Trevor Harris passing clinic leads Edmonton Eskimos past Montreal Alouettes in Eastern Semifinal

MONTREAL — C.J. Gable scored twice and Trevor Harris put on a passing clinic, leading the Edmonton Eskimos to a 37-29 win over the Montreal Alouettes in the Eastern Semi-Final on Sunday.

Esks defensive back Josh Johnson intercepted Alouettes quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. three times, including twice in the last three minutes to preserve victory for Edmonton.

The Eskimos now advance to the Eastern Final, where they’ll take on the Tiger-Cats on Nov. 17 in Hamilton for a trip to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.

No crossover team has ever advanced to the Grey Cup, but the Eskimos improve to 3-1 in Eastern Semi-Finals since the crossover began in 1996.

In just his second start since being injured on Sept. 7, Harris was his usual efficient self, completing a playoff record 92.3 per cent of his passes in front of a spirited crowd of 21,054 fans at Montreal’s Percival Molson Stadium. Harris finished with 421 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 36 of 39 passing.

Harris’ lone touchdown came from fullback Calvin McCarty late in the second quarter, while Greg Ellingson and Ricky Collins both went over the century mark in receiving yards. Gable finished with 54 yards on 14 carries, also adding a pair of catches on a productive day from the veteran running back.

Eskimos kicker Sean Whyte made all five of his field goal attempts, with his longest coming from 43 yards.

William Stanback scored two rushing touchdowns to lead the Alouettes, while returner Mario Alford scored on a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown, the third longest in playoff history. Adams also scored on the ground, but finished with a final line of 14-of-27 for 226 yards and three interceptions in his first career playoff start.

Despite a long layoff, Harris showed no rust out of the gate in Montreal. After an early first down completion to Tevaun Smith, the Esks’ pivot bought time on second down by rolling to his right, eventually finding Ricky Collins for a 38-yard catch-and-run into Montreal territory.

The drive appeared to come to a sudden halt when Ellingson’s fumble was picked up by Patrick Levels and returned across midfield. However, after an automatic review, Ellingson was ruled down by contact, giving the Eskimos a first down at the 15-yard-line. Gable was in the end zone two plays later, capping an 81-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run.

Adams looked sharp himself throughout the first quarter, as the Als looked to respond to a 7-0 deficit. A 16-yard pickup by rookie Dante Absher got the drive moving, followed by completions to Jake Wieneke and Absher again down to the Edmonton 18. The next three touches would go to Stanback, ending with a four-yard touchdown run, the first of his post-season career.

Long drives and efficient offences defined a first quarter that finished with the Eskimos on top, 8-7. For the Alouettes, it was just the start of what would become a long day for their secondary. Following back to back completions to Ellingson to the Montreal six, along with an offside penalty against Montreal, Gable finished the drive with his second touchdown of the game, this one from three yards out to make it 15-7.

The Eskimos worked hard to extend their cushion to eight points, taking 11 plays and 6:30 seconds to find the end zone. But it was short lived, as Alford returned the following kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, sending Percival Molson into a frenzy. Alford’s return was the third longest on a kickoff in playoff history, and the longest since 1964.

Right on schedule, the Esks’ offence responded. Ellingson and Gable each moved the chains on second downs, while Almondo Sewell came in to play fullback on second-and-two from the four. After rolling to his right, Harris found his big fullback in McCarty behind the defence, a four-yard touchdown pass to give Edmonton a 22-13 lead with 2:35 left in the half.

With the defence struggling, the Alouettes needed their offence to keep them in the game. Adams and Quan Bray appeared to be up to the task, connecting for a 50-yard pass on the very next play, moving them into Eskimos territory.

The drive wouldn’t end there. On second and eight, the Als’ quarterback had his arm hit on a throw, but Lewis used his body position to snag the misdirection. After another catch by Lewis, Stanback would finish the drive himself, finding the end zone a second time.

Adams’ attempt on the two-point conversion fell incomplete, but the Als were within a field goal with a minute left in the half — however, that was more than enough time for Harris to lead the Eskimos into scoring position, setting up a 43-yard field goal by Whyte.

Before the half, Harris’ streak of 22 straight completions ended on an incomplete pass to Ellingson. However, Whyte’s field goal would give Edmonton a 25-19 lead at the half.

Halftime did nothing to disrupt the Eskimos’ offensive rhythm. Harris completed second down passes to McCarty and Ellingson, the latter going for 23 yards into Alouettes territory, eventually setting up a 25-yard field goal by Whyte to start the third.

Down nine and looking to press, Adams’ second down pass to Absher was intercepted by Johnson. It was the game’s first turnover, and the Eskimos promptly took advantage, starting with a 34-yard catch for Collins down to the Montreal 30.

With the third quarter winding down, the Alouettes’ run game provided a much needed spark. Adams moved the chains with a 13-yard run off tackle, and on the ensuing play Jeremiah Johnson got involved with a 24-yard pickup. They would, however, would have to settle for a 30-yard field goal, after Adams’ second down pass just missed its intended target.

After Harris finished the third quarter 34-of-35 (98%) for 413 yards and a touchdown, the Eskimos added three more points on a short field goal from Whyte to start the fourth.

Before the Esks could pull away, however, their first miscue of the game would come on their next offensive possession. A deflection off the hands of John Bowman would land in the hands of defensive tackle Woody Barron, resulting in a first down for Montreal at the Edmonton 48.

Adams completed passes to Wieneke and Lewis, eventually setting up a 10-yard touchdown scramble by Adams, cutting the Alouettes’ deficit to 34-29 with 8:07 remaining.

The Alouettes’ best chance to complete the comeback came with just under two minutes left, as Adams led the offence to the Montreal 52-yard-line. On a first down play, however, Adams tried to beat tight coverage, but was intercepted for the second time of the game by Johnson.

The Alouettes’ defence came up with the stop, forcing a Whyte field goal and preserving one more opportunity for the offence with a minute remaining and an eight-point deficit. However, Johnson’s third interception on Adams would seal the deal.

Harris’ performance will go down in playoff history. In his third career start, which doesn’t include the 106th Grey Cup, he not only broke his own completion percentage set in last year’s Eastern Final, but fell two completion’s short of Kerwin Bell’s single-game record of 38.

A year ago, Harris was 29 of 32 against the Ticats, also also threw a playoff record six touchdown passes.

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