EDMONTON – The watchword for the Edmonton Eskimos this season is consistency.
If Sunday’s pre-season loss to the Calgary Stampeders is any indication, they may still need some work on that.
Quarterback Zac Champion’s one-yard plunge with 1:47 remaining gave the Stampeders the 23-21 win in the first-ever game played on artificial turf at Commonwealth Stadium.
It was the first pre-season match for both teams.
But it is the regular season that matters, and Edmonton is desperate to avoid the dramatic ups and downs that led to its 9-9 season and early playoff exit last season.
“We have to be consistent in our play, week in and week out,” said Eskimos quarterback Ricky Ray. “That’s our emphasis this year. We weren’t consistent tonight, but that’s the pre-season. Last year we would play well for a couple games and then have a really bad game or two. We’d play well for a few quarters and then have a couple of really bad ones.
“We’re trying to take that next step. We have a good team but we want to be a great team. Being more consistent will do that.”
Eskimos head coach Richie Hall agreed that the team can’t allow the low points to be as low as they were at times last season.
“We showed last year that we could be a pretty good football team, but when?” he said. “We were so up and down. When we were consistent out there we could compete with anyone and more than compete, we could win the football games. When we get down to the red zone we want to be able to score touchdowns and I was encouraged by what I saw in that area tonight.”
Edmonton got off to a great start on its first possession with Ray and a veteran offensive unit in the game. Following a 49-yard punt return by Skyler Green to the Calgary 34, Ray capped off the drive with a 20-yard toss into the end zone to Jason Barnes.
It remained 7-0 Edmonton until nine minutes into the second quarter when the Stampeders were forced to accept a 22-yard field goal by Rob Maver after a long drive engineered by quarterback Drew Tate sputtered in tight.
Calgary jumped into the lead on a huge defensive play with three and a half minutes to play as Esks quarterback Jason Maas, in after the second Edmonton possession, was picked off by Jonnie Dixon deep in Calgary territory and taken back 82 yards for the TD and a 10-7 Stamps lead.
But Maas was able to atone for his mistake before the end of the first half, quickly driving the ball downfield before connecting with Ramonce Taylor for an eight-yard TD with 38 seconds left and a 14-10 edge at the midmark.
Jared Zabransky took over as quarterback for Edmonton in the third quarter and had a good start, hooking up with Brad Smith on an eight-yard passing strike to make it 21-10 for the home side, who had an impressive pre-season crowd of 33,708.
Edmonton was pressing again before Zabransky was picked off on the Calgary 19 by Greg Trent.
The Stamps replied with a Maver field goal to make it 21-13 after the third frame.
On the final play of the third the Stamps had a major drive as Tate passed to Deon Murphy and he turned it into a 75-yard gain down to the Edmonton 21. However the Stamps once again were forced to accept just three points.
Despite Calgary’s inability through much of the game to score touchdowns when in range, Tate himself had a strong showing as he attempts to solidify the backup pivot position behind veteran Henry Burris.
“I was just happy to get so much playing time,” said Tate, who was 18-29 for 249 yards passing. “I was concentrating on completing passes and moving the offence and not turning the ball over. I thought we did a good job driving the ball, we just need to finish. It’s easier to get three points than six. That’s something we have to work on.”
Calgary took the lead with less than two minutes remaining as the Stamps’ third quarterback on the night, Champion, scored on a one-yard plunge after Edmonton had been called for pass interference in the end zone. The two-point convert attempt failed, leaving Calgary up by one, 22-21.
Edmonton had fourth-string QB Floyd Haigler in for much of the fourth and he was unable to engineer a comeback.
Maver added a punt single to close out the game.
Both teams wrap up the pre-season next Sunday as the Stampeders host the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Eskimos travel to B.C.
Notes: The Esks and Stamps became the first teams in professional football to play on the new, upgraded, state-of-the-art Field Turf Duraspine Pro surface on Sunday. Only one other team in pro football — the New England Patriots — has installed the new next-level turf to this point, but has yet to play a game on it… Eskimos returner Tristan Jackson left the game with a shoulder injury and did not return… Speedy receiver Kelly Campbell, who returned to the Eskimos earlier in the week, did not dress. Campbell debuted with the Eskimos in 2008 and stood out with 54 catches for 1,223 yards… The Alberta rivals met four times during the regular season and once more in the Western Semi-Final. Calgary had the edge, winning three of the four regular-season match-ups and also prevailing in the playoff encounter… Edmonton sat out a number of key veterans including receivers Fred Stamps and Kamau Peterson and running back Arkee Whitlock… Joffrey Reynolds, Nik Lewis, Romby Bryant, Wes Lysack and Charleston Hughes were among those sitting out for the Stampeders… With Commonwealth Stadium undergoing extensive repairs the Eskimos have been changing in nearby Clarke Stadium. That meant the only dressing room available for the game was the visiting one occupied by Calgary, leading Stamps coach John Hufnagel to jokingly offer the use of the bathroom in their room to the Esks at a rate of $5 a pop.