Bombers beat Riders, advance to Grey Cup (& nine other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Matt Smith

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 20-13 in Sunday’s West Final at Mosaic Stadium, advancing to the Grey Cup.

Below are my thoughts on the game.

The Zach came back

Zach Collaros returned to Mosaic Stadium for the first time on Sunday since he was traded by the Saskatchewan Roughriders on July 31.

He got off to a quick start, throwing for 113 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter. Winnipeg finished last in passing yardage this season, but that didn’t slow Collaros down — he attempted four passes over 25 yards in the first quarter and completed two.

The 31-year-old would finish the game 17-of-25 passing for 267 yards and one touchdown. It was a stellar performance that went largely unassisted by Winnipeg’s often-dominant ground game.

Andrew Harris was held to 41 yards on ten carries, while Chris Streveler was essentially a non-factor. Nic Demski was given just one carry after recording a 33-yard touchdown run in the West Semi-Final.

Cody Fajardo — the pivot who made Collaros expendable in Regina — completed 27-of-41 pass attempts for 366 yards and an interception. The 27-year-old fought a pair of oblique tears, putting on a solid performance in his playoff debut.

But it was Collaros who led his team to victory in front of a sold out crowd of 33,300 screaming fans. Written off earlier this season — by myself and others — Collaros did not commit a turnover while completing five passes of 25 yards or more.

The veteran exacted his revenge on the team that traded him away earlier this season and will get a chance to avenge a nasty week one head shot from Simoni Lawrence in next week’s Grey Cup against Hamilton (more on that in a bit).

Bend but don’t break

Winnipeg’s defence had a phenomenal first quarter, recording a sack and a fumble recovery while allowing just 41 net yards.

Saskatchewan’s offence came alive as the game progressed, however, eventually finishing with 456 yards — 366 passing and 90 rushing. The Blue Bombers won because those yards weren’t converted into points — the Roughriders were inside Winnipeg’s ten-yard line four times but failed to score a touchdown.

The first stop came when Nick Taylor brought down Cory Watson at the five-yard line following a short reception late in the first half.

The second attempt ended when there was miscommunication in Saskatchewan’s backfield and Bryan Bennett was sacked by Jonathan Kongbo.

The third possession finished when Cody Fajardo was stuffed by Mercy Maston on a quarterback sneak after trying to find the edge with 2:37 remaining in the game.

The final attempt ended on the game’s last play — a Fajardo pass attempt that hit the upright on third down. Kyran Moore was the intended receiver on the play and, upon replay, looked pretty well-covered by Mike Jones.

Bending is okay, provided you don’t break. The Blue Bombers didn’t allow a touchdown in Regina, a feat they’ll attempt to recreate in next week’s Grey Cup.

Darv-in the zone

Darvin Adams has been great in the playoffs thus far after struggling for stretches of the regular season.

Adams caught four passes for 93 yards on Sunday, including a 63-yard bomb in the first quarter. The 29-year-old caught a 71-yard touchdown last week in Calgary and finished the game with 105 yards receiving.

His numbers were affected by Winnipeg’s issues at quarterback during the regular season, but Adams’ totals — 47 receptions for 549 yards — were still the lowest of his five years in Winnipeg.

The veteran receiver clearly like playing with Zach Collaros and has made the most of his opportunities in the postseason thus far.

Home sweet home?

Winnipeg won the first regular season game at Mosaic Stadium when it opened in 2017 by a score of 43-40. The Blue Bombers also won the first postseason game at Mosaic Stadium when they beat the Roughriders 23-18 in last year’s West Semi-Final.

The trend continued on Sunday when Winnipeg won the first West Final played at Mosaic Stadium.

Ironically, Winnipeg has yet to win a postseason game at home since IG Field opened in 2013.

Game Shay-ver

Special teams players rarely get their due, but Shayne Gauthier deserves some recognition for making a game-saving tackle with four minutes remaining.

