Karma bites Riders in West Semi-Final (& 11 other thoughts)

I don’t subscribe to the concept of karma, but the Riders might make a believer out of me yet.

A Blue Bomber fan chirped Saskatchewan’s official twitter account on June 7, just one day after Matt Nichols suffered a knee injury in practice. “How’s your QB situation going?” the Riders responded, a tweet that the team has since been deleted.

The tweet wasn’t solely a reference to Nichols’ knee injury — Darian Durant had unexpectedly retired the month prior, keeping a $70,000 bonus that applied to the Bombers’ 2018 salary cap. Even so, it was a dig at a team whose quarterback had suffered a serious injury. That’s bad form — which is why the tweet was eventually deleted.

Zach Collaros, Saskatchewan’s starting quarterback, would go on to throw nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions during the 2018 regular season. He was injured in the Riders’ season finale after taking a high hit from Odell Willis, one that drew a maximum fine from the CFL.

Brandon Bridge, Collaros’ replacement, completed just 12 passes during the West Semi-Final for 100 yards and an interception. He ran the ball well — Bridge had 86 yards on five carries — but it was clear that Bridge was ill-equipped to lead his team to victory on Sunday.

I understand that Twitter is a place for smack talk and hyperbole. I think most people have tweeted something they later wish they hadn’t — I certainly know that’s the case for me.

But they say karma catches up with all of us. And if that’s true, it certainly caught up with the Riders on Sunday.

That head shot, though…

There will be a lot of conversation this week about the head shot that was dealt by Jackson Jeffcoat in the dying seconds on Sunday’s game.

Brandon Bridge remained on the turf for several minutes after the hit, clearly suffering the early effects of a head injury. No flag was thrown as the ‘ref cam’ showed that Tom Vallesi’s view was obstructed on the play. Saskatchewan didn’t have a challenge left to review the hit, thus leaving it unpenalized.

Though it didn’t impact the outcome of the game — Saskatchewan was left with a last-second Hail Mary either way — the play was deeply troubling from a player safety perspective.

The officials missed the head shot suffered by Zach Collaros in the Riders’ regular season finale and they missed the head shot on Brandon Bridge on Sunday.

That’s not good enough.

A monkey off their back

Sunday’s victory was the first postseason win of the Kyle Walters/Mike O’Shea era in Winnipeg. The pair have been in charge of the blue and gold since 2014 — technically, Walters took over midway through 2013 — and expectations have never been higher for the pair.

Winnipeg finished 11-7 in 2016, but lost to the 12-6 B.C. Lions in the West Semi-Final by a score of 32-31. The Bombers hosted last year’s West Semi-Final after finishing the regular season 12-6, but lost 39-32 to the 12-6 Edmonton Eskimos (a game in which the score flattered the home side).

I’m not saying that Walters and O’Shea would have been fired had the Bombers lost Sunday’s game, but going five seasons without a playoff win doesn’t make for great job security. Having now won one — and possibly more over the next two weeks — you have to assume there’s virtually no chance we see off-season changes at head coach or general manager in Bomberland.

Harris takes over

If you’re looking for the deciding factor in Sunday’s West Semi-Final, look no further than Andrew Harris.

In a game that saw the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian carry the ball on primarily run-first downs, Harris recorded 19 carries for 153 yards and a touchdown. Eleven of Harris’ carries went for seven yards or more, illustrating the consistent nature of his rushing attack.

The old football adage states that a great rushing attack is one that can produce even when the defence knows the run is coming. That was the Bombers’ rushing attack on Sunday.

Speaking of which…

Oh (line) so good

The Blue Bomber offensive line flexed their muscles in Regina just days after three of its members — left tackle Stanley Bryant, centre Matthias Goossen, and right guard Sukh Chungh — were named West Division all-stars. Right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick could easily have been named an all-star as well had he not missed three games due to a knee injury.

Saskatchewan’s dangerous defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Charleston Hughes were held largely in check on Sunday, while the offensive line (clearly) opened plenty of run lanes for Harris.

Outside of quarterback, I believe the offensive line is the most important position in football. Winnipeg has the league’s best unit and they’re playing their best football at the right time of year.

