Eskimos bye their way in

GERRY PRINCE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

The bye week in the Canadian Football League schedule could have been bye-bye week for the Edmonton Eskimos.

But thanks to a blocked punt by Jabari Issa midway through the fourth quarter, the defending Grey Cup champions were able to clinch a playoff spot with a 40-34 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

A throng of 33,131 was on hand at Commonwealth Stadium to watch as the Esks advanced to the post-season for the 33rd consecutive year.

Edmonton quarterback Jason Maas rushed for two touchdowns and wide receiver Ed Hervey had his second consecutive 100-plus-yard game versus the Bombers at Commonwealth this season to power the champs to victory.

"We could have had that streak break on our watch," beamed Issa, a former NFLer who has been used sparingly by the Green and Gold this season.

"The whole team was dedicated to do whatever it took. I made a play. Guys on the offence made big plays -- a lot of guys made big plays. Defence made great plays. We just came together at the end."

BIG BLOCK FOR ISSA

With Jon Ryan standing deep in Winnipeg territory, Issa drew a bead on the Blue Bombers punter and extended his arms as the ball was coming off the rookie kicker's foot.

As near as the six-foot-five, 300-pound Issa can recall, that was his first blocked punt since college and only the second of his career.

"Coming off the edge, I didn't expect to block it that time (in college) and I did it again," he explained.

Singor Mobley saw the pigskin rolling toward the end zone and fell on it.

Parked at the Blue Bombers eight, the champs needed only two plays to put the ball into the end zone and open up a 37-27 lead.

For interim Winnipeg head coach Jim Daley, it was deja vu all over again.

Only trouble is, the timing couldn't be worse for Daley and the Blue Bombers, who now find themselves eliminated from the CFL Western Division playoff race.

"No question. It's the winning points, right?" said Daley of the blocked punt. "That's a problem we've had all year, the blocked punt."

The victory allowed the Esks to finish the season with a record of 9-9-0 but doesn't guarantee them second spot and home-field advantage in the Western Division semifinal.

A Saskatchewan Roughriders loss at B.C. Place Stadium Saturday clinches second spot for the Esks.

"People were writing us off or not even expecting us to make the playoffs," smiled Maas, who completed 26 of 34 passes for 311 yards and joins Warren Moon as the only other Esks quarterback to throw for over 5,000 yards in a single season.

"To make them, it feels like the pressure is off of us now. It's a whole new season. If we play well, there's no reason why we can't win games in the playoffs. It's a nice feeling to be in."

Maas rushed for a TD and fired a 14-yard strike to Terry Vaughn for another, while kicker Sean Fleming went 2-for-2 in the field goal department. Scott Regimbald and Charles Roberts each collected rushing majors for Winnipeg, who also got a pair of field goals from Troy Westwood and the teams headed to the locker room tied 20-20 at halftime.

SECOND PLUNGE

The sides traded majors in the third, as Maas took his second plunge and Milt Stegall reeled in a four-yard toss from Kevin Glenn.

Fleming then gave Edmonton a lead they would never relinquish with a 12-yard field goal prior to Issa's heroics which set the stage for Maas's six-yard touchdown flip to Hervey and a nifty one-handed grab for his sixth major of the year.

Another field goal by Fleming rounded out the scoring for the Green and Gold, but the Blue Bombers refused to go quietly.

Glenn, who completed 21 of 34 passes for for 303 yards on the afternoon, narrowed the gap as he hit a wide open Stegall in the end zone with 52 seconds to play.

Winnipeg then executed an onside kick which the Esks recovered before turning the ball over with 14 seconds on the clock, giving the Blue Bombers one last shot at winning the game.

"No wins in the CFL are ever easy," smiled Esks head coach Tom Higgins. "My hats off to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. They came in here and played extremely well.

"Our team hung in there and did what we had to do to win the football game. There were a couple of things that we needed to tweak (defensively). I thought the defensive coaches did a fabulous job (at half-time) of settling the guys down."


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