Edmonton Eskimos ride second half surge to beat Winnipeg Blue Bombers in West Semi-Final

WINNIPEG – Mike Reilly passed for 334 yards and Adarius Bowman hauled in a pair of touchdown catches as the Edmonton Eskimos topped the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 39-32 at Investors Group Field Sunday in the 2017 Western Semi-Final.

A monster second half from Reilly helped Edmonton take control early in the third frame and didn’t look back.

Receiver Brandon Zylstra led all receivers with 145 yards receiving and was balanced out by a 107-yard day by tailback CJ Gable on the ground.

The man at the centrepiece of the talk all week was Winnipeg QB Matt Nicols who has been hampered since Week 19 with a left calf injury. The ‘will he, won’t he’ narrative followed the Bombers team all week until it was made official Saturday afternoon that the Bombers’ star pivot would indeed get the call.

The Eskimos were returning to the site of their 2015 Grey Cup win, looking to top the only team that hadn’t beat all year and riding a five-game winning streak.

Reilly entered the contest as the league’s hottest pivot and it took little time for him to silence a boisterous Winnipeg crowd.

Winnnipeg RB CJ Gable rushed for 107 yards and 2 TDs Photo: The Canadian Press

On the Eskimos’ first possession of the game, Reilly calmly went 6 for 7 on an 84-yard touchdown drive which was capped off by a 17-yard touchdown pass to Adarius Bowman. After Brandon Zylstra made three first down receptions, Bowman found a spot in behind coverage and was all alone at the back of the end zone for the early pitch-and-catch.

After starting the year slow and running into injury problems, Bowman now has four touchdowns in as many games.

Looking to answer and regain momentum, the Bombers took to the ground to help get themselves into Edmonton territory. A pair of first down runs by Andrew Harris and Timothy Flanders respectively, complemented a set of QB options with Dan LeFevour spelling Nichols.

The would have to settle for a 20-yard Justin Medlock field goal to make the score 7-3 in favor of the Esks.

Any question of Nichols’ health was put to rest on Winnipeg’s third possession when the former Eskimo pivot stepped into a 38-yard throw to WR Matt Coates as part of an 8-play, 90-yard scoring drive. The possession featured three first down receptions by WR Weston Dressler and a 5-yard touchdown reception by WR L’Damien Washington on a curl route which sent an amped up Investors Group into a frenzy.

The Esks responded with a 26-yard pass from Reilly to Zylstra to set up a 28-yard Sean Whyte field goal to square the game up at 10.

The two defenses would hunker down, each registering a sack as the teams headed to halftime.

The third quarter began with both defensive lines applying pressure but the next big opportunity came at the 11:49 mark when the Eskimos special teams stepped up to get the game’s first turnover.

On third-and-three, the Bombers faked a punt and direct snapped to Flanders who took the carry off the right side of the formation but was stopped short by Eskimos SB Cory Watson, giving Edmonton instant field position at the Winnipeg 39-yard line.

Reilly made no mistake in making the Bombers pay for their gamble, finding Derel Walker in the flat for a 10-yard gain before handing the ball off to RB CJ Gable. Gable got his pad level low and powered his way through a set of Bomber defenders for a 15-yard touchdown and a 17-10 third quarter lead.

Edmonton Eskimos’ Brandon Zylstra (83), Adarius Bowman (4), Joel Figueroa (61) and Derel Walker (87) celebrate Bowman’s touchdown against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during first half CFL western semifinal action in Winnipeg on Sunday, November 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The Bombers salvaged the gamble slightly by answering with a Medlock 38-yard field goal after a 50-yard drive to cut the Eskimo lead down to four.

The Esks would answer almost immediately and did so on the strength of the Reilly-Zylstra connection. Reilly stepped into a pass down the short side of the field and Zylstra leaped up in double coverage to snag a 43-yard ball to set the Esks up at the Bomber 32. Two plays later Zylstra would find a soft spot over the middle of the Bombers defense, turn up field and enter the endzone untouched for the 13-yard score.

Medlock would respond with a 47-yarder to make a dent into the Eskimos lead but the Green and Gold took a 9-point advantage to the fourth quarter.

Looking to take control of the game, Reilly and Bowman sent the Bombers to the brink. Bowman ran a corner route against zone coverage and was spotted all alone for the 42-yard touchdown to take a 32-16 lead.

Shortly thereafter the Eskimos put the game entirely out of reach. A forced fumble and recovery at midfield set up Gable for a 30-yard romp and then a 15-yard touchdown scamper to grab a commanding 39-16 lead with 11:19 remaining.

The Bombers wouldn’t go down easily however as a 20-yard touchdown pass from Nichols to Dressler (along with a two-point conversion) with just over seven minutes remaining cut the Eskimo advantage to 15 points.

Edmonton will head to Calgary to take on the Stampeders in the Western Final on November 19 at McMahon Stadium.

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