Irv Smith had some lost time to make up for, and he wasted little time reminding observers that he is one of the Canadian Football League's more respected cornerbacks.
Taking the field for yesterday's Southern Division semifinal playoff game against Winnipeg was the first special moment for Smith.
Four weeks ago, Smith separated a shoulder in the closing minutes of a 29-27 victory against Saskatchewan. The injury forced Smith to miss the Stallions' last two regular-season games, breaking a string in which he had started every Baltimore game.
Smith warmed up to the action quickly. Late in the first quarter, linebacker Tracey Gravely blitzed Winnipeg quarterback Reggie Slack, forcing him to hurry an attempted pass to wide receiver Tim Daniel. Smith stepped in to intercept the pass, setting up a single by kicker Carlos Huerta that gave the Stallions an 11-1 lead.
Smith went on to break up another pass and recorded three defensive tackles.
"It [the interception] gave me some confidence, although I still need to put some WD-40 on these joints," Smith said, pointing at his right shoulder. "We didn't miss a beat while I was gone, but it feels like I'm one of the boys again. I can hold my head up high and talk some trash with them again."
Making a statement
The Stallions have their share of quiet players, although no one maintains silence as consistently as Gravely.
Yet, even Gravely was compelled to comment on his 95-yard interception return for a touch down in the fourth quarter. That put the finishing touches on Baltimore's playoff victory.
Gravely slid to his left across the middle, where Slack appeared to miss him while attempting a pass to slotback Gerald Wilcox. Gravely quickly broke into the clear down the left sideline. The only suspense revolved around whether Gravely would run out of gas before he reached the end zone.
"All I had to do was get past two linemen to break free," Gravely said. "I was afraid to look back, but I was hoping one of those big linemen wouldn't catch me from behind. That would have been embarrassing."
Safely at safety
Think Chris Johnson is getting comfortable? After losing free safety Lester Smith for the season to a foot injury he suffered against Edmonton three months ago, the Stallions conducted a lengthy search for Smith's permanent, 1995 replacement.
Johnson, a 6-foot, 205-pound rookie out of San Diego State, was the fifth player Baltimore tried at free safety in Smith's place. The Stallions appear to have a keeper.
Johnson started his fifth straight game and picked off his fourth pass of the season, when he intercepted Slack in the first half.
"There are so many great players around me here [in the defensive backfield]," said Johnson, who is second on the team in interceptions behind halfback Charles Anthony. "My main goal is not to let them down."
3 gone with the wind
So Huerta is human after all. Huerta, who finished the regular season second in the CFL in scoring (228 points), first in field goals (57) and hit 79.2 percent of his field-goal attempts, had a rough day amid the 25 mph winds that swirled around Memorial Stadium yesterday.
Huerta missed three of five field-goal attempts, the first time he has missed three in a game all year. And he missed an extra point for the first time in his professional career. Before missing late in the second quarter yesterday, Huerta had been a perfect 88-for-88 on converts.
Coach Don Matthews expressed disappointment with the low turnout at Memorial Stadium. Only 21,040 showed up, more than 9,000 below the Stallions' season average.
"The players deserve a good crowd, because they are such a good football team and they play their hearts out," Matthews said. "I certainly wish more people would come out and show their appreciation."
The Stallions' attempt to add to their 15-point lead in the game's waning moments resulted in some scuffling between the teams.
After Tracy Ham downed the ball for a 3-yard loss at the Winnipeg 50, the Stallions opted to give the ball to Pringle, who burst up the middle for a 15-yard gain. That infuriated Winnipeg linebacker K. D. Williams, who started throwing punches and was ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Pringle then ran 10 yards to the Blue Bombers' 5 before fumbling on the ensuing play. Winnipeg's Brendan Rogers recovered the fumble and then angrily spiked the ball.
"We were just trying to get out of the game and [Winnipeg] had some personal things. Their agenda was different than ours," Matthews said. "We just wanted to go home. They game was out of contest. It's too bad that those guys that started those fights had to do that because that takes away from a good football game."
Winnipeg coach Cal Murphy said the Stallions' effort to score late in the game wasn't an issue.
"The idea is to put points on the board. I don't even consider it," Murphy said.