The Edmonton Eskimos kept a play in their back pocket all night, waiting for the right time.
Moments after the B.C. Lions had tied the score late in the fourth quarter Saturday, they decided to finally use it.
Mike Reilly found Brandon Zylstra on a 76-yard pass to set up Sean Whyte’s short field goal with no time left on the clock as Edmonton stunned B.C. 30-27 in the opener to the CFL season for both clubs.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) June 25, 2017
“What was really cool about it is we’d been talking about that play during the week and then throughout the course of the game,” said Reilly, who finished 20 of 28 for 315 yards and two touchdowns. “We were just waiting.
“It wasn’t anything super tricky, but we knew given certain zone coverages that they could give us, we were going to have a good chance of having it pop.”
Lions head coach and general manager Wally Buono was blunt in his assessment of the game’s turning point after his team had fought back.
“We just blew a coverage,” he said. “These are things you practise over and over and over.”
The winning points off Whyte’s foot came after Lions backup quarterback Travis Lulay’s two-yard plunge with 56 seconds left in the fourth quarter tied the score 27-27.
But rookie kicker Ty Long, in for injured veteran Swayze Water, missed the extra point that would have given the hosts the lead before Edmonton stole the victory late.
“We’re resilient,” said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas. “A lot of character in that locker-room.”
D’haquille Williams, a former star at Auburn before off-field issues forced his career off the rails, caught four passes for 110 yards and a touchdown for Edmonton in his CFL debut, while John White rushed 17 times for 104 yards and another score on the ground.
Vidal Hazelton had the Eskimos’ other TD, while Whyte booted 12 points. Zylstra had a game-high seven catches for 152 yards.
Jeremiah Johnson rushed 14 times for 92 yards and a touchdown for the Lions, while Long kicked 15 points.
B.C. quarterback Jonathon Jennings was 22 of 34 for 264 yards, but was sacked five times as the Eskimos dominated the line of scrimmage.
“We’re just average if we don’t play well,” said Buono. “We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to do the little things, which we didn’t do.”
There was lots of talk during training camp about the explosive potential of a Lions’ attack led by Jennings, Johnson and receivers Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham.
The execution, however, was off for most of this one.
Edmonton, meanwhile, didn’t have a great night either, but got the job done when it counted.
With the Eskimos up nine early in the fourth quarter, the Lions got a break when Edmonton return man Garry Peters fumbled a punt deep in his own territory that was recovered by B.C.’s Chandler Fenner.
Johnson then scampered in from 13 yards out two plays later, but Long’s extra point was blocked to make the score 20-17 for the visitors.
Edmonton then got the ball back and drove down the field to make it 27-17 on White’s two-yard plunge.
Long hit a 25-yard field goal with under six minutes to go to cut the deficit to seven, and added a punt single after the next B.C. drive stalled to make it 27-21 with 2:29 to play.
Edmonton was forced to punt with 1:56 left after going two-and-out, and the Lions brought the ball back down the field.
Lulay scored on a two-yard plunge with 56 seconds left after Jennings found Nick Moore on a 62-yard completion, but Long missed the 32-yard extra point that would have given his team the lead before the wild finish.
“This is the culture of our football team,” said Reilly. “Our veterans know that regardless of the situation we’re going to keep fighting to the end, but it was great to see the young guys adopt that mindset.”
Down 13-5 after a forgettable first half, the Lions got to within two on their first two drives of the third quarter thanks to field goals of 27 and 29 yards from Long.
The Eskimos drove the ball down the field on their next possession, with Reilly hooking up with Hazelton from 13 yards out on to make it 20-11 after three quarters.
“We’re in the West Division,” said Reilly. “Every game’s going to be a slugfest until the very end.”
Notes: Edmonton lost linebacker J.C. Sherritt early in the second quarter to an apparent left leg injury that didn’t look good. … The Lions play their next three games on the road against opponents from the East, beginning Friday against the Toronto Argonauts. The Eskimos host the Montreal Alouettes the same night before a early bye week.