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Saskatchewan Roughriders running back Marcus Thigpen battles through a crowd during first half CFL action against the Edmonton Eskimos, in Regina on Oct. 8, 2018.Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press

Willie Jefferson made the big play when it mattered most.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders’ defensive end soaked up spotlight as only he could in his team’s thrilling 19-12 victory on Monday over the Edmonton Eskimos after snagging a Mike Reilly pass attempt and returning it 49 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with less than two minutes remaining in the game.

Jefferson’s final two yards on route to the end zone weren’t without flair as he took his time crossing the goal line.

“It was just a good instinctual play,” Saskatchewan’s Ed Gainey said.

“Willie is the type of guy who is going to get pressure on the quarterback and if not, he’s going to drop back and try to get his hands on the football. It’s not the first time he has done that. Credit to Willie for stepping up in a big-time moment and making that play.”

It was the Riders’ league-leading seventh defensive touchdown of the season.

The play wasn’t without controversy, however. Reilly was driven to the turf hard by Saskatchewan’s Zack Evans and Edmonton head coach Jason Maas challenged the play. He felt Evans should have been flagged for roughing the passer. Much to his frustration, the play stood.

“It sure looked like (Reilly’s) head snapped back. (The officials) took an awful long time to look at it and, in their opinion, it wasn’t (a penalty),” said Maas.

“I know Mike feels like his chin was hit. So, if your chin is getting hit, that means a helmet is hitting it. If it slid up from the chest, I don’t know. Apparently that must have been the call.”

A frustrated Reilly said after the game it wasn’t up to him to decide. Reilly completed 13-of-27 pass attempts for 222 yards. He was intercepted three times, including twice inside Saskatchewan’s 20-yard line.

The win improved the Riders’ record to 10-5 and pushed the team closer to a home playoff game. Saskatchewan sits alone in second place in the CFL’s West Division, four points ahead of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who they will face on Saturday in a key divisional matchup. The Riders have won seven of their past eight games.

Edmonton (7-8) lost its fifth consecutive road game and dropped into fifth place in the West. The B.C. Lions are 7-7.

“We had a 12-9 lead with two minutes to go and give up a pick-six to get beat. If that’s not frustrating, I don’t know what else is,” Maas said. “When you have momentum and when you have a lead for most of the game and it comes down to the last minute and 50 seconds and you lose the game because of it, that sucks. It’s hard to deal with.”

Edmonton will return home to take on Ottawa on Saturday in a must-win game.

“We can’t dwell on this loss,” Maas said. “It hurts. It sucks. We have to keep fighting. We have three games left and they’re all important now.”

Brett Lauther kicked four field goals for Saskatchewan. Sean Whyte kicked four field goals for the Eskimos.

The Riders’ offence had scored at least 30 points in each of the past two games in wins over Toronto and Montreal. Their production dried up on Monday, however, with just 281 yards net offence. Quarterback Zach Collaros, despite completing 25-of-38 attempts for 259 yards, did not reach the end zone. He was intercepted once.

Shaq Evans had six catches for 59 yards and Kenny Shaw added five receptions for 70 yards.

Reilly had his favourite target, Duke Williams, back in the lineup on Monday. The CFL’s leading receiver left last week’s game with a shoulder injury and it was anticipated he would miss significant time.

Williams led the Eskimos on Monday with six catches for 78 yards.

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