needed at the position because of the pressure their front four was getting on us. … Fortunately, we made the plays at the very end to allow us to win.”
Asked for his thoughts on Friday’s rematch at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Hufnagel spoke for both teams: “We need to play smarter, and I say that to my football team all the time. Edmonton is a very opportunistic team.”
One that could use a good start to match its furious finishes. When that happens, the losing ends.