The Roughriders executed an excellent punt return late in the game with Marcus Thigpen drawing Winnipeg’s cover units to the strong side of the field. The ball was actually kicked to the weak side of the field where Nick Marshall caught it for what initially looked like an easy score.

Fourth-year man Shayne Gauthier came out of nowhere to catch Marshall from behind, which is quite an achievement for a 230-pound linebacker.

Assuming Brett Lauther makes the convert, Marshall’s touchdown would have tied the game and given Saskatchewan a chance to win it late. Talk about a game saver.

Missing in action

Willie Jefferson did not record a statistic in the West Final and failed to generate a pass rush with any type of consistency.

The West Division’s candidate for Most Outstanding Defensive Player was left off the field for stretches of the game with rookies Jonathan Kongbo and Thiadric Hansen rotating in. That’s not unusual — players rotate all the time to stay fresh.

What was unusual was that Jefferson was left off the field for portions of Saskatchewan’s final drive. If you’re the best pass rusher in the CFL your team should have you on the field — not the bench — for the most important drive of the year.

Jefferson needs to be more impactful in next week’s Grey Cup game if he’s going to put his team in the best position to win.

Brought down from behind

The CFL outlawed horse collar tackles a decade ago when Ken-Yon Rambo suffered a devastating knee injury after being brought down from behind. It’s a dangerous way to tackle somebody and exposes the ball carrier to potential injury.

Officials often err on the side of caution, flagging any tackle that involves contact between the defender’s hand and offensive player’s nameplate. That’s why it was disappointing to see Nick Marshall go unpenalized for this tackle on Darvin Adams late in the first quarter.

Marshall clearly grabs Adams’ horse collar to slow him up before pulling him down. It was a dangerous play and Adams was justified in expressing his frustration after the play was over.

Upon further review

The CFL’s command centre didn’t have a banner night. The Blue Bombers challenged that Cody Fajardo was over the line of scrimmage when he delivered a pass to Kyran Moore late in the first half.

The command centre upheld the call, allowing the Roughriders to scrimmage first-and-ten from Winnipeg’s 12-yard line.

The review likely didn’t affect the score — Saskatchewan’s drive stalled anyway, ending in a 13-yard field goal from Brett Lauther. It did, however, mean that Mike O’Shea was without a challenge for the rest of the game.

The CFL’s football operations department offered this statement via their twitter account.

Winnipeg challenged the play believing that the Saskatchewan QB #7 (Fajardo) threw a forward pass from across the Line of Scrimmage. After review, the Replay Official determined there was no clear and obvious evidence that the QB’s back foot was beyond the LOS.

The rule states that the QB’s back foot, whether in the air or on the ground, has to be beyond the Line of Scrimmage. In this case, the LOS was a ball length inside of the 27-yard line. The ruling on the field stands as called.

I appreciate the league providing the statement — accountability is everything — but arguing “there was no clear and obvious evidence” Fajardo had crossed the line is a joke.

Beaten up

Nic Demski suffered what appeared to be a head injury midway through the fourth quarter after making a six-yard reception in Saskatchewan territory. A number of players motioned for Winnipeg’s training staff from the sideline as Demski lay motionless on the field.

The receiver quickly returned to his feet and exited the field under his own power, which was an encouraging sign.

Head injuries are serious business — Grey Cup or not, rushing Demski back from a concussion would be irresponsible. His status will be a key storyline heading into Grey Cup week after catching five passes for 72 yards, his third-best performance of the year.

The Drought Bowl

Next week’s Grey Cup will feature the two CFL teams with the longest Grey Cup droughts — Hamilton (20 years) and Winnipeg (29 years).

The Tiger-Cats were the only team that Winnipeg didn’t beat in the regular season, losing by scores of 23-15 and 33-13. Hamilton dusted the Edmonton Eskimos in the East Final by a score of 36-16 and looked every bit the club’s outstanding 15-3 record.

Hamilton hasn’t been to a Grey Cup since 2015, while Winnipeg hasn’t been to a championship game since 2011.

Expect the Ticats to open as a seven-point favourite (give or take a point) when the line is released on Monday.