For the Manitoba Bisons football team it has been, if not a perfect year, one that draws all the buzzwords: tenacity and guts, hanging in and getting the job done.
Consider how they won Friday. Consider the fourth-quarter heroics from slotback Nic Demski, who scored three touchdowns in the final frame to carry the Bisons to a 37-36 comeback win over Saskatchewan in the Canada West semifinal. It could have been the most exciting Winnipeg sport moment of the year so far, but the Bisons didn't have much time to celebrate. This week it was back to practice, because there is a bigger test ahead.
On Saturday, they go to Calgary for the Canada West final, as they look to win the Hardy Cup. They will have to be better than they were last week, because against the dangerous Dinos, last-minute heroics may not be enough.
"We gotta play four quarters, and not just play in the fourth quarter against Calgary," pivot Jordan Yantz said Wednesday. "They're a very good football team, and we gotta be ready for them."
Here's some cold, hard facts: The Bisons beat Calgary on their way to winning the Vanier Cup in 2007 and haven't won again in the 10 tilts since. Worse, other than Vanier Cup appearances, the Bisons haven't won a playoff game on the road since 1968, though there were only five of those. And the last time Manitoba met Calgary in the playoffs, just last year, the Dinos stormed to a 57-18 victory.
So yeah, head coach Brian Dobie knows his squad is going into the conference final as underdog. In fact, he's positively savouring it.
"That's kind of fun to operate out of, too," he said. "We have everything to win. We have a much bigger jewel to take out of that case than they do. We would be the team going in there, pulling an upset nobody expects to happen around the CIS... what a great accomplishment it would be."
But can they do it? The Bisons lost 48-24 when they went into Calgary during the regular season, not a total embarrassment but their biggest loss of the year. Calgary has this bombs-away running back, Mercer Timmis, who is one of the best players in the conference. And credit to their coaching -- the team managed their first perfect 8-0 season despite the fact almost their entire 2012 starting defence and half their offensive line had moved on.
Break it down, though, and the matchup doesn't look quite so uneven. At least, that was Dobie's theory after practice Tuesday, when he sat his team down and went through the rosters. The Dinos have Timmis, who put up 1,157 rushing yards through the season?
Yeah, well, Bison running back Anthony Coombs was right behind him, with 1,015 on the ground, and soared past him in all-purpose yards.
What about Calgary pivot Andrew Buckley? Well, Bison Jordan Yantz is neck-and-neck with him in most every category. Buckley had a higher completion rate, but Yantz racked up more passing yards and over twice as many touchdown strikes (see Buckley's 12 against Yantz' 25).
Basically, the teams are closely matched in terms of offensive power, and it's likely defence and turnovers that will decide the game. Calgary has done a better job of shutting down opponents, especially through the air. The Bisons had the second-worst pass- defence efficiency in the conference, ahead of only the basement-dwelling Alberta Golden Bears. The Dinos, on the other hand, were at the top.
That will come down to strategy, to the Xs and the Os, and Dobie was blunt that the defence will have to step up if the Bisons are to continue their march towards the Vanier Cup.
So time will tell how the game plan goes. In the meantime there is this — this Bisons squad has showed it can pull things out when a game starts slipping away.