Stamps give till it hurts

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

Protect the football like it's filled with money.

Head coach Tom Higgins started harping on this golden rule in Week 1 after his Calgary Stampeders roster, full of fresh faces after an off-season rebuild, coughed up five turnovers in falling 22-16 to the Grey Cup champion Toronto Argos.

The season-opening loss back in July provided a stark contrast for the Stampeders, showing them how far they had to travel to be a contender come November.

It was a painful lesson that took five months to sink in as Higgins each week lost hair over the statistic, locks the chrome-domed coach can scarcely afford to have fall on the ground.

In six of their seven defeats this season, the Stampeders lost the turnover battle and it cost them dearly again yesterday in the West semifinal.

The worst offender was quarterback Henry Burris, who dropped the rock 15 times in 2005, losing eight.

In fact, as Burris sat on the sidelines for three games nursing a surgically repaired thumb, he listened to offensive co-ordinator Steve Buratto "rant and rave," about maintaining possession.

The valued lesson seemingly fell through the cracks yesterday.

"Turnovers is going to be the thing that will haunt this football club in the off-season," said a downcast Higgins.

"I can't tell you why. I wish I could because it would have been easier to stop the onslaught. It's just an ugly feeling for something that we did really well in the stretch run, then to all of a sudden to not hang onto the football."

Burris threw book end interceptions -- a pick to Kelly Wiltshire on the opening drive at Edmonton's goal-line and another to Wiltshire to end the game -- while Burris also fumbled twice, although both were recovered by Calgary.

"We moved the ball but we had penalties and turnovers," Burris said. "Those things decide what happens in the playoffs."

Running back Joffrey Reynolds, sensational all season rushing for 1,437 yards, also had the pigskin squirt from his hands twice, half his total from the entire 18-game schedule.

The Stamps turned the ball over three times in the first 30 minutes, fumbling it six times overall, recovering three.

Reynolds fumbled at Edmonton's 39 in the third quarter and again at the Eskies 41 midway through the fourth.

Punt returner Terrence Wilkins also coughed up the ball late in the first.

"On one the guy came from behind me and stripped the ball and the other I actually ran into a blocker and the ball popped out," Reynolds said.

"The weather wasn't an issue. It's just a matter of squeezing the ball.

"You've got to win the turnover battles to win the game and I had two fumbles.

"I don't know how many more we had but you can't do that and win. We were close but it's almost impossible to win when you turn it over like we did."

The Eskimos only converted the gifts into 11 points (one touchdown, one field goal and a punt single). But the stalled drives cost Calgary valuable shots at the endzone.

Despite building leads of 16-6 and 23-9, Calgary allowed the Eskimos to slowly sneak back into the game.

You could argue, had the Stampeders protected the ball, they would have staged one of the ugliest blowouts in CFL playoff history.

Now they are history, an exciting success story in 2005 with an ending to disappoint all 26,799 spectators at McMahon Stadium.

Guard Jay McNeil, a 12-year veteran who enjoyed watching the Eskimos turn the ball over 12 times in losing to the Stamps in the 2001 West final, was crushed by the loss.

"It was a game we were in control of and you can't turn the ball over to a team like that," McNeil said.

"I give them a lot of credit for fighting and hanging in there. It is a bitter pill to swallow. We were in control of that game and it got away from us."

It was a painful lesson the Stampeders will have all winter to absorb.


Videos

Photos