Bombers overcome turnovers to bounce Riders (& 15 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Final at a frigid IG Field by a score of 21-17 on Sunday. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Harris dominates

Andrew Harris made his return to the field after missing the final four games of the regular season with a knee injury. He showed no signs of rust, recording 23 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown. His score came late in the third quarter as he hammered in a short carry from three yards out.

Winnipeg went 7-0 with Harris in the lineup during the regular season, including both of Winnipeg’s regular season victories over Saskatchewan. The 34-year-old is obviously closer to the end of his career than to the start of it — next week’s Grey Cup might even be his final game — but he hasn’t shown signs of rust when healthy.

If the West Final was Harris’ final game in his home city, congratulations to him on another great performance. As has often been the case since he joined the Blue Bombers in 2016, he was the best player on the field on Sunday.

Kudos to his offensive line of Stanley Bryant, Drew Desjarlais, Michael Couture, Patrick Neufeld, and Jermarcus Hardrick as well. They were excellent on Sunday.

Turnovers galore

The Blue Bombers committed five turnovers in the first half, which was shocking considering they only gave up 20 over the course of the 14-game regular season.

Nic Demski bobbled an early would-be touchdown into the arms of Ed Gainey, Drew Wolitarsky and Rasheed Bailey fumbled in the red zone, and Zach Collaros made a pair of poor decisions when throwing picks to Nick Marshall and Nigel Harris.

Saskatchewan had only 105 offensive yards in the first half, which was a testament to Winnipeg’s stifling defence. The only major they allowed came after Elie Bouka’s 92-yard fumble return, which gave the Riders a first down at Winnipeg’s 17-yard line.

Head coach Mike O’Shea credited his team after the game for remaining level-headed, realizing that they were only down by three points. He said the club had many close games during the season and they never lost focus or panicked despite the early turnovers.

IG Field

The West Final was just the second postseason game ever played at IG Field — if you don’t count the 2015 Grey Cup — and the first one won by the home side.

Winnipeg hosted Edmonton in the 2017 West Semi-Final, but lost by a score of 39-32 as Brandon Zylstra posted eight catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns.

It’s pretty wild that Winnipeg was able to end a 29-year Grey Cup drought before christening IG Field with a playoff win, but this is the CFL — things rarely unfold predictably.

Sunday’s game was the first home playoff victory for the Blue Bombers since the 2011 East Final. That club was unable to convert

What a crowd

Take a bow, citizens of Bomberland. 31,160 fans purchased tickets to Sunday’s West Final and the crowd was excellent despite the home team’s poor start. Fans in the north end zone were on their feet throughout the second half and the crowd was as loud as I’ve ever heard it while Saskatchewan’s offence was on the field late in the game.

Unofficially, this was the biggest crowd for a home playoff game in Winnipeg since 1987. Attendance at the 2017 West Semi-Final was 27,244, while 30,051 fans attended the 2011 East Final at old Canad Inns Stadium.

The game wasn’t a sellout, but 31,160 is an excellent number given the weather in Winnipeg. At a time when it’s harder and harder to get fans out for live sporting events, you have to credit Bomber fans for turning out in droves.

For those wondering, the number of fans sporting green on Sunday was very small. That’s not a knock on Rider fans — a global pandemic and snowy highway conditions make it tough to travel. I only mention it to illustrate that the crowd was overwhelmingly made up of Blue Bombers fans.

Chess match

Saskatchewan offensive coordinator Jason Maas got a big win in the chess match against Winnipeg defensive coordinator Richie Hall early in the second quarter. Weak-side linebacker Kyrie Wilson was caught deep in coverage against receiver Jake Harty, which was a big mismatch in favour of the Riders.

Wilson panicked late on the route and took a 39-yard pass interference penalty, setting up Saskatchewan with a first down deep in Winnipeg territory. Teams will manipulate alignments, personnel groupings, and pre-snap motion to try to generate favourable matchups and the Riders achieved that there, cashing in with a field goal to cap the drive.

I thought Winnipeg offensive coordinator Buck Pierce made a great call on the club’s final drive when he called a jet-sweep to Demski. The defence clearly expected Harris to get the carry, which allowed Demski to bust a 15-yard run off the right side to seal the victory.

Ouch!

Andrew Harris told the media after the game that Saskatchewan was doing some “dirty s***” before halftime and accused receiver Duke Williams poking defensive back Brandon Alexander in the eye.

Williams was accused of spitting on Shawn Lemon last week in the West Semi-Final, though Williams denied Lemon’s claim on Twitter. The league was investigating the matter last week, but did not provide an update when asked on Friday.

The fake punt

Mike O’Shea told the media after the game why Marc Liegghio took off running on a fake punt midway through the third quarter.

