OTTAWA - Brett Maher's first career game-winning field goal was a historic one.
Maher's 23-yard field goal with 28 seconds remaining earned the Ottawa Redblacks a thrilling 18-17 win over the Toronto Argonauts on Friday night. The victory was not only the first for the expansion club but came in the first CFL game played in the Canadian capital since 2005.
"In my whole career I've kicked a bunch of field goals but never a game-winner," said the University of Nebraska rookie. "I'd never even tried one.
"I was just excited to be there and excited to cash it in.
Maher's boot, his sixth of the game, came after Swayze Waters connected from 46 yards out to put Toronto ahead 17-15 with 1:33 remaining. It looked like the Argos (1-3) would spoil the party for a TD Place Stadium sellout of 24,000, which included Prime Minister Stephen Harper and explained the presence of sharpshooters on the opposite roofs of the facility.
But quarterback Henry Burris calmly moved Ottawa (1-2) 60 yards on six plays to set up Maher's boot in what was anything but just another football game. It marked the first time since November 2005 that Ottawa had hosted a CFL regular-season game and the city hasn't celebrated a Grey Cup championship since 1976.
"The atmosphere was great, a blast to be part of," Maher said. "It's a great feeling to win.
"If I would've had the same night and we would've lost, it would've been sick."
The exciting win capped what was a party atmosphere throughout the contest, with many fans standing and grooving to the tunes during timeouts. Ottawa's home opener had been much anticipated, with supporters proudly sporting their colours all week and turning out in droves for the various pre-game festivities and pep rallies.
"This crowd support we have here, it's definitely going to be a tough place (for opponents) to play," said Burris. "There's no better fanbase in this league than here in Ottawa.
"Redblacks Nation is for real. For the people who aren't here and unable to experience this, you're missing out."
Thousands entered TD Place Stadium three hours before the opening kickoff to participate in the tailgating festivities. And once fans were allowed to settle into their seats, those on the south side of the stadium resumed the longstanding tradition of chanting "North Side Sucks." However, the entire gathering — most of which was clad in red — was on its feet as one, loudly cheering the Redblacks as they took to the field for the pre-game introductions.
"That was awesome, the fans were remarkable," said rookie Redblacks head coach Rick Campbell. "I knew the setup of the stadium and how close it is to the field and thought it would be great.
"But to experience it firsthand, it really makes a difference for our football team."
The night was one of two firsts for Campbell, who also received his inaugural Gatorade shower afterwards.
"I was kind of shocked because I was just living in the moment of our football team getting the win," said Campbell, whose father Hugh, the legendary former head coach and GM with the Edmonton Eskimos, was in attendance. "It's an exciting night for us."
Despite both offences being inconsistent for much of the night, they did manage to move the ball and make for an exciting finish as Maher's 48-yard field goal at 9:53 of the fourth put Ottawa ahead 15-14. It take after Toronto took a 14-12 advantage on Ricky Ray's 20-yard TD strike to Darvin Adams just 43 seconds into the quarter.
That was Toronto's first TD in eight quarters, dating back to the fourth quarter of its 48-15 home win over Saskatchewan on July 5. The Argos were minus veterans Chad Owens (foot), Andre Durie (clavicle) and Jason Barnes (knee), their top three receivers.
Both defences were solid on the night. Toronto recorded five sacks on Burris, but Ottawa did force three turnovers, including Ray's first two interceptions of the season. Burris finished 17-of-30 passing for 216 yards while adding 22 yards rushing.
Ray was 21-of-37 passing for 298 yards and a TD with the two picks and watched Burris improve to 18-11 in their career head-to-head matchups. Ray also suffered his first loss in six career games against Ottawa.
“I've seen that too many times when he's taken his team down in the last minute and pulled out a victory," Ray said of Burris. "I definitely respect his game, but it’s tough to give him the ball with the game on the line and be on the sideline watching because he makes a lot of good plays out there."
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said his team gave Burris too much time following Waters' field goal.
"That (1:33) is forever with Henry Burris back there," Milanovich said. "We just couldn't make it stick.
"It's as disappointing a loss I've had since I’ve been here. We have to find a way to win that one, there’s no doubt about that."
Waters finished with three field goals, a single and convert.
Maher's 23-yard field goal at 14:56 of the second quarter earned Ottawa a 9-7 lead in a lacklustre opening half offensively as the kickers accounted for all the scoring. Both offences came close to TDs as Ray underthrew a wide-open John Chiles in the endzone in the first before a streaking Kierrie Johnson got behind Toronto's secondary but had Burris's nicely thrown pass go off his outstretched hands.
But both offences lacked consistency and finish as Burris , who got little help from his offensive line, was 7-of-12 passing for 75 yards and Ray completed 9-of-16 attempts for 127 yards, but 45 yards came on one completion.
For the second time this year, Toronto was victimized by a fake punt that went for a first down. Maher scampered 15 yards on third-and-10 to keep a drive alive in the second that he ultimately capped with a 29-yard field goal at 6:24 to put Ottawa ahead 6-3.
NOTES: In their final regular-season game, the Renegades beat Toronto 27-17 on Nov. 5, 2005. Renegades head coach Joe Paopao wore a Hawaiian short on the sidelines, as did his coaching staff and the club's football operations department. Following the game, Paopao threw his third into the stands . . Burris came into the game needing 65 yards rushing to move ahead of former Rough Riders star Russ Jackson and into fourth in all-time rushing yards by a quarterback. Jackson has 5,122 yards. Retired star Damon Allen, who played for both Ottawa and Toronto over his illustrious career, holds the league record with 11,920 yards.