It wasn't exactly how the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had scripted it when they took the field for Sunday's Western final against their prairie rivals, but their bid for another storybook ending remains firmly intact.
The Bombers are headed back to the Grey Cup following a 21-17 nail-biting victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division final at IG Field on Sunday. Winnipeg will now travel to Hamilton to defend their title from 2019 in a rematch against the Tiger-Cats, the same club they defeated, 33-12, in Calgary to snap a 28-year Grey Cup drought.
"It means everything," said Bombers receiver and Winnipeg native Nic Demski after the game.
"I know how much talent we have in this room, but I know it can be taken from you at any point, any day. To actually go out there and play the game and win it, it means everything to me and next week is going to mean that much more."
Playing in front of a nearly sold-out crowd of more than 30,000 and against harsh weather conditions that included blowing snow, freezing temperatures and gusting winds, the Bombers and Roughriders rivalry was on full display. Winnipeg was punched in the mouth in the early going, victims of some sloppy play, but they found a way to survive six turnovers, enough to tip the scales in their favour and gut out an impressive win.
It was the second straight season the Bombers and Roughriders had met in the West final, with Winnipeg winning 20-13 in a 2019 game that was sealed by a Cody Fajardo pass on third-and-seven that hit the uprights on the final play of the game. On Sunday, Fajardo had a chance to play hero again, but his pass attempt to Mitchell Picton on third down was broken up by Nick Taylor on the Bombers’ 23-yard line.
A 15-yard rush by Nic Demski was enough to run out the rest of the clock.
"This rivalry is as big as it gets," Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill said. "You can feel it. You saw it out on the field. It's chirpy. It’s nasty. It's physical. And that's what makes it so fun. Having them come to our place and getting this win and how we did it, it was very special."
The Bombers defeated the Roughriders twice in the regular season, winning the annual Labour Day Classic game followed by the Banjo Bowl rematch by a combined score of 56-17. Tempers flared in both games, but it was particularly heated during the game in Winnipeg, where a fight broke out leading to two Roughriders being ejected.
That bad blood returned Sunday, with tempers coming to a boil just as the second quarter expired. Several players needed to be pulled back from one another, a series of skirmishes the Bombers said was the result of Roughriders receiver Duke Williams poking safety Brandon Alexander in the eye.
That proved to be a rallying point, the anger over Williams' actions providing motivation for the Bombers to come out better in the second half, down 10-7.
"Everyone just said ‘If that’s what they need to do to get under our skin, that’s all they’ve got,'" Bombers running back Andrew Harris said. "We didn’t really need to say much at halftime."
The game couldn't have started much worse for the Bombers, particularly on offence. Winnipeg entered the game leading the CFL in scoring and committed the fewest turnovers on offence, with 19. By halftime, they had committed five turnovers, including three interceptions thrown by quarterback Zach Collaros and fumbles from Drew Wolitarsky and Rasheed Bailey.
On their first drive, Collaros marched to Saskatchewan's 22-yard line before finding a wide open Demski in the end zone, but Demski bobbled the sure touchdown, with the ball popping into Ed Gainey's hands for an easy pick.
"When it didn’t go my way, I easily could’ve folded, it easily could’ve thrown my whole game off, but the best thing about it is I still had the support from my teammates," Demski said.
Winnipeg started its second series on Saskatchewan's 21 after a blocked punt by Jesse Briggs. An 11-yard pass to Demski would move the ball to first-and-goal from the 10, only for Wolitarsky to fumble a catch two plays later on the one-yard line. The fumble was recovered by Saskatchewan's Elie Bouka and returned for 96 yards to the Bombers' 17-yard line. That led to William Powell punching in a one-yard touchdown to put the visitors up 7-0 midway through the opening quarter.
The Bombers would eventually hit the scoreboard on their third series, tying the game with an 11-yard touchdown by Bailey. Collaros, who finished 17-for-21 passing for 229 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, was picked off on a Hail Mary pass by Nick Marshall at the beginning of the second quarter and then again by Nigel Harris with five minutes remaining in the frame.
"It says that this is a special group, a group that is going to do whatever it takes to have each other’s backs," Collaros said when asked what it meant to survive six turnovers.
"I feel like we could have had a pretty substantial lead there. Our defence kept us in it all night long and our special teams and we were able to come in at halftime and regroup a bit and understand that the plays are there to be made."
While their defence held the Bombers in the game, one of the few bright spots on offence in the first half was the play of Harris, a game-time decision after having not played since mid-October owing to a knee injury and with just one full practice ahead of Sunday's tilt.
The 2019 Grey Cup MVP provided an emotional spark for his teammates all game, putting forth a gutsy effort that ended with 136 rushing yards on 23 carries — an average of nearly six yards per run — and one touchdown. Harris's three-yard score late in the third quarter gave the Bombers their first lead of the game, 14-10.
"If you didn't know before, you understand now how much he loves the game of football and how much he loves being on the field with his teammates," head coach Mike O'Shea said. "That's what it says to me."
The Bombers lead following the Harris touchdown was short-lived, as Saskatchewan regained the lead two plays later when Fajardo connected with Williams for a 67-yard touchdown just as time expired in the third quarter.
That wouldn't be enough to fluster the Bombers, however, with the offence opening the fourth quarter with a 10-play, 72-yard touchdown drive capped off with a one-yard quarterback sneak by No. 2 pivot Sean McGuire.
All five of the Bombers starting receivers had at least two catches each, with Bailey leading the way with three catches for 56 yards and one touchdown. Winnipeg finished with 392 yards of offence, compared to Saskatchewan's 291.
The Roughriders had one final chance to win, starting with the ball at their own 20-yard line and 3:07 left on the clock. Facing third-and-four, Fajardo launched a deep ball to Williams, who reeled in the catch for a gain of 31 yards. The ball looked to hit the turf, but the CFL, after a review, confirmed the catch.
Facing another do-or-die third down, this time needing three yards, Fajardo's pass to Picton was blocked by Taylor to seal the win.
"We earned it all season...we faced some adversity today and we earned this win," Harris said.
"It was great to do that at home in front of our fans. We’re going against a great Hamilton team, a team that’s got a great offence, a great defence and a team that can do some things on special teams. We have enough veteran leadership on our team to make sure that everything is going to go status quo, and everything will be all good. But we are looking forward to the opportunity."
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.