MacKinnon: Eskimos re-discover that winning feeling
It was only Winnipeg, but Edmonton ended an eight-game losing streak
EDMONTON - From Day 1 of training camp, the Edmonton Eskimos’ fate this season was framed in stark, black-and-white terms: They would succeed or fail on the strength or weakness of the play of the offensive line.
From Day 1, it was general manager Ed Hervey who challenged the physically biggest unit on the Canadian Football League team to be precisely that, be the biggest guys, play that way, do your jobs.
Since then, the Eskimos have mixed and matched personnel, changed the ratio of Canadian and import talent, exhorted the group, on and on, culminating in Hervey’s diatribe following the Labour Day loss at Calgary in which he singled out right guard Simeon Rottier as the weak link and stapled him to the bench. For one game.
But even big men need help and they got it on Saturday against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from some varied, effective offensive play-calling and crisp execution; from their defence, which pitched a shutout, at least when it came to surrendering a touchdown; and from teammates on offence and defence, who kept the mistakes, the turnovers, to a minimum.
Against the Blue Bombers, a team that sacked Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Darian Durant seven times in winning their previous game, the Eskimos kept Mike Reilly’s uniform clean, mostly, as they won 25-7, snapping an eight-game losing streak, winning at home for the first time since October 2012, and putting smiles on the faces of their fans.
At least temporarily. When you “improve” your won-lost record to 2-9, nobody smiles for long.
Reilly, sacked 14 times in the two-game series with the Stampeders, was victimized three times against Winnipeg. He rushed for 113 yards, sprinting for first downs — not for his life — keeping a capable Blue Bombers defensive front honest in the bargain.
“Mike did a great job making his run reads,” said offensive co-ordinator Doug Sams. “I thought the line did a great job protecting.
“We moved the pocket, we changed up. I think we had them off-balance, so they couldn’t really get a bead on us. It was huge, because when we did drop back, we had time to throw the ball.”
The offence put on a show in the first half, with Reilly throwing two touchdown passes to Fred Stamps and another to Adarius Bowman. The lanky receiver had one called back in the second half when he jumped offside, which helped explain how he came to be so open deep in the end zone.
“Our offensive staff, along with Kavis (head coach Reed), did a great job of seeing ways we could attack their defence with both me and Hugh (Charles, the starting tailback) in the run game,” Reilly said. “You saw some of that from Darian (Durant) last week.
“I think he had something like 90 yards rushing (eight carries for 93 yards). So, with their aggressiveness, they leave themselves a little bit susceptible, at times. But it’s a matter of having the right play called at the right time.
“When we did let the play develop, our offensive line did a great job of getting to their linebacker-level blocks and sealing the defensive ends. Don’t get me wrong, (Winnipeg’s) front four, they are a tough front four.”
Sometimes, in lieu of straight ahead brute force from your biggest men, you use deception to blunt a pass rush.
“We certainly wanted to get on the outside, get some perimeter stuff going,” said Reilly, who pitched out to Charles regularly, for example. “Although we didn’t go no-huddle, we had some quick-tempo plays coming out of the huddle.
“We were quick-counting them and doing things like that, just trying to play aggressively. When you’re able to do that, when you can get some points on the board early and you’re not trailing, it certainly makes the game plan easier.”
The Eskimos got some early breaks, too, which helped matters.
A holding call against the Bombers wiped out an early 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. A dubious fumble call on quarterback Justin Goltz gave the Eskimos excellent field position early in the first quarter. Five plays later, Reilly hit Stamps for Edmonton’s first touchdown.
To their credit, the Eskimos used that momentum to build a 17-0 first-quarter lead. They never let the Blue Bombers back into the game, really.
Of course, this was the Blue Bombers, a 2-9 ball club just like Edmonton. A decisive victory against such a team means ... what, precisely?
“You almost forget, and then you remember how great this feeling is. It’s why you play the game,” said linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who returned to the lineup with a cast and some padding protecting his surgically repaired left hand.
“We got it in front of our home fans, too. They deserve a lot more than that, but to start repaying them back, it felt great.”
And there’s the meaning embedded in the victory. Finally, it’s a start. The two teams do it again on Friday night at Winnipeg.
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On Twitter: @rjmackinnon
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