Eskimos hold off Argonauts' late surge
Toronto's Chad Owens hits pro football milestone in loss
Ricky Ray thought he had seen it all through his nine CFL seasons.
That is, until Friday night.
Ray threw two TD passes and ran for another as the Edmonton Eskimos stormed out to a seemingly comfortable 28-point lead, then held on for a tense 31-24 victory over the Toronto Argonauts.
Toronto erased a 31-3 deficit with three fourth-quarter TDs and was in position to force overtime after Lin-J Shell recovered Jerome Messam's fumble at the Argos' 43-yard line with 36 seconds remaining.
Steven Jyles drove Toronto to the Eskimos' 45-yard line with two seconds remaining but Edmonton's Weldon Brown ended the comeback bid with an interception on the game's final play.
'No lead is safe up here'
"I've been part of games you thought you had won and teams have come back," Ray said. "But nothing like this, it [Argos' rally for win] would've been a new experience.
"It's important for us to understand if we're way ahead to finish teams and put them away. If we're down, we just have to keep playing because you never know what's going to happen. No lead is safe up here."
Edmonton (10-6) won its third straight to move atop the West Division, two points ahead of B.C. (9-6), which faces the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (7-8) on Saturday night. The Eskimos visit the Lions next week.
"It's very important we understand we're playing for first place next week," said Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed. "We have to move forward and take the lessons from this game, re-establish our focus and come back and play a very tough Lions team in B.C.
"We found a way to make it very difficult and that's something we really have to work on. We knew Toronto wouldn't quit and we had to play through and for whatever reason we decided to relax and made some mistakes."
Edmonton took control early, outscoring Toronto 18-0 in the second quarter to erase a 3-1 deficit before a generously announced Rogers Centre gathering of 19,176. Players, coaches and officials all sported various pink-coloured items as per the CFL's weekend campaign to promote awareness for women's cancers.
The Eskimos spoiled a historic achievement by Toronto's Chad Owens, who became the first player in pro football history to surpass 3,000 all-purpose yards in consecutive seasons.
"What I will remember is the guys who were on the field with me," an emotional Owens said. "They go out and kill themselves every week.
"The loss really hurts. This [record] is bitter-sweet knowing we're so much better than our record record shows."
Ray was 17-of-29 passing for 347 yards before backup Kerry Joseph took over late in the fourth.
Messam still running for record
Messam, a Toronto native who grew up in Brampton, Ont., finished with 115 yards rushing — leaving him 36 short of becoming the CFL's first Canadian-born 1,000-yard rusher since 2000 — and was breathing a hugh sigh of relief his fumble didn't cost Edmonton the win.
"I was just trying to fight for extra yards, a defensive linemen held me up and Shell came in and shook it [loose]," he said. "I have to learn from those sort of things.
"It wasn't pretty but we got the win and we want to control our destiny … It just feels good to be in first place right now."
Edmonton will cement a home playoff game for the first time since 2004 if the Saskatchewan Roughriders beat the Calgary Stampeders later Friday night.
Toronto (4-12) remains last in the East Division and is destined to miss the playoffs for the third time in four years. Head coach/GM Jim Barker wasn't taking any moral victories from his club's monumental comeback attempt.
"It was disappointing in all phases of the game," he said. "We made a valiant comeback but dug too deep a hole.
"It's tough, it's deflating to go down the field and come away with nothing. You need to score touchdowns against Edmonton."
Jyles finished 23-of-39 passing for 285 yards with two TDs and the interception. Tailback Cory Boyd ran for a game-high 132 yards while Owens had 258 all-purpose yards (84 on punt returns, 77 on kickoff returns and 97 receiving yards).
Cornerback Byron Parker had the game's top hustle play, chasing Edmonton's Fred Stamps on a 75-yard completion with the Argos trailing 22-3 in the third then punching the ball loose with teammate Evan McCullough recovering at the one-yard line.
Stamps held on for a 15-yard TD strike with 3:44 in the quarter to put Edmonton comfortably ahead 31-3.
Jason Barnes had Edmonton's other touchdown. Damon Duval added two field goals, three converts and two singles. The other points came on a safety.
Jeff Johnson with two, and Brandon Rideau had Toronto's touchdowns. Noel Prefontaine booted the converts and a field goal.
Ray staked Edmonton to a 19-3 half-time lead with a 43-yard TD strike to Barnes early in the second before adding a nine-yard scoring run to effectively steal Owens' thunder.
Owens finally gave the hometown fans something to cheer about with 5:33 left in the second by cracking the 3,000-yard plateau with a sparkling 58-yard punt return. However, Toronto was penalized for an illegal block, reducing Owens' return to 36 yards.
Luckily, Owens needed just five yards on the play to achieve the milestone. Owens came in 119 yards short of 3,000 and made a huge dent in that total with a 46-yard catch in the first.
Owens had 3,288 all-purpose yards last season and was the CFL's outstanding special-teams player.