Jo Jo Walker returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats held on for an anxious 21-19 win over the Edmonton Eskimos in the battle of the CFL's bottom dwellers Saturday night.
Walker scored 3:38 into the third quarter to put Hamilton ahead 21-13, bringing the 20,411 fans at Ivor Wynne Stadium to their feet. But Edmonton pulled to within 21-16 with 3:20 remaining with a field goal before a Ticats' safety with 1:13 to play made the score 21-18.
Edmonton then took over at its own 35-yard line and rookie Warren Kean lined up a 56-yard field goal with 45 seconds remaining. The kick was short and Hamilton gave up the single with 31 seconds to play.
"It was very important to win because you're only as good as your last game," Walker said. "Coach tells us to hit the hole and make a move and that's basically what I did.
"I hit the hole, made the kicker miss and it was a touchdown. But it was like a dream. I've been trying to run one back all year and I guess the Lord let me run one back in the final game."
Tiger-Cats coach Charlie Taaffe was impressed with the speed Walker showed on the game-deciding return.
"He took it right up the middle and split them and showed a real burst," he said. "That was a huge play for us."
The game was a sloppy one with five turnovers, including three by Edmonton.
Ticats take away positives
The sparse gathering, coming off a season-low attendance of 19,322 for last week's 27-19 loss to B.C., was fitting of a meaningless game between the league's two worst teams. At least Hamilton (3-15) could celebrate ending a bad year on a winning note.
"I told[our guys]tonight they could look at it as the end of '07 or they could look at it as the beginning of '08," Taaffe said. "So we finished it with a win and hopefully started something. It's a good feeling to end the season on."
Edmonton (5-12-1) could only give thanks to its season finally being over.
"There's really not much to say," said Eskimos coach Danny Maciocia. "It's basically a little bit of a re-run, giving up big plays on special teams and not converting when we have an opportunity."
Still, the persistent talk is changes are inevitable this off-season for both teams.
Maciocia, who doubles as Edmonton's football operations director, is under a lot of heat for having missed the playoffs the last two years, but appears safe in both portfolios. However, player-personnel director Paul Jones, a respected talent evaluator, is reportedly on thin ice.
Taaffe, the CFL's top coach in 1999 and 2000 with Montreal, could be forced to make dramatic changes to his staff. Also, rookie GM Marcel Desjardins is on the hotseat not only for Hamilton regressing from last year's abysmal 4-14 record, but also for deals made that have worked out better for his trade partners.
Hamilton starter Richie Williams was just 9-of-19 passing for 100 yards in place of injured regular Casey Printers. Stefan LeFors started for Edmonton and was 15-of-22 passing for 182 yards and an interception before leaving in the second half due to dizziness.
Fleming, Hitchcock end CFL careers
Steven Jyles came in and was 9-of-16 passing for 101 yards and an interception and gave Edmonton a chance for the win late in the game.
The game capped the illustrious careers of Sean Fleming and Eskimos linebacker Rob Hitchcock. Fleming spent his entire 16-year CFL career with Edmonton and is its scoring leader with 2,571 points. On Saturday, he punted and kicked off, while rookie Warren Kean booted field goals and converts.
Hitchcock spent the first 12 years of his CFL career with Hamilton, earning two CFL all-star nods at safety and winning a Grey Cup with the club in '99. But the Ticats released the Hamilton native this summer and Hitchcock, convinced he could still play, didn't immediately sign his retirement papers.
Last month, he joined the Eskimos and said this week he was at peace with the idea of leaving on his own terms and retiring after the game.
Nick Setta booted four field goals and a convert for Hamilton. The other points came on a safety.
Stefan LeFors scored Edmonton's touchdown. Kean kicked three field goals and a convert. The other points were on the safety.
Kean's 13-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining staked Edmonton to its 13-11 half-time lead, with the Eskimos scoring all of their points in the second. The big play was LeFors' eight-yard touchdown run at 9:48, the lone major of the half.
Hamilton stormed out to an 11-0 lead in the first on three Setta field goals and a safety.