The only things bigger than the crowd 35,623 strong at Commonwealth Stadium on Thursday was the $410,982 50-50 jackpot and the hopes of the visiting Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Trailing the Edmonton Eskimos by four points with two minutes left to play, they almost made it happen too, as Zach Collaros threw a ball to Shaq Evans on third-and-10 that was ruled complete for a first down in enemy territory.
But it was overturned upon review by the command centre, ending the would-be winning drive as the Eskimos won 26-19 in front of the biggest Canadian Football League attendance of the season to improve to 5-2, while the Roughriders fell to 3-4.
In a battle between Edmonton’s former defensive-minded head coach, Chris Jones, and their current offensive-focused one, Jason Maas, Thursday’s game took a decidedly defensive trajectory.
Part of it was because the league’s leading passer, Mike Reilly, couldn’t get on the same page as the league’s leading receiver, Duke Williams.
Or, at least, the Roughriders defence didn’t allow them to do so in the first half.
Following a 61-yard gain on a reception into the red zone by a wide-open Derel Walker, the Eskimos took a 7-0 lead on a three-yard run by C.J. Gable.
It was their first opening-quarter touchdown in five games, since reaching the end zone on their initial possession in a Week 2 loss to the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
In the four games in between, the Eskimos earned a combined six points in first quarters, and came into Thursday’s game having been outscored by a total of 24 points in first quarters.
Unfortunately for Reilly, who came in as the league’s most accurate starting quarterback completing 68.7 per cent of his passes, he only had 25 more first-half yards Thursday on the way to completing four of 13 passes in the first 30 minutes.
That was, however, two more yards than his counterpart Collaros, who came back from a concussion to respond with back-to-back passes to Jordan Williams-Lambert for a rare red zone visit of their own, for the first time in a long time.
A defensive pass-interference call against Mercy Maston, playing in his first game since an Achilles injury ended his 2017 campaign, saw the first quarter end with Marcus Thigpen finding the end zone on a third-and-goal carry from the one yard-line to tie the score 7-7.
Edmonton regained the lead on a 48-yard field goal by Sean Whyte to open the second.
With two changes to an offensive line making up for the loss of centre Justin Sorensen (calf), Reilly used his legs not only to escape pressure, but pick up a couple of first downs.
Former Eskimos defensive end Willie Jefferson finally got to him in the final two minutes of the half with a sack, while the Eskimos defence forced a trio of consecutive three-and-outs to head into halftime with a 10-7 lead.
The third quarter opened with receiver Duron Carter, fresh off a four-game stint at cornerback, coming up with his first regular-season touchdown catch since the 2017 Banjo Bowl. He got a step on Aaron Grymes for the 41-yard reception to lead 14-10.
But Derel Walker came up with a 36-yard grab in double coverage at the opposite end zone to reclaim the lead.
Roughriders running back Tre Mason followed up a 42-yard rush with a 13-yard reception to the goal-line, only to cough up a turnover on downs when David Watford was stopped on a QB-keeper.
The Eskimos conceded a safety to make it a one-point game entering the fourth quarter, with only six completions to Reilly’s credit. He completed two more, one to Williams for a 16-yard gain and one to Nate Behar, who fumbled it away to Tobi Antigha deep in Eskimos territory.
A 33-yard field goal by Brett Lauther put the visitors ahead 19-17 with 10:30 to play.
But a back-pedalling, leaping catch by Kenny Stafford for a 46-yard pickup on the way to a one-yard sneak into the end zone by Reilly for a share of the league-leading six rushing touchdowns.
Reilly was held under 50 per cent completions for the first time this season, completing 13 of 27 for 257 yards and a touchdown, while Collaros completed 20 of 31 for 245 yards and a touchdown.
Walker had six receptions for a game-high 154 yards.
In and out: S Marc-Olivier Brouillette appeared to injure his shoulder early in the first quarter and did not return … Eskimos KR Jordan Robinson was helped off the field after taking a hit to the helmet from FB Albert Awachie … Althougoh he was listed as Saskatchewan’s starting SAM linebacker, Matt Elam was ruled ineligible to play because he was not listed on the official game sheet.