The Edmonton Eskimos took one of the two steps needed to become the first West crossover team to make it to the Grey Cup, winning a dramatic East Division semi-final over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 24-21 on Sunday.
John White rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns as the Grey Cup defending champions survived a late-game surge by the Tiger-Cats and an injury to star quarterback Mike Reilly. The Eskimos will return to Ontario for next Sunday's East final against the Ottawa RedBlacks, a rematch of last year's Grey Cup foes.
Reilly, the CFL's leading passer during the regular season (5,554 yards) and the MVP of last year's Grey Cup, suffered an arm injury and left the game late in the third quarter. But he insisted afterward that he'll be well enough to play next week.
It was a blustery afternoon for the crowd of 24,182 at a sold-out Tim Hortons Field as winds gusted out of the southwest at 35 kilometres an hour. The 10-8 Eskimos, who scratched for the West crossover spot in the playoffs, began the game with a drive into the wind that chewed seven minutes off the clock and ended with a 10-yard scoring run by White.
The 7-11 Ticats appeared set to tie it just minutes later, as a 47-yard pass by Zach Collaros to a wide-open Brian Tyms put them into the red zone. But a wind-affected pass sailed over Tyms's fingers in the end zone, and then Collaros committed a costly time-count violation.
Hamilton instead settled for a Brett Maher field goal.
White – who spent all of last season on the injured list after rupturing his left Achilles tendon during training camp – ran in a 19-yard touchdown to put the Eskimos up 14-3. Grant Shaw then booted a long kickoff ball into the end zone, and the Ticats conceded a single point.
Terrell Davis blocked an Edmonton punt and Hamilton took over deep in Eskimos' territory, giving his team a shot. But Hamilton couldn't convert a touchdown, and Maher's second field-goal attempt of the day sailed wide right on the windy afternoon.
Sean Whyte added a field goal just before the half to give Edmonton an 18-3 lead.
The Ticats, who had just one paltry rushing yard in the first half, had a heavy dose of running back C.J. Gable in their first offensive drive of the second half and he punched in a two-yard touchdown punch.
The Esks and Ticats then traded field goals. With the teams separated by just nine points, Reilly left with the arm injury, causing the Eskimos to thrust backup quarterback James Franklin into his first CFL playoff game.
Adding to the drama, the Ticats then recovered their own punt and their comeback began. Collaros hit Gable with 34-yard pass to set up first and goal. Backup Jeremiah Masoli ran in a short touchdown, and then Collaros tossed the two-point conversion to Tyms. Maher kicked a very deep kickoff ball, and the Ticats tied the game with a single earned by tackling Edmonton's Shakir Bell in the end zone.
But the Hamilton comeback was short-lived. Edmonton's Kenny Ladler intercepted a wonky Collaros pass and the Esks were able to orchestrate a winning field goal by Whyte in the dying seconds.
Reilly completed 10 of 19 passes for 133 yards before Franklin completed 2-of-4 for nine yards to finish out for the win. Collaros made good on 20-of-31 for 236 yards in Hamilton's loss.
"Our record wasn't great this year and we had our ups and downs," Ticats coach Kent Austin said. "Any time you're in a close ball game like this, especially one that gets tied up, it will come down to seven or eight plays and the majority of those plays have to go your way. In this particular case, that didn't happen."
White, who had his best rushing day of the season for Edmonton, gets another shot at playoff glory after watching the Eskimos win the Cup from the sidelines last November while he recovered from his injury.
"I just want to take care of the next game and get into the Grey Cup the right way," White said. "It was bittersweet [to watch the Grey Cup from the sidelines last year] but my guys got it done. I've got another shot at it this year, so I'm not going to get that weigh on my shoulders. I'm going to take care of it this season."
As the Esks return to Edmonton to prepare this week, Reilly will begin the week with his wife, Emily, who is scheduled to have their baby on Monday.
"We're going to deliver the baby and then I'll be watching film on Ottawa in the room, if my wife allows it," Reilly said with a laugh.