Blue Bombers run to third straight Grey Cup appearance in win over B.C. Lions (& nine other thoughts)

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions by a score of 28-20 in the West Final on Sunday in front of 30,319 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Championship defence

Winnipeg’s defence was sensational on Sunday, forcing four turnovers and limiting the Lions to 28 rushing yards and 25 minutes of possession. B.C.’s inability to move the ball along the ground was never more apparent than near the end of the third quarter when Antonio Pipkin was stuffed on third-and-short for a turnover on downs.

Winnipeg sacked Nathan Rourke twice late in the game, though they didn’t seem keen on rushing him through most of the contest. The defence routinely dropped eight players back into coverage with the front-four working to prevent the young quarterback from scrambling outside of the pocket.

The strategy worked: not only did Rourke record only two carries, he was forced to hold onto the ball as his first and second reads were often unavailable. He finished the game with 300 passing yards, though 154 of them came in the final ten minutes of the contest as Winnipeg focused solely on preventing big gains.

The Blue Bombers got big plays from all three phases of the game — more on that below — but its defence was the primary reason they’re heading to a third straight Grey Cup. B.C. scored 20 points but the defence was only at fault for 10 of them: seven came off a fumble by Janarion Grant, two were scored on a return by Terry Williams, and one was scored on a rouge by punter Stefan Flintoft.

Collaros is OK

Zach Collaros left Sunday’s game late after he appeared to twist his right leg on a second-down run late in the fourth quarter. He received attention on the trainer’s table before getting up and throwing with backup quarterbacks Dru Brown and Dakota Prukop, though he did not return for Winnipeg’s final offensive possession.

The league’s reigning Most Outstanding Player spoke to the media after the game and made it clear that he will start next week’s Grey Cup, though his leg didn’t feel great in the moment. He walked with a slight limp (if any) while entering and leaving the press room and seemed to be in good spirits. Head coach Mike O’Shea indicated that he is not concerned about the injury.

I’m sure that watching Collaros leaving the field caused a number of local fans to remember when Kevin Glenn broke his arm late the East Final in 2007. Coincidentally, the young quarterback who replaced Glenn in that year’s Grey Cup, Ryan Dinwiddie, is the head coach of the team Winnipeg is scheduled to play next week.

Collaros had a modest game by his standards, completing 14-of-20 pass attempts for 178 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. He found Dalton Schoen for a touchdown on Winnipeg’s opening drive but threw three passes into harm’s way early and paid the price on the last one as Marcus Sayles intercepted it in the end zone.

The 34-year-old is expected to be named the league’s M.O.P. for a second straight year in Regina next week but he certainly didn’t take over the game on Sunday. Fortunately, that’s what Winnipeg’s running game was able to do.

Running to Regina

Jordan Williams told the media on Saturday that the top priority for B.C.’s defence was to stop the run and force Winnipeg’s offence to become one-dimensional. They failed to accomplish that on Sunday as the Blue Bombers rushed 31 times for 173 yards and one touchdown.

Winnipeg native Brady Oliveira led with way with 20 carries for 130 yards, though he had a touchdown negated by a holding penalty. His rushing total set a new single-game career-high and he was ecstatic postgame as he expressed his desire to honour his teammates and bring the Grey Cup back to his hometown for a third straight year.

Janari-on the move

Janarion Grant muffed a punt return early in the first quarter after he failed to properly field the ball. B.C. took possession at Winnipeg’s two-yard line and punched it in for a touchdown on a quarterback sneak on the following play.

Ball security (or a lack thereof) is the only reason that Grant is playing in the CFL. He dressed for two games as a member of the Baltimore Ravens in 2018 and fumbled twice, which cost him any potential future he might have had down south.

His speed is elite. His vision is elite. He makes defenders look silly. He just has to hold onto the damn ball.

That’s exactly what Grant did early in the second quarter when he returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown, reversing field brilliantly near B.C.’s bench. If you’re looking for an X-factor heading into next week’s Grey Cup, it could very well be Grant. Toronto allowed a league-worst 12.0 yards per punt return during the regular season along with one return touchdown.

Roughing the kicker

A huge swing in momentum occurred early in the first quarter when Tanner Cadwallader and Brian Cole blocked a B.C. punt. Winnipeg was originally set to take possession deep in Lions’ territory but Cadwallader was penalized for roughing the kicker following a review by the officials.

It turns out that the CFL changed the rule for roughing the kicker a few years ago. Under the old rule, a defender was permitted to strike the punter so long as they first made contact with the ball. Defenders are still allowed to hit the punter after making contact with the ball, though they may not contact the punter’s “plant leg” (ie. non-kicking leg). This is why Cadwallader was penalized.

