Winnipeg Blue Bombers hold off late charging Edmonton Eskimos in home opener

WINNIPEG — Lucky Whitehead stated his CFL arrival on Thursday night, scoring twice to lead the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to a 28-21 win over the Edmonton Eskimos in their first home game of 2019.

The first-year receiver dazzled a crowd of 25,336 at IG Field in Winnipeg, scoring a 75-yard touchdown in the first half and eluding defenders for a highlight-reel 41-yard catch and run in the third quarter.

The Bombers, meanwhile, survived a late-game turnover on a fumble by Andrew Harris — one of two fumbles on the night — forcing three straight incompletions to hold off a late rally from the Eskimos and preserve the victory.

Whitehead finished with 155 yards on seven catches, while quarterback Matt Nichols guided the offence with 200 yards, three touchdowns and an interception on 13-of-21 passing. Harris and Nic Demski also scored for the Bombers, who took a 14-3 lead in the first half and never gave it up, improving to 2-0 on the season to become the only undefeated team in the CFL West Division.

Sean Whyte connected on all seven field goals for the Eskimos, who failed to find the end zone for the first time this season after starting the year 2-0. Esks quarterback Trevor Harris threw for 345 yards on 35-of-54 passing, while C.J. Gable rushed for a game-high 82 yards. Kenny Stafford led the Eskimo offence with 108 yards on eight catches, followed closely by Ricky Collins’ 107 yards.

NIC DEMSKI CELEBRATES FOLLOWING A FIRST-HALF TOUCHDOWN VS. THE ESKIMOS THURSDAY NIGHT IN WINNIPEG (JASON HALSTEAD/CFL.CA)

The first scoring drive started in a seemingly harmless manner when Nichols was forced to scramble and throw the ball away on a second-and-20. However, Esks defensive end Nick Usher was flagged for roughing the passer, giving the Bombers new life on a fresh set of downs.

A pass interference penalty on Josh Johnson extended the drive yet again and Demski did the rest, breaking away for a 35-yard run before finishing the drive with a seven-yard scamper into the end zone. The seven-play, penalty-aided scoring drive put the Bombers ahead 7-0 midway through the opening quarter.

The Eskimos responded with a drive of their own, marching nine plays into Bombers territory before settling on a 30-yard field goal by Whyte. But Winnipeg needed just one play to answer right back, as Nichols hit a wide open Whitehead in stride, resulting in a 75-yard touchdown and a 14-3 Bomber lead.

Despite knocking on the door often throughout the first half, Trevor Harris and the Eskimos failed to find the end zone. A 20-yard field goal from Whyte, his second of the game, cut the deficit to 14-6, while Whyte would connect again immediately after an Andrew Harris fumble.

Momentum continued to shift in the Esks’ direction late in the half, when a promising Bombers drive ended suddenly after Chris Matthews couldn’t handle a high pass from Nichols. The deflection landed in the outstretched arms of former Bomber Brian Walker, eventually setting up a 45-yard field goal from Whyte to close out the half.

While the Bombers led by two points through 30 minutes, the Eskimos controlled the pace of the game with 15 first downs compared to just eight for the Bombers. Trevor Harris, meanwhile, had attempted 26 passes already in the game, completing 20 of them for 219 yards. The Eskimos ran 37 plays in the first half alone.

The Bombers’ quick-strike offence returned early in the third quarter, thanks largely to a pass interference call against Johnson on Darvin Adams. Nichols’ deep pass to Adams fell incomplete, but Head Coach Mike O’Shea’s challenge revealed that Adams was interfered with on the play.

The infraction set the offence up at the five, and Nichols promptly found Andrew Harris for the short touchdown pass, extending Winnipeg’s lead to 21-12.

A slow start to the second half for the Eskimos’ offence would cost them. After a two-and-out, a 30-yard return by Charles Nelson set the Bombers up at the Edmonton 41. One play was all Nichols would need thanks to the speed of Whitehead, who caught a pass at the line of scrimmage and burned the Esks’ defence for the second time in the game, going untouched on the way to a 41-yard touchdown.

Whyte added his fifth and sixth field goals of the night in the fourth quarter, pulling the Eskimos to within 10 points with just under six minutes remaining. But the missed opportunities were stacking up against the Esks, who had still yet to find the end zone.

With just over two minutes remaining, Esks head coach Jason Maas made the decision to send Whyte out for a 33-yard field goal on first down. An unusual strategy, but it pulled the Eskimos within a touchdown with enough time to get a stop and the football back.

The defence did its part, hemming up Andrew Harris and then stopping Nichols on second down, while Martese Jackson returned the ensuing punt to the Winnipeg 51. But the Eskimos’ drive stalled when a Tevaun Smith drop was followed by an Ellingson incompletion on third down.

Just when it seemed like the game was over, however, Andrew Harris put the ball on the turf with a minute left, turning it over and preserving life for the Eskimos. A defensive holding penalty extended the drive, but three straight incompletions ended the Eskimos’ comeback hopes.

The Eskimos drop their first game of the 2019 season despite doubling the Bombers in first downs (29-14), running a season-high 77 offensive plays and racking up more than 36 minutes of possession. Penalties were an issue for the Eskimos however, as they incurred 15 infractions for 139 yards.

The Bombers look to remain perfect when they return to action on July 5 for a date with the REDBLACKS, while the Eskimos have some time to reflect with a Week 4 bye. They’re back on the field on July 11 when they travel to BC.

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