EDMONTON — The Edmonton Eskimos lost the game, and possibly a big part of their offence on Friday night.
Craig Newman’s 57-yard interception return for a touchdown with 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter capped a late rally as the Saskatchewan Roughriders scored a 31-24 come-from-behind victory over Edmonton in CFL pre-season play.
After Riders quarterback Tino Sunseri hit DeDe Dorsey for a TD on third and goal from the Eskimos one-yard line to tie the game 24-24 with 54 seconds left, Newman picked off a deflected pass by Edmonton pivot Jonathan Crompton on the ensuing drive and raced in for the decisive points.
The focus for the Eskimos afterwards wasn’t the last-second loss, but rather the status of quarterback Matt Nichols.
The 26-year-old, who has been in a dead heat for the starting job with Mike Reilly through training camp, went down in the end zone when he was hit by Riders defensive end Kenny Rowe while trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception late in the first quarter.
Nichols, who suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in last season’s East Division semifinal loss to the Toronto Argonauts, left the game with a right knee injury and was seen leaving the stadium on crutches.
His immediate prognosis was not known and doctors will take a more in-depth look on the weekend.
"I just went down and felt a little twist," Nichols said. "The doctors have looked at it and it looks like there are decent signs. We won’t know anything until we get a picture of it. All I can do right now is hope for the best.
"I’m optimistic. My ankle injury last year, that was the first time I have ever been hurt. This is a new feeling for me, so it is hard to have an idea on my own how bad it is. I’m just hoping for the best right now."
Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed was also hopeful, saying it would be a shame if Nichols was out long term after putting in the hard work to compete for the starting job.
"We’re going to see how it settles tonight and assess it tomorrow," he said. "Hopefully it is not serious. Sometimes it looks worse than it is. I am very hopeful that it is not something catastrophic and season-ending. Matt has worked exceptionally hard to come back from his injury in the playoffs and I would be very disappointed for that young man if this is a serious injury."
Nichols said there is nothing he can do but wait.
"It’s obviously a tough situation," he said. "It is part of this game, though. It’s not something that is going to hold me back. I’m going to do whatever I can to get healthy as soon as possible, whatever the situation is."
As for the game itself, Saskatchewan head coach Corey Chamblin was pleased with the overall effort in the comeback win.
"There was a lot to learn from that game," he said. "We had some penalties and some stuff we need to clean up. But as far as being able to come back and showing some resiliency, I was very pleased that our team was able to fight back. We said we were coming here to win and the guys did that."
Drew Willy got the start at quarterback for Saskatchewan and engineered a scoring drive on the Riders’ first possession as Chris Milo nailed a 40-yard field goal six minutes in.
Edmonton went up 7-3 with three minutes to play in the opening quarter when Don Oramasionwu popped a ball loose from Riders receiver Taj Smith.
Eskimos defensive back Marcel Young scooped up the loose ball and galloped 58 yards into the end zone.
The Saskatchewan defence got those points back just two minutes later on the play that led to Nichols’ injury as he saw his pass bounce off of a receiver and into the hands of Carlos Thomas, who took it back 30 yards for the touchdown and a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Reilly came in to take Nichols’ place and was subsequently picked off by Woodny Turene, but Milo missed his second field goal of the night as the Roughriders settled for a single point.
Edmonton went up 14-11 with three minutes to play in the second when Reilly connected on a long pass to Isaiah Sweeney, who turned on the jets and outran a pair of pursuers for a 77-yard touchdown.
Saskatchewan, which will host the 2013 Grey Cup, was pressing late in the first half but receiver Scott McHenry’s fumble at the Eskimos 21-yard line was recovered by Edmonton’s Eric Samuels.
The Roughriders pulled even with five minutes left in the third quarter as Brody McKnight kicked a 27-yard field goal on the heels of a 50-yard passing play from Sunseri to Greg Carr.
The Eskimos went back up 21-14 with a minute to play in the third after Roughriders returner Phillip Livas bobbled a punt and it was recovered on his team’s seven-yard line. Edmonton quarterback Jacory Harris, who came in to start the third quarter, took it in himself on the next play.
Saskatchewan notched a McKnight field goal five minutes into the fourth quarter to close it to 21-17, but Grant Shaw restored the seven-point edge with his first field goal of the game for Edmonton with three minutes left on the clock before Saskatchewan rallied late.
Notes: The Roughriders and Eskimos will play at Commonwealth Stadium on June 29 in the regular-season opener for both teams. … Saskatchewan hosts the Calgary Stampeders in the final pre-season game for both clubs on Thursday, while Edmonton visits the B.C. Lions on Friday. … Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed is now 0-5 in exhibition games in his career. … Eskimos rookie kick returner Tavoy Moore left the game in the first half with a lower-body injury. … The Riders had 67 players on their roster for Friday’s game. The veterans not dressed included Geroy Simon, Dominic Picard, Rey Williams, Ricky Foley, Tristan Black, Cory Huclack and Keith Shologan. … Among the bigger names sitting out for the Eskimos were Fred Stamps, Hugh Charles, Marcus Howard, Almondo Sewell, J.C. Sherritt and T.J. Hill. … The Eskimos announced on Friday that they will host an exhibition game against the Roughriders in the northern Alberta community of Fort McMurray in 2015.