The word “plant” doesn’t appear in the league’s official rulebook. It also doesn’t contain a comprehensive definition for roughing the kicker that I could find. When you select “roughing the kicker” under the rulebook’s list of penalties, it simply links to a general definition of unnecessary roughness.

I’m not criticizing the rule — after all, player safety is important. Punters deserve to be protected. It’s just unfortunate that this rule change wasn’t clearly displayed in the rulebook, which is what led to confusion among fans and members of the media on during Sunday’s game.

Nate isn’t great

Nathan Rourke made his much-anticipated postseason debut on Sunday and struggled early, throwing the ball erratically on B.C.’s two opening possessions. He eventually settled down somewhat, though he never resembled the award-winning player he was early on this season.

Much has been written about Rourke’s future and the possibility of him getting an opportunity to play in the NFL next season. If there was any doubt regarding how much he cares about succeeding in the CFL, one needn’t look further than how emotional Rourke was following Sunday’s loss. He wept in Bryan Burnham’s arms after the game and appeared on the verge of tears when speaking to the media.

Head coach Rick Campbell was complimentary of how Rourke handled the game, reminding the media that Rourke is still only 24. Not many players that young are asked to carry the weight of an entire franchise at that age. Heck, he’s a decade younger than Zach Collaros and McLeod Bethel-Thompson who are expected to start next week’s Grey Cup.

In my opinion, the Lions didn’t do enough to set Rourke up for success on Sunday from a personnel standpoint. James Butler wasn’t 100 percent healthy coming into the game and appeared to get nicked partway through the contest. He had only four touches in the second half, which simply wasn’t enough given that he was the only running back B.C. dressed for the game.

It’s bizarre that B.C. doesn’t have more organizational depth at running back. David Mackie, a talented fullback out of Western, ran for 90 yards and a touchdown early this year against Toronto, but wasn’t given any work beyond that. Clearly, B.C. needs to find a way to dress multiple running backs next season, especially when the weather starts to turn cold. They have an elite receiving corps but every offence needs to be at least somewhat balanced.

If he remains in the CFL long-term, it’s matter of when — not if — Rourke will win a Grey Cup. He’s that good. This simply wasn’t his year.

Convert woes

Marc Liegghio missed two convert attempts on Sunday, including an especially costly miss in the third quarter. Terry Williams returned the attempt 126 yards for two points, making the game 25-13. It was a three-point swing that came at a time when Winnipeg was looking to cement its lead. It was also the first time a player returned a missed convert for two points in CFL postseason history.

It should be noted that Liegghio went two-for-two on his field goal attempts, including a 44-yard attempt in the first quarter. O’Shea didn’t express any concerns about his team’s kicking game when speaking the media, which remains consistent with what he’s said all year.

‘B.C. sucks’

The “B.C. sucks” chant has been a staple at games in Winnipeg for as long as I can remember. It certainly lacks creativity but you have to appreciate the chant for being clear and concise. There’s no way to misinterpret “B.C. sucks.” The meaning behind those words are plain as day.

I parked my car at the University of Manitoba two hours before kickoff and the first thing I heard when exiting my vehicle was a nearby tailgate chanting “B.C. sucks.” The chant returned during Winnipeg’s penalty woes in the first quarter and again during key points of the second half.

Remembering 2002

B.C. last visited Winnipeg for a postseason game in 2002 when they met in the West Semi-Final. It remains one of the club’s most memorable games of this century as the teams jawed back and forth in the media for days leading up to the game. The Blue Bombers got off to an early seven-point lead and blanked the Lions the rest of the way, winning by a final score of 30-3.

The game was also memorable because a fan ran onto the field in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter and attacked Eric Carter, an all-star defensive back who ended up playing for Winnipeg two seasons later. The drunken idiot inebriated patron quickly found himself on the ground being kicked by members of B.C.’s defence. Miraculously, he did an interview a week later in which he revealed that he wasn’t seriously hurt.

Video of the incident is on YouTube and it’s highly entertaining. Chris Walby provided excellent commentary of the skirmish, while a brief shot of an exasperated Milt Stegall on the bench is priceless. It also remains unclear why Stegall doesn’t appear to have aged in the 20 years since this video was recorded.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are heading to the Grey Cup for the third straight season, though this time they’ll meet a new opponent in the Toronto Argonauts. Andrew Harris returned from injury to rush for 42 yards and a touchdown for the Boatmen in the East Final, meaning he will face his former team on the CFL’s biggest stage next week.

I’ll be in Regina all week to cover all the action leading up to the 109th Grey Cup, so be sure to check for my work here at 3DownNation along with my Twitter page.

This also marks the first time that Winnipeg has played in three consecutive Grey Cups since the league’s official inception in 1958, though they did so on four different occasions before that. The club went 4-8 over these appearances, which came in three-year runs from 1937-39, 1941-1943, 1947-1949, and 1957-1959.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.