Gag reflex

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

A gift or a gag?

A stumble or a face plant?

A meltdown or a good ol' fashioned choke?

In this, the year of the handouts in Alberta, the Calgary Stampeders came up with a whopper at McMahon Stadium yesterday even Ralph Klein would consider overkill.

Wrapped nicely in a 30-minute package that included additional $3,000 player bonuses and tickets for 40 to Vancouver next weekend, the Stamps squandered a 23-9 lead over their northern neighbours by doling out 21 unanswered points in a 33-26 loss.

Abruptly ending a late-season surge that had the rebuilt Stamps all but packed for the West Division final next week against B.C. the Stamps did the one thing they knew they couldn't do -- turn the ball over.

Coughing it up three times on the ground, twice through the air and once on downs, the Stamps hung their heads in disgust following a game that can best be described in only one way: A choke.

Against a backup quarterback, no less.

"You can make a strong case for it being called a choke," nodded veteran Stamps o-lineman Jay McNeil, face pale and blood dripping from his elbow. "We were in control ... and now we're done."

Done as in, "we done it to ourselves," as one player put it.

"I got to five and then lost track," said Tom Higgins of the six turnovers that turned a halftime victory party into a wake for 26,799 faithful.

"To do so well in the stretch run and then not hang on ..."

As in hang on to the ball, or hang on to the lead.

"The people who say we choked were probably with the last ownership group," shot back a moist-eyed Henry Burris who opened and closed the game with passes picked off on the goal-line by Esks safety Kelly Wiltshire.

"We shot ourselves in the foot. We had 'em right where we wanted but we showed our immaturity as a team. The bottom line is if you don't take care of the little things, you'll never get to the big game."

Finishing 0-7 this season when losing the turnover battle, the Stamps built up enough momentum and experience to know only one thing could stop the league's hottest team from getting to the Grey Cup game Nov. 27 -- themselves.

"We had the chance to put 'em away and we didn't keep the gas pedal down," said Scott Coe, red hair covering his buried head.

"Obviously there are many adjectives to describe what happened tonight. If they want to say we choked, so be it."

Completing 11 of 20 pass attempts for 242 yards and rushing for two one-yard touchdown plunges of his own, Burris got 173 yards rushing from Tony Stallings and Joffrey Reynolds to move the ball at will. However, despite mirroring their success of a week earlier, the evening was peppered with turnovers in and around the Esks red zone.

Add costly penalties in the final two minutes to prolong the Eskimos last scoring drive and the result was a stunning gag-job.

The scenario was reminiscent of Tom Higgins' first playoff game as Edmonton's head coach in 2001, when the Eskimos turned the ball over 12 times to kick-start Calgary's unlikely Cup run.

"Been there," were Higgins' first words to the press as silence blanketed the Stamps locker-room.

"If this sticks with them and is the motivation to make us a better team next year then watch out."

A tough pill to swallow -- one of the only things they didn't cough up yesterday.


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