The Edmonton Eskimos accomplished the first step towards defending their Grey Cup title Sunday, defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 24-21 in the CFL's East semifinal, but it wasn't an easy win, an unquestioned win, or a win without cost. Edmonton dominated the first half on the scoreboard, leading 7-3 after the first quarter and 18-3 at the break, but that was after Hamilton failed to take advantage of multiple Eskimos' miscues; despite a blocked punt and other Edmonton mistakes, the Ticats went 0 for 7 on second-down conversions in the half and only notched one field goal. Hamilton woke up more late in the game, though, and had a chance to win it late, especially after Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly went down, but the Eskimos came out victorious thanks to a great performance from running back John White, a crucial interception from Kenny Ladler, a close non-call on what looked like a late hit, and an eventual field goal from Sean Whyte.
White's play in this one was really the biggest difference between the teams. On a windy day in Hamilton, neither passing offence did particularly well, and Reilly was certainly a far cry from the guy who led the league with 5,554 passing yards and posted a 70.8 per cent completion mark this season. On Sunday, he only completed 10 of 19 passes (52.6 per cent) for 133 yards, and backup James Franklin only completed two of four for 19 yards. Hamilton's Zach Collaros wasn't much better, though, completing 20 of 31 (64.6 per cent) for 231 yards with that late interception, and backup Jeremiah Masoli produced the biggest spark from the quarterback position, completing his only pass for 46 yards and rushing for a touchdown. The ground game did a lot to decide this, though; White rushed 20 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns, averaged 8.0 yards per carry, and set up the decisive late first and goal inside the final minute with a 23-yard-run (after recovering his own fumble on the previous play) that led to Whyte's chip-shot field goal to give Edmonton the lead with seven seconds left, letting them win after they picked off a Brandon Banks lateral on the subsequent kickoff return.
One element from this that will receive a lot of discussion going forward was on Hamilton's final drive. The Ticats tied the game at 21 with a rushing touchdown from Masoli, a perfectly-thrown two-point conversion from Collaros, and then a rare kickoff rouge, and they then forced Edmonton to punt into the wind late. The Eskimos' defence stood stout, though, and forced an incompletion from Collaros, which backed the Ticats up deeper thanks to a holding call. Edmonton defensive end Odell Willis hit Collaros after the ball was thrown, but it wasn't called on the field, and while Hamilton head coach Kent Austin challenged roughing the passer on the play, the command centre opted to uphold the on-the-field non-call.
From this perspective, that's the wrong decision; it looked like Willis launched late. However, it was close, and that is a tough call to make in real time. It's not certain that Hamilton would have won even with a call there, either; yes, they'd get a first down deep in their own territory, but there's still a long ways to go from there, and their offence wasn't doing much on the day. The non-call did set up Edmonton's win, though; the Ticats wound up in second and long, tried to throw deep, and had Ladler pick it off, leading to White's run and Whyte's field goal.
The Eskimos move on with this win and will face Ottawa in the East Final (in a Grey Cup rematch, and a clash of Edmonton HC Jason Maas with his old team) next Sunday, but they'll have a lot of questions to answer going forward. First, there's the issue of Reilly's health and if he'll be able to play. Franklin is a skilled backup, but Reilly's one of the league's best quarterbacks, and being without him would be a major loss. Beyond that, there's a lot for the Eskimos to clean up. There were too many fumbles and miscues in this one, and if Hamilton had taken advantage of just a couple of those, it might be the Ticats moving on. The Edmonton passing offence, so good for so much of this year, was also missing in action Sunday, and Hamilton demonstrated an effective plan to shut down top receivers Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker. The Eskimos will have a lot to work on this week if they want to get back to the Grey Cup. However, their hopes of being the first crossover team ever to appear in the championship game are still alive for now, and that's the important thing.