There are times when the CFL is the greatest football that can be witnessed live, then there are games like the regular season finale featuring the Calgary Stampeders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
For a solid 54 minutes, the home team Stamps looked like they were headed to their first shutout loss since Oct 27, 1965, also to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Over the last five minutes, the Bombers let their guard down and that was enough for an opportunistic Stampeders team to engineer a comeback and steal a 13-12 win with Rene Paredes’ ninth career walk-off field goal.
Now to attempt to squeeze this terrible football game for any possible juice!
A win is a win
No one will ever consider this game a classic, nor should anyone really suggest that the Stampeders deserved to come out on top in this glorified pre-season matchup, but the fact remains that the Stampeders are entering the 2021 postseason riding a three game win streak, having finished their season on a 6-1 run.
After the game Stampeders linebacker Jameer Thurman was adamant that there was something to play for in this one.
“I’m thrilled that we got the win. That’s for sure. People talk about meaningless games; every game matters. It doesn’t matter if the seedings are already set or not. The games matter.”
Juggling in advance
The gameday lineup featured Jamar Wall as a late scratch and 45 year old Randy Chevrier was added to the practice roster this week.
It stands to reason that the Stampeders are making roster moves to potentially mitigate the loss of unvaccinated players for the West Final should they beat the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the semi-final. The semi-final is the last game that unvaccinated players would be eligible for, barring a substantial walking back of current federal policies regarding air travel.
While I cant speak with absolute certainty to any individual players’ current vaccination status, Wall has been outspoken on his social media accounts questioning the vaccines efficacy and Covid-19 related restrictions.
Given the team’s decision to sit him this week, you have to wonder if it wasn’t an opportunity to try out a defensive system that didn’t include Wall. Brandon Dozier moved from SAM linebacker to safety and newcomer Javien Elliott started at SAM.
In the case of Chevrier, rarely do teams pick up players who haven’t touched the field for four seasons since retiring without an eye towards a specific contribution. Backup long snapper Cory Greenwood just went on the six-game injured list and that may have been the reason the Stampeders brought in two long snappers.
However, given the uncertainty that the league has forced us into, you have to wonder about the vaccination status of Aaron Crawford, the Stampeders starting long snapper.
The CFL’s decision to handle this specific medical issue in this vague way means that any roster move must be reviewed through this lens.
For his part, head coach Dave Dickenson didn’t name names, but admitted that should the Stampeders advance past the Saskatchewan Roughriders, they will be shorthanded.
“We are not going to have a full squad, no. But that’s ok, that’s what we do,” he said. “We have been educating our guys, and we know what’s going on. We have a plan, and we want that problem. We want to beat Sask, and see what happens.”
For the game against Saskatchewan, it seems as though the plan is to have any unvaccinated starters on the field if otherwise healthy.
“I’m playing my best team, and we coach the whole team. Vaccinated or unvaccinated. I’m playing the best team and they will be out there against the Riders,” Dickenson insisted.
First impressions are important
Javien Elliott started his first CFL game at SAM linebacker Saturday and made his presence known early with a fumble recovery that was returned for nearly 40 yards, before having half the return wiped out by penalty.
Elliot garnered four tackles and got his hands on a Blue Bomber pass attempt as well. Solid first effort from a player who may be needed if the Stamps’ season continues beyond next Sunday.
The Grace who launched a thousand punts
OK, it wasn’t a thousand, but it sure felt like it as the Stampeders rookie punter was tasked with sending the ball downfield eleven times.
There was a shanked effort near the end of the game that spoiled what was otherwise a perfect night for the Aussie sensation.
A friendly argument ensued in the press box when I unabashedly proclaimed, as we watched another textbook perfect kick sail gracefully through the air, that Grace not getting the Stampeders’ nomination for Most Outstanding Rookie was a failure of the voters .
Those who had backed Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund suggested that a punter shouldn’t be a MOR candidate, and I countered that he should be when he has been as good as Grace has been this season.
Grace led the league in net punting average, which is the length of the punt minus the length of the return. Some would credit that to the spectacular special teams cover units, coached by long time Coordinator Mark Kilam.
However, without Grace’s hangtime and ability to punt outside the numbers, that wouldn’t matter nearly as much.
While he will certainly be the divisional all-star, Grace deserved the team nod for rookie as well.
That has all been without mentioning that Grace has scored zero rouges this season, which are often an indicator of a kicker who couldn’t hit the coffin corner.
Milanovic-Litre cues the comeback
Ante Milanovic-Litre has taken more than a little criticism in this space this season, and so I must also offer credit when it is due.
The Stampeders’ offence had not crossed mid-field once before Milanovic-Litre took a three yard offering from Jake Maier and rumbled for 32 additional yards.
Once a roughing the passer call was tacked on to the end, the Stamps were comfortably within field goal range on the Winnipeg 25-yard line.
Milanovic-Litre was pressed into action after RB Roc Thomas left the game with an apparent knee injury. Thomas was starting in place of Ka’Deem Carey, who was getting some well deserved time off.
Milanovic-Litre also had some hard running yards at the end of the game to set up the game-winning field goal, holding onto the ball when it mattered most.
Luther lights it up late
Luther Hakunavanhu sure knows how to pick his spots.
The rookie scored on a 57-yard play, going the final 26 yards himself down the left sideline, to notch the Stampeders’ lone touchdown on the night. That helped set the stage for the comeback, as it got the Stampeders within three with the convert to come.
Hakunavanhu scored a touchdown last week against the BC Lions as well and finished the year with eight grabs on ten targets for 201 yards and those pair of scores.
Considering that when he was drafted the Stampeders’ braintrust told the media they expected him to return to school for another year, he’s put together a solid audition for next year and could get back in the lineup in the playoffs should someone get hurt.
This 2021 fifth round pick is once again proving the draft prowess of the Stampeders’ front office, who frequently turn late picks into legitimate contributors.
Another late draftee — Colton Hunchak, the 73rd and final pick of the 2019 draft — had two catches for 34 yards including a 22-yarder that got the Stampeders into range for the final field goal.
Goodbye Purolator truck
A heartfelt goodbye from the Stampeders to the Purolator Gameball Delivery Truck was offered before the game to the tune of Sarah McLaughlin’s iconic “I will remember you”.
This tiny remote control vehicle has been delivering the ball to the ref this season as a sponsorship gimmick.
If you had strapped the ball to the back of an aged tortoise and asked the ref to hold a piece of lettuce, it may have arrived faster.
It was a bit of fun and tongue in cheek for sure, but no one will miss the slowest vehicle in Purolator’s fleet.
In other gimmicks, the World’s Fastest Cow was beaten by former Stampeders full back Rob Cote, who was given a ten-yard head start.
Fans of the Stampeders have been guilty in past years of looking past the regular season, confident their team would be there when the Cup was on the line.
Thanks to the absolute collapse of the Lions and the ongoing tire fire that is the Edmonton Elks, the Stampeders were able to survive a 2-5 start in a shortened season to clinch a 16th consecutive playoff berth.
The Stampeders will be on the road for whatever remains on their calendar in 2021 with a game in Saskatchewan, then possibly Winnipeg, and finally Hamilton if all goes their way.
With a 6-1 record down the stretch, and this bland and vanilla effort behind them, the Stamps are suddenly looking very dangerous and could be the surprise of the season.