O’Shea indicated that Saskatchewan had too many men on the field, which prompted Winnipeg to snap the ball quickly. Liegghio, a rookie, was caught a little off-guard, which wouldn’t have mattered had the Riders been penalized.

Though I’ve yet to see a replay, Saskatchewan’s extra man must have run off the field in time. The club wasn’t penalized and Winnipeg’s unsuccessful fake punt stood.

Botched call

The CFL’s command centre completely botched the call on Duke Williams’ 31-yard catch late in the fourth quarter to extend Saskatchewan’s final drive. The replay clearly showed that the ball hit the ground, though Williams probably should have been penalized for offensive pass interference anyway.

The overwhelming consensus on social media was that the catch shouldn’t have counted. It didn’t end up mattering — Saskatchewan was unable to convert on their final drive anyway — but it would have been a hotly-debated topic for years on the prairies had the Riders pulled out the late win.

Gone with the wind

The Riders won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, which made sense given the weather conditions. It was strange that Saskatchewan elected to receive to start the second half instead of taking the wind in the fourth quarter, giving that advantage to Winnipeg.

The forecast indicated that the wind was only supposed to get stronger as the game went on, though Craig Dickenson indicated after the game that he felt the wind didn’t end up being a huge factor. Fair enough.

Shaq attack

You have to wonder about Saskatchewan Roughriders’ receiver Shaq Evans and the status of his injured foot. An all-star in 2019, Evans finished the West Final without a catch or a target. His production fell off a cliff this year and he was invisible in the postseason.

Making history

Winnipeg finished undefeated at home for the first time since 1984 and are going to back-to-back Grey Cups for the first time since 1992-93.

Sunday’s game was the first West Final played in Winnipeg since 1972 and the fourth played between Saskatchewan and Winnipeg since the CFL was formed in 1958. I think it’s pretty neat that two of those meetings have come in the last two seasons — with respect to B.C., Calgary, and Edmonton, there’s something that just feels right about the league’s prairie rivals meeting in the West Final.

Living legend

Radio play-by-play man Bob Irving called the final game of his 47-year career on Sunday as the 71-year-old enters retirement. I think Ben Waldman of the Winnipeg Free Press described Irving’s voice the best this past week when he called it “soft and strong, animated yet subdued, gentle and authoritative.”

Sunday’s pregame ceremony unveiling him as the 2021 inductee to the IG Field Ring of Honour was interrupted by the Riders entering the field of play. I have no idea who was to blame for the timing issue, but I certainly hope the Riders didn’t interrupt the unveiling on purpose — that would have been classless.

The 2022 season won’t be the same without you, Bob. I don’t envy whoever takes over as the new voice of the Blue Bombers — your shoes are impossible to fill.

Strevolution

There was a group of shirtless fans wandering the concourse in Stetson hats and fur coats, outfits that were surely inspired by Chris Streveler’s outfit from last season’s Grey Cup parade. They were also carrying large printed signs bearing the image of Bob Irving’s face.

If any of those individuals are reading this: well done — those are some of the best game day outfits I’ve ever seen.

Snow problem

Shoutout to the staff members who were at IG Field before the crack of dawn to clear snow off stadium seats and entryways. It’s a thankless, painstaking job but it’s a critical part of game day.

The temperature at kickoff in Winnipeg was minus-10, feeling like minus-16. It’s this type of weather that reminds me of something I was told as a kid: every Bomber fan needs two jerseys: one that fits normally and one that fits over a parka.

A great day for the CFL

Sunday was an excellent celebration of the Canadian Football League. There was a nice big crowd at BMO Field, attendance was great in Winnipeg despite the frigid weather, both games generated plenty of buzz on social media, and I predict TSN’s ratings will be very strong for both games.

Don’t listen to anyone who blindly suggests that the CFL is dead or needs to merge with a second-rate American league. The CFL needs to evolve, grow, and change, but it’s far from dead. It’s thriving in many markets and there are real reasons for optimism moving forward.

Next up

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers will meet in the Grey Cup for the second consecutive year. O’Shea told the media that the team expected Hamilton would beat the Toronto Argonauts in the East Final, suggesting the Ticats were far better than their regular season record indicated.

Quarterback Dane Evans hasn’t started a game since Week 6, but you have to figure that he’ll start the Grey Cup after completing 16-of-16 pass attempts for 249 yards and one touchdown in a 27-19 win over Toronto in relief of Jeremiah Masoli.

Winnipeg dominated the 2019 Grey Cup despite entering the game as heavy underdogs. The Ticats will likely be the underdogs this year — my guess is by a touchdown — though they will be able to play in the friendly confines of Tim Hortons Field.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.