REGINA, Saskatchewan -- Quarterback Tracy Ham said he never expected to win easily yesterday. And for three quarters, an inspired Saskatchewan team, with some assistance from a gusty wind, nearly pulled off a major upset over the Baltimore Stallions.
But in the end, the Stallions maintained their poise, while Ham showed why he is one of the Canadian Football League's most accomplished veterans.
With a little under four minutes to play and Baltimore trailing, Ham turned a first-down scramble into a 45-yard touchdown run to spark the Stallions to a 28-24 victory before 30,758, the fourth-largest crowd to ever watch a game at Taylor Field.
The Stallions (12-3) hope this was a warm-up visit to Regina, which plays host to the Grey Cup championship game next month. Baltimore, seeking to reverse last year's loss in the title game, won its franchise-record seventh in a row and moved to within a victory of clinching the Southern Division championship and home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
They also concluded their regular-season road schedule with a 7-2 record, beating a Roughriders (5-9) team that was in no mood to play the patsy. After falling behind, 15-3, Saskatchewan, lifted by the outstanding play of quarterback Tom Burgess -- who made his first start in nine weeks after Warren Jones' heel injury ++ flared up -- had the Stallions in big trouble.
On a day when windy conditions put pressure on Baltimore's top-rated rushing attack, the Roughriders contained running back Mike Pringle and harassed Ham with a steady stream of rTC blitzes. And when Pringle lost a fumble deep in Baltimore territory early in the fourth quarter, allowing Burgess to hit receiver Don Narcisse with a 10-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion to give the Roughriders a 24-18 lead with 8:39 left, Saskatchewan appeared to have strengthened its fading playoff hopes.
But the Stallions never wavered. Instead, they used two crucial punts by Josh Miller, clutch defense and Ham to score 10 unanswered points.
"There is so much confidence on this team. It's almost an arrogance," defensive end Grant Carter said. "We've done it so many times this year. It's the attitude of, who's going to do it this week? This week, it was Tracy."
Ham, who threw for a modest 176 yards while absorbing four sacks and a twisted ankle, still had enough left in his legs to ruin the Roughriders.
With Baltimore trailing, 24-18, Ham dropped back to throw on first down, drifted to his left and began running through a gaping hole. Well past the first-down marker, Ham then veered left, and with the help of a great block by slotback Chris Armstrong, sprinted the final 20 yards along the sideline for the score.
"I was just looking for a first down, and all of a sudden, it just opened up," Ham said. "Chris Armstrong threw a key block for me, and I was able to get up the field.
"We got ourselves in trouble, but Saskatchewan plays real good football at home. People underestimate them because of their record. It comes down to the wind factor every time you play here. We were fortunate to win the [coin] toss and have the wind in our favor in the fourth quarter, when we were able to make some plays."
After Ham's run gave Baltimore a 24-24 lead. The Roughriders then conceded a safety touch with 2:46 remaining after Jearld Baylis sacked Burgess at the Saskatchewan 2. Baltimore then drove 35 yards to eat up most of the clock, and with 28 seconds left, Miller's 63-yard punt went through the end zone for a single for the game's final score.
"If we play like this every time out, we're going to beat some good teams. We played out butts off today," Saskatchewan coach Ray Jauch said. "We'll just straighten out, head down to Baltimore next week and see what they've got left."
NOTES: Baltimore coach Don Matthews moved into a tie for fourth place in the CFL record books with his 122nd victory. . . Narcisse, who had seven receptions for 73 yards, has caught at least one pass in 139 consecutive games. . . . Despite the windy conditions that affected several of his punts, Miller still averaged 50.2 yards on nine attempts.