Biggie problem?

Adam Bighill, the West Division’s nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player, wasn’t on the field for the game’s final three minutes. I’m told it’s an upper-body injury, though his status for next Sunday’s West Final is unknown.

The Bombers’ defence was okay without Jovan Santos-Knox (lower body injury), though his absence was noticeable. Without Bighill, however, Winnipeg’s defence would be in trouble.

Stay tuned.

Historical match-up

Much was made this week about the fact that Winnipeg and Saskatchewan hadn’t met in the playoffs since the 2007 Grey Cup, a game that was won 23-19 by the Riders. Sunday’s score, 23-18, was eerily similar — albeit with the Bombers coming out on top.

Sunday’s game was also the first postseason meeting between the clubs in Regina since 1975. While I won’t speak for anyone but myself, I think most CFL fans would agree that the league is a better place when these prairie rivals meet in the postseason.

Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take another 43 years for the Bombers and Riders to meet in Regina for a playoff game.

Comfy confines (away from home)

It took the Bombers a few years to get comfortable at Investors Group Field, but life’s been good for the club at Saskatchewan’s beautiful new stadium in Regina.

Winnipeg was the first team to win a regular season game at New Mosaic Stadium when they beat Saskatchewan 43-40 in overtime in week two of last season.

Winnipeg is now the first team to win a postseason game at New Mosaic Stadium by virtue of Sunday’s 23-18 victory in the West Semi-Final.

Kick cow-verage

Winnipeg’s coverage units struggled mightily on Sunday, allowing 67 yards on four punt returns and 181 yards on five kick returns.

Field position is always important, but it becomes even more critical in subzero temperatures when yardage is tougher to produce. Averaging 23.6 net yards per punt — as the Bombers did on Sunday — won’t win you next week’s game in Calgary.

Changing of the (CFL) season

There may be no better argument for moving up the CFL season than the 30,609 attendance figure from Sunday’s game.

30,000-plus is a good crowd, sure, but there’s no way Sunday’s game doesn’t sell out if the weather is decent. Fans in Saskatchewan and Winnipeg sell out the Labour Day Classic and Banjo Bowl every year — Sunday’s playoff game sells out, too, if fans don’t have to sit in freezing temperatures.

Give thanks and remember

This thought has nothing to do with the West Semi-Final, but I think it’s important to recognize the number of messages that came out on Sunday in recognition of Remembrance Day.

The CFL recognized a moment of silence at 11:00 AM PT during the East Semi-Final between the B.C. Lions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats — a classy move — and TSN did a nice job of incorporating Remembrance Day throughout Sunday’s eight-hour broadcast.

I was taken aback by the number of people around the CFL who have had family members serve in our armed forces — some of whom never returned home. Thanks to those who shared their stories today and thanks to all who have and continue to serve in protecting our rights and freedoms.

The West Final

The Blue Bombers will meet the Calgary Stampeders on Sunday, November 18 at 3:30 PM CT at McMahon Stadium for an opportunity to represent the West Division in the Grey Cup.

Calgary beat Winnipeg in week 11 by a score of 39-26 at McMahon Stadium. The Bombers played the Stamps close that day — Calgary led just 19-15 after 45 minutes of action — before the wheels fell off in the fourth quarter. Kamar Jorden set a new Stampeder single-game record with 249 receiving yards, while Bo Levi Mitchell tossed for 452 yards and three touchdowns.

Winnipeg won the second meeting between the clubs by a score of 29-21 just two weeks ago at Investors Group Field. Matt Nichols tossed for 358 yards — a season high — while Andrew Harris recorded 130 yards from scrimmage (86 rushing, 44 receiving).

Next week’s game should be an excellent contest. Calgary was without a number of the club’s top receivers through the final third of the regular season, though it appears that DaVaris Daniels could be set to return from the six-game injured list.

The Bombers, meanwhile, will need to show a lack of rust after a punishing, cold-weather game in Regina. No team has advanced to the Grey Cup from the semi-final round since 2013, while no third-place team has advanced to the Grey Cup since 2005.

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