Prairie rivals battling for a trip to the Grey Cup is a juicy story in itself. Throw in the fact the two starting quarterbacks began the season as teammates and it becomes a script that’s almost too good to be true.
Zach Collaros started the 2019 season as the No. 1 pivot for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but now, he will try to put an end to Riderville’s improbable season. To do so, he’ll have to outduel his former backup, Cody Fajardo, on Sunday when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are in Regina for the CFL’s West Division final.
When Collaros was knocked out by Hamilton Tiger-Cats linebacker Simoni Lawrence in his third play of the season, Fajardo took the reigns and never let go. Fajardo, who is on his third team in four seasons, quickly shed the backup label and is a finalist to win the league’s Most Outstanding Player award.
The rise of Fajardo caused Saskatchewan to move on from Collaros, as they shipped him off to the Toronto Argonauts before the Boatmen dealt him to Winnipeg minutes before the trade deadline. Yes, Fajardo’s success is partially to blame for Collaros being traded twice this season, but the Blue Bombers quarterback said there’s no bad blood between the two. In fact, they’ve remained friends throughout this roller-coaster of a season.
"We’ve exchanged texts throughout the season. Whether it’s something happening for me or something good happening to him, we’re friends," said Collaros, who completed 11 of 21 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown in last weekend’s 35-14 semifinal victory over the Calgary Stampeders.
There’s been a lot of good happening to Fajardo this season. In his first year as a full-time starter, Fajardo has tossed for 4,302 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s also been dynamite on the ground, scampering for 611 rushing yards and 10 scores.
Is Collaros surprised by the sums?
"I don’t think so," Collaros told the media after Wednesday’s practice at IG Field. "I remember Cody from college and he was a really good player. I remember talking to him briefly in camp, just about the season and saying, ‘Just be confident if you ever get the shot. You’ve played a lot of football in your career, and once you get the opportunity it’s going to be good.’ And he’s taken advantage of it."
But will Fajardo be 100 per cent when he reunites with Collaros at Mosaic Stadium? Fajardo suffered an oblique injury in practice on Oct. 30, which forced him to miss Saskatchewan’s regular-season finale. Fajardo took snaps at practice last Friday, but didn’t attempt any throws. On Wednesday, Fajardo took first-team reps and threw some check-down and screen passes. Towards the end of the practice, Fajardo tossed passes to wide receiver Shaq Evans, who stood 10 to 15 yards away from the quarterback.
"You have to progress each day," Fajardo told the local media in Regina after Wednesday’s practice. "My plan has been the whole time is to come out on Day 1, throw 10 to 15 yards and progress as the week goes on and continue to throw further and further. I just don’t want to exhaust it. Even if I feel good, I don’t want to throw 100 or 200 balls because that wouldn’t make any sense."
While Fajardo was practising in Regina, Chris Streveler was watching practice in Winnipeg. The Bombers’ run-specialist quarterback ran 13 times for a game-high 82 yards and a touchdown against the Stamps, despite playing with a high ankle sprain and broken bone in his right foot.
"It makes it hard for defences to prepare against, for sure," said Collaros when asked about sharing the offence with Streveler. "And it allows our coaching staff to have even more plays to attack the defence, with the threat also of Chris being able to throw the football. So I’m sure it makes life difficult for defensive co-ordinators. He’s a really special talent, a really tough kid and he’s only going to get better."
Bombers receiver Kenny Lawler referred to the quarterback duo as a "two-headed monster" and he loves the versatility it brings to the team’s offence.
"Every single play you don’t know what to expect," said Lawler, who hauled in two passes for 34 yards last week. "Chris Streveler, he can come in and throw the ball if he wants, but he’s going to really hurt you with his legs. And Zach, he’s gonna hurt you with his arm, but he also knows how to manoeuvre in the pocket and buy more time. It’s great having two different types of quarterbacks that can do different things."
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea has been adamant in the past that a player does not need to practise during the week to suit up on game day. He was asked by several reporters for an update on Streveler, dodging each question before finally revealing his confidence in his second-string quarterback being out there this weekend in the most important game of the season.
"I think he’s going to be good," O’Shea said.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.