REGINA – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are headed to the Grey Cup.
In a game that was already overflowing with juicy storylines, it was only fitting that Sunday’s West Division final between the Bombers and their prairie rival Saskatchewan Roughriders would end with the kind of suspense and thrills that would make even Freddy Krueger blush.
In the end, it was the Bombers who managed to crawl their way into the winner’s circle, putting forth a gutsy effort in a 20-13 victory over the Roughriders. The win, which was the second straight on the road after a dominating 35-14 triumph over the Calgary Stampeders in the semifinal, earned the Bombers the division title and confirmed their place in the 107th Grey Cup this Sunday in Calgary, where they’ll play the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
While the game lasted its full 60 minutes over four quarters, it’s the final moments that will be remembered most. Especially for the way it had an entire sold-out Mosaic Stadium crowd clinging to the edge of their seats.
"You could literally feel it, that entire crowd go silent every time that ball went in the air," Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill, who had a standout game on defence, said. "Everyone in that building was waiting to see what was going to happen. It was crazy."
In a spirited Bombers locker room afterwards, players marvelled at what they had witnessed, struggling to put into words the sights they saw when victory didn’t feel certain — until it finally did.
"It was like watching a thriller movie and the suspenseful part lasts six minutes and you just want to see what happens," Bombers receiver Drew Wolitarksy said. "It’s a crazy feeling and I don’t know any other thing I’ve ever done that I could use to express it."
"I think my heart stopped and went again like three or four times," added receiver Nic Demski. "I was just kind of playing peek-a-boo with myself, covering one eye and seeing what was going on out there."
Just consider: with 36 seconds left in the game, the Bombers had a game-sealing interception called back after video showed Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo had actually tried to throw the ball when it slipped from his hands. Then, two plays later, and with just 27 seconds on the clock and Saskatchewan facing a third-and-10 from Winnipeg’s 24-yard line, Bombers defensive back Marcus Sayles appeared to finally put the game on ice. Only Fajardo’s pass sailed through his arms and into the hands of Roughriders receiver Kyran Moore, who managed to stay in bounds just before falling to the sideline at the 5-yard line.
With a new set of downs – and new life, really – Saskatchewan had three more chances to tie the game. The first attempt was snuffed out by Mercy Maston, who was able to get to Fajardo, sacking him for a loss of three yards. Then it was Brandon Alexander who broke up a pass to Shaq Evans, a play he said afterwards he felt he should have ended with an interception.
Then, with just one try left to save the season, Fajardo stepped back into the pocket and delivered a pass down the middle to Moore in the end zone. Instead, the ball hit the crossbar and the whistle blew and the play was over and the Bombers had finally won.
"When I saw it hit the crossbar I just erupted. I put my hands in the air and screamed and looked for someone to hug," Bombers right guard Patrick Neufeld said. "I looked around and just saw that we were the Western Conference champs."
It was an appropriate ending for what had been a stellar night for the Bombers defence. Winnipeg kept the hosts out of the end zone, limiting a Roughriders offence filled with weapons, to four Brett Lauther field goals and a single by punter Jon Ryan.
Fajardo, who missed the final game of the regular season with an oblique muscle injury, hardly looked himself early on, sending a number of balls high and out of reach of his receivers. He would eventually find a rhythm, finishing the game with 27 completions for 366 yards and an interception, but it wasn't enough to counter a punishing Bombers rush.
The Roughriders put up 442 yards of net offence compared to the Bombers’ 322, but were unable to capitalize when it mattered most.
Beyond the massive stand at the end, the Bombers also stopped the Roughriders twice on goal-line stands in the fourth quarter.
In the first instance, Saskatchewan made it all the way to the Winnipeg’s one-yard line, only to call a questionable play that had third-string quarterback – and former Bomber – Bryan Bennett line up in the shotgun formation. There was a miss communication following the snap and rookie Jonathon Kongbo was able to find a hole down the middle and tackle Bennett for a loss of four yards. The Roughriders had to settle for a 14-yard field goal.
Then, with fewer than three minutes remaining, Saskatchewan decided to gamble on third down, only to have Maston snuff out Fajardo’s attempt at a quarterback sneak. The Bombers took the ball back and were able to drain more time off the clock before punting back to the Roughriders.
"We were on the goal line and they wanted to go for it and we just said, ‘No!’ It’s been our character all year long," Bighill said. "We’re going to defend every blade of grass and we’re going to play tough. We’ve had a knack for not giving up touchdowns and giving up points and really standing tough when we need to. I’m just so proud of our guys and the fact that we stood up when we had to stand up to win the game."
On offence, the Bombers put together a much different game plan than the week before. Against the Stampeders, it was a run-heavy focus, which had a lot to do with the icy conditions at McMahon Stadium. The game also saw both Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler become a two-headed monster, with Collaros throwing the ball and Streveler brought in to run.
This week, with temperatures hovering above freezing, offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice leaned on Collaros and the air attack. The 31-year-old veteran ended the night 17-for-25 passing for 267 yards and one touchdown – a 26-yard strike to Kenny Lawler that had the Bombers up 10-1 after the first quarter. Streveler would also chip in at times, though he finished with just four carries for 10 yards.
When drives stalled, the Bombers looked to the sure foot of Justin Medlock, who connected on all four of his field goals and has now hit 14 straight in the postseason and has been a perfect 20-for-20 since early September.
"We did what we came to do. Was it perfect? No. But the whole season wasn’t perfect," Alexander said. "But it was perfect enough for us to at least get a chance to win the Grey Cup."
"It’s easy to believe in our guys that we’re going to find a way to get it done," O’Shea said.
The Bombers will now travel to Calgary on Tuesday to begin preparing for a Hamilton club that finished with a league-best record of 15-3 and dominated the Edmonton Eskimos, 36-16, in the East Division final. They’ll also have a shot at snapping a lengthy 28-year Grey Cup drought.
"It’s a precious thing and you really got to cherish it. It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s hard to put into words," Collaros said. "It’s just an exciting feeling and I’m just so happy with the guys. Just watching from afar how close they’ve been and now that we’re doing it it’s exciting."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Sunday, November 17, 2019 at 9:23 PM CST: Writethru. Adds photos.
November 18, 2019 at 12:54 PM: Corrects that Hamilton's record is 15-3