The Baltimore Stallions nearly let one slip away against rival British Columbia last night. But in the end, quarterback Tracy Ham and kicker Carlos Huerta wouldn't allow it.
Ham drove the Stallions 54 yards in two minutes to set the dramatic stage for Huerta, who kicked a 20-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining to lift Baltimore to a 28-26 victory over the Lions before 33,228, the largest crowd at Memorial Stadium this season.
Baltimore (14-3) won its ninth straight and handed British Columbia (9-8) its fifth consecutive loss.
And the Stallions, who led for most of the night, had to rally after the Lions took a 26-25 lead on Cory Philpot's 7-yard touchdown run with 2:22 left.
"I was disappointed that it was that close," said Stallions coach Don Matthews. "We made some plays early that kept them in it. We were not sharp. That happens sometimes after a bye week. Our timing wasn't good, but we found a way to win. I think that shows character on our part."
The winning drive represented atonement for Ham and Huerta. Ham, who suffered through an ineffective first half and missed part of the game with a mild concussion before throwing an interception that set up an earlier fourth-quarter touchdown by Philpot, came through in the clutch. His 20-yard completion to Robert Clark started the game-winning drive, and his 16-yard run put Huerta within chip-shot distance.
Huerta, who had missed a 50-yard attempt midway through the fourth period, split the uprights with the game on the line.
"I was hitting the ball well on my field goals all night, but I let my guard down mentally [on the 50-yard attempt]," Huerta said. I don't think it should have come down to that last one. I'm treating these games as a momentum-builder for the playoffs. This is not a successful season unless we win the Grey Cup."
Said Ham: "We've been in this situation before. We knew it was time to get it done. We don't want to make a living this way, but week in and week out, we seem to get it done."
The Stallions took early advantage of Lions quarterback Giulio Caravatta's inexperience by forcing two first-quarter turnovers and turning both into points.
First, Baltimore's Josh Miller reinforced his standing as the league's premier punter. After the Stallions' game-opening drive stalled near midfield, Miller uncorked a 60-yard punt into the end zone. BC's Eddie Thomas chose to step out of the end zone, giving Baltimore a single and a 1-0 lead.
The Baltimore defense then went to work, at Caravatta's expense. On the Lions' first play from scrimmage, Caravatta floated a pass to fullback John Leach. But the ball hung in the air long enough for safety Chris Johnson to intercept it, giving Baltimore possession at the BC 49.
Three plays later, Huerta kicked a 49-yard field goal to extend Baltimore's lead to 4-0 with 10:09 left in the first quarter.
Later in the quarter, a sloppy exchange between Caravatta and Philpot resulted in a fumble that Baltimore linebacker Matt Goodwin recovered at the BC 27.
The Stallions' offense went nowhere, but Huerta came on to boot a 35-yard field goal, giving Baltimore a 7-0 lead with 3:09 left in the quarter.
Caravatta was pulled early in the second quarter for Erik White, who moved the team effectively in his first stint. But Baltimore's Chris Wright negated that with a 51-yard punt return that set up Huerta's 40-yard field goal, giving Baltimore a 10-0 lead with 6:52 remaining in the half.
Three runs by Philpot totaled 34 yards on the Lions' next possession, which ended with a 47-yard field goal by Lui Passaglia to cut Baltimore's advantage to 10-3 with 4:26 left in the half.
Baltimore's next possession was its sharpest of the half, but they lost Ham as a result of it. After Wright's 33-yard kickoff return allowed the Stallions to begin from their 50, Ham went to work. After a 6-yard run by Pringle, Ham connected with slotback Gerald Alphin for 9 yards over the middle to the BC 45.
Two plays later, Ham hit Armstrong for 25 yards -- Armstrong went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark on the play -- but Ham suffered a mild concussion when the Lions were flagged for roughing the passer. Armstrong then burned halfback James Jefferson with an inside move in the end zone, where Ham found him for a 10-yard touchdown, giving Baltimore a 17-3 lead with 2:32 left.
Backup quarterback Shawn Jones replaced Ham on Baltimore's next series, which ended with a punt by Miller. But, on the Stallions' final possession of the half, Jones made a costly mistake.
First, Jones dumped a short pass to Pringle, who gained 15 yards and appeared to be tackled as time expired. But Baltimore was told to run one more play, and it was Jones' worst of the season. He was in the grasp of a BC lineman, but Jones elected to throw a pass in the deep right flat to Alphin. Bad move.
Cornerback Charles Goron stepped in front of Alphin and ran 51 yards untouched down the left sideline for a touchdown, cutting Baltimore's halftime lead to 17-10.
Ham joined the Stallions on the sidelines to start the second half, warming up while rookie Dan Crowley took a turn as the signal-caller. That didn't work.
The Lions cut into the Baltimore lead with a 20-yard field goal by Passaglia. The damage could have been worse. After Caravatta, reinserted at quarterback, hit Yo Murphy for 20 yards, Baltimore rookie cornerback Melvin Crawford, making his first pro start, was flagged for interference on a long pass to Rob Gordon, giving BC a first-and-goal at the Baltimore 9.
Philpot gained 4 yards, but Stallions rush end Elfrid Payton broke through to sack Caravatta for a 9-yard loss, forcing Passaglia into the game.
Ham then reentered to the cheers of the crowd and was promptly sacked twice. But on Baltimore's next possession, Ham engineered one of its best drives of the season, a 12-play, 102-yard march that consumed nearly six minutes.
Ham completed five of six passes on the drive, including two to Armstrong for 50 yards. His second toss to Armstrong went for a 21-yard score, after Armstrong slipped behind Charles Gordon in the end zone.
With 13:55 left in the game, the Stallions led, 24-13.