Mike Reilly is used to carrying the Edmonton Eskimos on his shoulders.
Specifically, his throwing one.
But on a night when the Canadian Football League’s most accurate passer on the year was off the mark, it was the defence that shouldered the load on the way to a 26-19 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
In a game that was separated by seven points in the end, it was a touchdown-denying goal-line stand by the Eskimos that made all the difference in momentum and allowed them to hold onto a slim lead heading into the final quarter.
Facing third-and-goal from the one yard-line with 2:23 left in the third, it appeared as though the Roughriders would be pulling ahead 21-17 after short-yardage quarterback David Watford ran a keeper for a touchdown.
But an automatic review by the command centre overturned the call, ruling Watford was stopped short of the goal-line.
“I thought our defence stood very tall,” said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas. “They played an extremely good football game. I think all 12 guys out there at a time did their jobs, put pressure on them. I thought they tackled well. I’m very proud.”
The tackle on Watford was credited to rookie linebacker Brandon Pittman, a six-foot-two, 236-pound North Carolina State product who earned three tackles and another on special teams after coming off the Eskimos practice squad to make his CFL debut Thursday.
It was one of two turnovers-on-downs the Eskimos defence forced on the way to winning the turnover battle 2-1.
“There were a couple times they were inside the 10 yard-line and they came away with not as many points as they probably should have,” Maas said. “Even on the goal-line stand there, we ended up giving up a safety from that, but our defence to not give up that, and even the other one, was very tight.
“They didn’t give anything up easy. You love to see that fight in your team and our defence shows that.”
And for the last five games now, the Eskimos have averaged just 20 points-against, as they improved to 5-2 in front of the 35,623 in the stands at Commonwealth Stadium who made up the league’s largest crowd of the year, so far.
“At the beginning of the week, coach Maas challenged us on defence, coach Bene (Mike Benevides, defensive co-ordinator) challenged us: We need to go out there and find an identity. We can either start off fast or we can start off slow,” said perennial all-star defensive tackle Almondo Sewell. “We came out and started off fast and aggressive and we just kept going.
“We stopped them on the goal-line the first two times. We came up big down there when I made that bone-headed play and jumped off-side for some reason. I thought I saw something that wasn’t there.”
That set the Roughriders up with a fresh set of downs on the four yard-line, only to be pushed back 10 yards by a holding call against offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte.
After completing a 13-yard pass to Tre Mason put them on the one yard-line, Zach Collaros fumbled the snap to bring in Watford for the keeper.
“J.C. (Sherritt) said, ‘The hell with it, let’s just go,’” Sewell said of his penalty. “And the guys around us rallied up and we stopped it.”
For the first time in 11 regular-season games, Reilly was more off the mark than on, completing 13 of 27 passes for a season-low 257 yards – one shy of the 258 he threw in a Week 5 win over the visiting Toronto Argonauts.
“It was a tough one tonight, for sure,” said Reilly, giving a staunch Saskatchewan defence its due. “It wasn’t one of our better games offensively, but our defence played great.
“I missed a fair amount of throws that I normally hit and that made the game tougher than it could have been.”
For their part, his defensive teammates didn’t mind picking up the slack while Reilly had just four completions to show over his first three quarters of work. In the fourth, however, he engineered a seven-play, 77-yard drive that ended in a one-yard sneak of his own for the winning touchdown.
“It’s fine. Mike’s Mike, he’s going to find a way,” Sewell said. “As you saw, he came back out there and lit it up.
“They’ve been bailing us out all year long. It’s nice to come in and you hear the defence did what we were supposed to do.”
Extra point: More than 108,000 pounds of food was collected for Edmonton’s Food Bank on Thursday through the Purolator Tackle Hunger program.