Edmonton 18 Saskatchewan 10
EDMONTON—When the Edmonton offence couldn’t get it going, the defence more than made up for it on Sunday.
The Eskimos defence recorded five interceptions and Kendial Lawrence had an 84-yard punt return touchdown on special teams as Edmonton beat the Saskatchewan Roughriders 18-10 in the CFL’s West semifinal.
“Our defence was pretty vital tonight,’’ said Eskimos head coach Chris Jones. “We needed to play good there. If you want to win in the playoffs you have to play great on defence.’’
“Our defence seems to be able to do that week in and week out,’’ Lawrence added.
“They gave us a lot of chances on offence and we just need to take better advantage of them.’’
The game was billed as a battle of the backup quarterbacks between Edmonton’s Matt Nichols and Saskatchewan’s 41-year-old QB Kerry Joseph, but neither lasted past the midway mark of the third quarter.
Edmonton’s No. 1 quarterback Mike Reilly came into the game six minutes into the third quarter despite nursing a broken bone in his right foot.
“I knew I was probably going to get in at some point,’’ said Reilly, who was then asked to critique his performance.
“We won so good enough. That’s how it goes in the playoffs. If you win, you were good enough. If you lost, you didn’t. We played good enough against a good football team in some tough conditions out there. It will only get harder from here on out, so we certainly want to get better though.’’
With a week to rest, the current belief is that Reilly may be ready to start next Sunday when the Eskimos meet the Stampeders in the West Final in Calgary.
“I’m sure that the time between games will help with his injury, we are certainly hoping that it will,’’ Jones said. “I’d say it looks pretty likely he will start next week.’’
“I definitely expect that will be the case after tonight,’’ Reilly said. “As of right now I feel comfortable that will be the case, but we are still seven days away. That should continue the recovery process and hopefully I will be further along.’’
Quarterback Tino Sunseri finished off the game for the Roughriders.
The loss ended any hopes the Roughriders had of defending their Grey Cup championship from last year.
“We didn’t do enough things to win,’’ said Saskatchewan veteran defensive lineman John Chick.
“First of all, you can’t give up points, big points on special teams. That’s tough to come back from. There’s no secret to the game, you can look throughout the year the turnover battle usually wins the game.
“No matter what position we’re put in, we have to do better.’’
Edmonton took the opening kickoff and got on the board just three minutes in on a 37-yard Hugh O’Neill field goal.
O’Neill added a 42-yarder with four minutes remaining in the first quarter after the Roughriders turned over the ball on an poor throw by Joseph that was picked off by Aaron Grymes without a Saskatchewan receiver in the vicinity.
Joseph was intercepted on his team’s next possession as well, with Chris Rwabukamba snagging it on the Edmonton 45-yard line. O’Neill missed the ensuing three-point attempt – settling for a single to make it 7-0 by the start of the second quarter.
It was the 13th consecutive quarter without allowing a touchdown at home for the Eskimos.
Saskatchewan was intercepted for the third straight series as a Joseph pass was deflected into the air by a prone Rob Bagg and into the arms of defender Cauchy Muamba at the Roughriders’ 44.
Nichols and the Eskimos continued to struggle to take advantage of the gifts from their defence as a short Saskatchewan punt was once again wasted. A 21-yard O’Neill field goal – to make it 10-0 with eight minutes left in the second frame – was all Edmonton could make of it.
Edmonton’s special teams stepped up instead as Lawrence found a seam and blazed 84 yards for a punt-return touchdown less than two minutes later to make it 17-0 for the Esks.
‘That was a big spark in the game and gave us a lot of confidence,’’ Jones said. “He is a tremendous player. He struggled last week, but it was good to see him bounce back.’’
Joseph was picked off for a fourth time by Ryan Hinds, but Nichols gave it right back on the next play when he was intercepted in the end zone by Rider Weldon Brown.
Saskatchewan got on the board with 44 seconds left in the first half. Joseph took a hit to unleash a long bomb to Korey Williams, who reeled in the 54-yard pass while falling backwards into the end zone.
Edmonton recorded a fifth interception on Joseph eight-and-a-half minutes into the third quarter with Dexter McCoil coming away with the pick at midfield. Reilly came in as quarterback following the play and got the Esks in range for a 39-yard O’Neill field-goal attempt, which ended in another miss and a single point.
Sunseri then came in to replace Joseph as the Riders’ QB and marched his team down the field, leading to a 30-yard Chris Milo field goal to make it 18-10 heading into the fourth quarter.
Saskatchewan was pressing late in the game, but the Eskimos defence came up big again to keep them off the scoreboard and allow the offence to run out the clock.
Notes: It was only the second home playoff game for the Eskimos at Commonwealth Stadium in the last decade. Edmonton (12-6 in the regular season) won two of the three games this season against the Roughriders (10-8). Saskatchewan won the final meeting 24-17 at home on Nov. 8. The game featured seven of the 12 West Division defensive all-stars, including season sack-leader John Chick (15) and co-runner up Odell Willis (13). … These two teams hadn’t met in a playoff game since 2004, when the Roughriders won the West semifinal at Commonwealth Stadium 14-6. … There was a significant difference in the players on each team with CFL playoff experience with Saskatchewan having 120 games and Edmonton only 67 The attendance on a chilly day in Edmonton was 26,237.