During the run up to Sunday’s CFL East final, Saskatchewan Roughrider quarterback Brandon Bridge decided to send a private Instagram message to Argonauts defensive end Shawn Lemon, a guy he barely knows. It was two words long but that was enough: “Stay woke.”
Lemon responded with three sacks, including a devastating hit on Bridge, in Toronto’s 25-21 win over the Riders, one that punched the Argos’ ticket to the Grey Cup in Ottawa.
“For him to step into playoff territory he’s just a young kid and he doesn’t know much about it. It rubbed me the wrong way and I wanted to hit him, ” Lemon said afterward. “I wanted to make sure he was woke as well.”
While it was Ricky Ray’s last-minute heroics that ultimately propelled the Argos to the championship game for the first time since 2012, it was Toronto’s defence that led the way for much of the first half, when the Argos built a 17-3 lead. Toronto defenders intercepted Saskatchewan starter Kevin Glenn three times in the opening 30 minutes, including one that was returned for a touchdown for the team’s first points.
The Argos finished with four sacks and 11 quarterback pressures with Lemon’s bookend, all-star Victor Butler, leading the way with five.
“We wanted to get pressure on both quarterbacks – everybody’s got a plan until they get hit, ” Lemon said. “It definitely bothered Glenn. He’s a great quarterback but nobody likes to get hit, especially when it’s cold.”
Glenn finished 6-of-13 for 87 yards and a quarterback rating of zero in the latest in a series of playoff disappointments. The 17-year CFL veteran has never won a Grey Cup.
“We just didn’t have a good outing, myself included. That’s why this is a team sport. Our defence played very well, Brandon came in and put us in position to win the game, ” Glenn said. “If you play professional sports, you understand that some days are just not your day. Today it wasn’t mine.”
The pick-six was a mistake that was, unfortunately, vintage playoff Glenn. He locked onto receiver Bakari Grant in the middle of the field and didn’t see linebacker Terrance Plummer as he dropped back into coverage. Plummer stepped in front of the pass and returned it 39 yards.
It was the 24-year-old rookie’s first career CFL interception and touchdown and he plans to give the ball to his mom Beatrice, who made the trip from Jacksonville, Fla., to see her son play.
“I got an interception this week in practice on the same kind of play, ” Plummer said, before adding a very important clarification. “Oh, it wasn’t Ricky Ray. Trust me, he’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen.”
Despite the strong first-half performance, the Argos defence surrendered 11 fourth-quarter points as Bridge dragged the Riders back into the game. The Mississauga native found Duron Carter with an 11-yard touchdown pass with just under six minutes to go to cut the Argos’ lead to eight.
It was the first playoff touchdown pass by a Canadian since Ottawa’s Russ Jackson in the 1969 Grey Cup game. Bridge finished with 121 yards on 11-of-21 passing. He was also Saskatchewan’s leading rusher with 43 yards.
“Bridge brings a different threat, he’s a younger guy, scrambles a little more than you want him too, ” Lemon said. “He’s definitely a premier quarterback in this league and he’ll be a starter next year.”
The defence was forced to watch on the sidelines as Christion Jones’ 79-yard punt return touchdown with 2:45 remaining put Saskatchewan ahead 21-18 and set the stage for Ray’s heroics. Linebacker Bear Woods said they felt confident the unflappable veteran would find a way to get the job done.
“One phrase we’ve rallied behind is ‘no doubt, ‘” Woods said. “Man, I’m getting to watch Ricky Ray go down the field on the game-winning drive. It’s like watching Peyton Manning.”
Ray drove the Argos down the field with the game on the line, completing seven of eight passes including a nervy third-down conversion and a virtually impossible throw between four defenders to set up the game-winning score, a one-yard run by short-yardage quarterback Cody Fajardo.
Veteran offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl said the emotion bubbled over even before the winning points were scored.
“Tears are running down my face on the goal line because I know we got it, ” Van Zeyl said. “I’m just sobbing. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Meanwhile Lemon said Bridge, who is just 26 and a rising CFL star, earned his respect on Sunday, despite the loss.
“It’s all love, ” he said. “I know he’s a great quarterback. But you look for small things to motivate you throughout the week and he definitely gave it to me.”