REGINA — It was a nail-biting game where the only touchdown on the night — scored by Winnipeg — ended up being the margin of victory. Which is why the Saskatchewan Roughriders will be lamenting the one that got away Sunday night for a long, long time.
We take you back to late in the fourth quarter of the West Final, with the Bombers clinging to a 20-13 lead and just over four minutes left in the game. Winnipeg's offensive drive stalled at midfield, and Justin Medlock was brought out to punt, no doubt hoping to pin the Roughriders deep in their own end.
His kick sailed high and to the right — exactly as he would have told his team in the huddle. But there was just one problem — pretty much every defender on the field veered left, where Saskatchewan returner Marcus Thigpen was putting on an Academy-award winning performance, acting as if the ball was coming his way.
The end result was a 58-yard return by a wide-open Nick Marshall, putting Saskatchewan in prime scoring position. And he likely would have returned it to the house if not for linebacker Shayne Gauthier, who managed to catch what was going on, change course at the last second and catch up to Marshall at Winnipeg's 37-yard line.
"Shayne Gauthier's a hell of a man," coach Mike O'Shea said following the game. "You wan to talk about any particular play in this game? Talk about No. 44, Shayne Gauthier, running down a returner who's got a lead on him and securing a tackle and preventing a score. That's as big a play as you'll ever see."
The trickery was familiar to the Bombers and their fans — Winnipeg pulled off an identical feat two years ago in the Banjo Bowl against Saskatchewan, with Maurice Leggett returning a kick 97 yards for a touchdown while teammate Kevin Fogg duped all of the Roughriders on the field into thinking the kick was coming his way.
Turnabout is, indeed, fair play.
"From our side, we would say we made some grave mistakes that we need to clean up. We're not a real young punt team, we've got some smart guys and we didn't do our job. But Shayne Gauthier, I mean, that's as big a play as you'll see in that game." — Bomber coach Mike O'Shea.
"That was a great play on their part. From our side, we would say we made some grave mistakes that we need to clean up. We're not a real young punt team, we've got some smart guys and we didn't do our job. But Shayne Gauthier, I mean, that's as big a play as you'll see in that game," said O'Shea.
Bombers special teams player Mike Miler was on the field at the time and among those who got duped.
"Everybody kind of vacated that way once they got out of protection. We knew they only had one returner in so I saw the returner go that way and I just fell for it big time. He did a good job selling it but we’ve got to do a better job realizing it," said Miller.
"I can speak for myself and I got locked in on the returner. And when I saw the returner vacate that way, knowing they only had one returner in, I sold going that way assuming that’s where the ball was going. I should have trusted that Meddy was going to put it to the right and just go there. It’s definitely on me, for sure, for not recognizing it. I’ll tell you I’ll take that. I was just glad our defence was able to pull it out for us."
Saskatchewan coach Craig Dickenson singled out Gauthier for praise, saying it may have ultimately been a game-saver for the Bombers.
"You saw on that big punt return, 44 comes from 30 yards away and is able to tackle Marshall. If he doesn't make that play, that's a touchdown," said Dickenson
Saskatchewan used the Marshall return to drive the ball to Winnipeg's one-yard line, but they couldn't punch it across the line. Dickenson said that entire sequence summarizes what this Winnipeg squad is all about.
"I think Winnipeg is very opportunistic. They are very good at situational football. They’re well coached, and seem to do just enough to win. And I think they’ve got a good veteran group," he said. "They just got a lot of grit and a lot of guys that have been there long enough that they know the system. They play extremely hard and seem to make just enough plays to win."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.