HAMILTON — The Edmonton Eskimos offered no excuses Sunday, paying tribute to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after a 36-16 loss in the CFL East Division final.
"We just got beat by a better team today," said Edmonton coach Jason Maas. "They’ve won 15-16 games now for a reason. They’re tough to beat at home (where the Ticats are 10-0 this season). Had we played our best and lost, it’d feel even worse.
"But turning over the ball, you can’t do that in a playoff game like this. You’ve got to make the most of your opportunities when they present themselves and we just didn’t do that today … They made the plays that are necessary to win this game and they’ve been able to do that all year."
"They’re going to the Cup and they deserve it," echoed despondent Eskimos quarterback Trevor Harris, a loser in last year’s championship game with the Ottawa Redblacks.
The Eskimos led time of possession at 33 minutes 43 seconds, compared to 26:17 for Hamilton. But they dug themselves an early hole and when they did score points, the Ticats hit back with a score of their own.
The Eskimos had a disastrous start, coughing the ball up via a Harris interception and fumble in their first two possessions. That led to a field goal — after a successful Hamilton challenge for pass interference — and a David Watford two-yard dive for a TD on a third down.
Hamilton led 10-0 with just under eight minutes played, to the delight of the sellout 25,177 crowd — a Tim Hortons Field record.
The Eskimos avoided a turnover on their next possession, only to see Hugh O’Neill shank a punt for just 11 yards out of bound — earning a penalty that reduced the net gain to one yard as Hamilton took over at its 51-yard line. That led to another Lirim Hajrullahu field goal and a 13-0 Ticat lead at the end of the first quarter.
Edmonton answered with a 75-yard, eight-play drive that saw two successful third-down gambles en route to a 21-yard TD reception by DaVaris Daniels at 2:34 of the second, cutting the lead to 13-7. Harris hit all five pass attempts during the drive.
The Ticats responded with a 47-yard TD strike to Brandon Banks — caught by the Hamilton speedster as he fell over — at 4:13 of the second quarter, upping their lead to 20-7. The lightning-like drive covered 69 yards in two plays, helped by an Edmonton offside on the kickoff following its TD.
Sean Whyte’s 49- and 17-yard field goals cut the cut the Hamilton lead to 20-13 with Hamilton answering with a field goal of its own for a 23-13 advantage at halftime.
Edmonton is 1-10 this season when trailing at the half.
Even when the Eskimos did something good, it usually came with something bad. Edmonton snuffed out a Tiger-Cat threat deep in its end with an interception, only to find itself on its four-yard line due to a penalty on the play. That led to a safety — and 25-13 lead midway through the third quarter– as Edmonton faced punting out of its endzone after a one-yard run and incomplete pass.
Down 28-13, a Justin Tuggle interception of a deflected Harris pass ended an Edmonton drive with Julian Howsare getting a mitt on the ball.
A Luke Tasker fumble gave Edmonton the ball back on the Hamilton 36-yard line but the offence could only produce a 30-yard field goal that made it 28-16 at 5:11 of the fourth quarter.
A roughing the passer call near the Edmonton goal-line kept a 76-yard, six-play Hamilton drive alive and Watford powered over from the two. That made it 35-16 with 6:28 remaining.
An 80-yard Hamilton single upped the lead to 36-16.
In another self-inflicted wound, Edmonton’s Tevaun Smith was penalized for pass interference — negating his own 19-yard TD reception with some two minutes remaining. The drive eventually ended with Harris sacked by Ja’Gared Davis on a third and 13 at Hamilton’s 22-yard line.
Harris completed 29 of 41 passes for 319 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Daniels did his bit with seven receptions for 109 yards and one TD.
Maas declined to answer a question about his coaching future in Edmonton, saying it wasn’t the time to address that. Harris, however, spoke glowingly of his coach.
"I think he’s a tremendous head coach … You succeed as a team because of Jason Maas. You succeed as individuals because of Jason Maas. That guy has your back and I love him."
Edmonton finished the regular-season at a 2-7-0 clip, including losses of 30-27 and 42-12 to Hamilton. The Eskimos, crossing over after finishing fourth in the West at 8-10-0, defeated Montreal 37-29 in the East semifinal.
No crossover team has ever advanced to the Grey Cup (5-7-0 in the division semifinal and 0-5-0 in the final).
The Eskimos, who were trying to reach the championship game for a record 26th time, last lifted the Grey Cup in 2015, defeating Ottawa 26-20 in Winnipeg.
Harris came off the six-game injured list in late October. He hadn’t played since Sept. 7 when he injured his throwing arm against the Calgary Stampeders.
Harris was leading the CFL in passing yards before the injury.