Three-peat thwarted: Blue Bombers upset by Argonauts in 109th Grey Cup (& nine other thoughts)

Photo: Arthur Ward/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Toronto Argonauts in the 109th Grey Cup at Mosaic Stadium on Sunday evening by a score of 24-23. Below are my thoughts on the game.

May the fourth be with you

The fourth quarter of the 109th Grey Cup featured one of the wildest finishes in the recent memory of the league. Ready for a quick recap? Here we go.

Janarion Grant set a Grey Cup record with a 102-yard punt return touchdown, Dakota Prukop threw an interception, McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Jackson Jeffcoat got injured, Javon Leake returned a punt for 44 yards, Brandon Banks took a stupid penalty, Chad Kelly ripped off a 20-yard run, A.J. Ouellette ran for his second touchdown, Zach Collaros threw a terrible interception, Andrew Harris was stifled on second-and-four, a facemasking penalty allowed Winnipeg to convert a third down, Greg Ellingson made a 24-yard catch along the sideline, and two field goals were blocked.

Did you get all that?

For a league that touts itself as a place in which anything can happen, the CFL fully lived up to the hype in Regina.

“That was nuts,” said Blue Bombers’ running back Brady Oliveira. “That’s CFL football for you. It’s always wild in the fourth quarter, especially the last three minutes. It’s crazy. Don’t leave your seat, don’t leave your TV because you never know what’s going to happen in the CFL game. I think it was an exciting game for the fans. I think it was a great game for the league.”

Oliveira finished the game with 15 carries for 82 yards and one catch for four yards. He was emotional after the game and sat at his locker fully dressed long after many of his teammates had hit the showers.

“It sucks that it’s over,” he said. “I love this team. I had so much fun this year, even the adversity that I faced early on. All these guys have my back. I just don’t want this (year) to be over.”

This was the first time the three-year veteran has finished the season without winning the Grey Cup. This was also his first Grey Cup as a starter as he was injured in 2019 and a backup in 2021.

Kicking yourself

Marc Liegghio was perfect in the first half, nailing a 45-yard field goal along with a one-point convert. Things changed in the fourth quarter as he missed a convert and booted a 37-yard punt to the middle of the field, helping the returner break contain.

“You never want a punt to land in the middle of the field. I think I just tried to put a little but more into it and that’s what happens. You just gotta let your leg do the work and put it outside the numbers,” said Liegghio.

The Western product had an opportunity to kick a 47-yard field goal with 54 seconds remaining, which likely would have been a game-winner. It was blocked by defensive end Robbie Smith, who had extended a Winnipeg drive with a facemasking penalty only moments before.

“To be honest, I’m not too sure right now,” said Liegghio when asked about the block. “I know as soon as I hit the ball it felt really good off my foot. I saw the line it was travelling before it got touched. I think it would have been a good field goal but obviously, the block happened. I’m not too sure with what happened. It just happened so quick.”

Liegghio’s miss on the convert will be a storyline because Winnipeg ended up losing by one point but that’s not entirely fair. Boris Bede finished the game three-of-six on his field goals, one of which was blocked. One of his misses went for a rouge, which means he cost his team five points. If he’d been perfect, Winnipeg would have been behind by six points on their final drive.

Where’s the M.O.P.?

Zach Collaros had arguably his worst game of the season, completing 14-of-23 pass attempts for 183 yards and one interception. He told the media after the game that he wasn’t affected by the ankle injury he suffered in the West Final.

“I thought they had a good plan. There’s some plays that you want to have back, just didn’t do enough to help the team win,” said Collaros.

“It seemed like we really couldn’t get into a rhythm offensively for most of it. We put together a couple of good drives but didn’t do enough to win the football game. It usually comes down to a couple plays and there’s certainly a couple we’d want back, but they played a great game.”

The offensive line struggled to protect Collaros at times, allowing four sacks. Geoff Gray appeared to have a particularly tough game at left guard working against Shawn Oakman, who is one of the league’s most dynamic interior defenders.

Even so, Collaros simply wasn’t nearly as effective as he was during the regular season. He came close to connecting with Dalton Schoen on a 47-yard deep shot early in the first quarter and narrowly missed Greg Ellingson on a midrange throw two possessions later.

The veteran passer wasn’t decisive enough and put the ball in harm’s way multiple times. He finally paid the price late in the fourth quarter when Henoc Muamba intercepted a pass intended for Dalton Schoen, who was well-covered. Rasheed Bailey was wide open on the play as the short option in the middle of the field.

“I’ve gotta do a better job to help the team win,” said Collaros.

At least he knows it.

Grant is great

Janarion Grant returned a punt for a touchdown for the second consecutive week, this time bringing it back for a Grey Cup record 102-yard score. It was easily Winnipeg’s best play of the game and one that should live on in championship lore despite the loss.

I spoke with Argonauts’ special teams coordinator Mickey Donovan on Thursday and he expressed tremendous respect for Grant, calling him the most dangerous return his team faced this season outside of DeVonte Dedmon. Now Grant is in the record books.

Poor play-calling

Winnipeg and Toronto made a number questionable play-calling decisions on Sunday and, frankly, I’m not sure which were more dubious.

The Blue Bombers pulled Zach Collaros for a number of regular passing downs in favour of Dakota Prukop. Prukop has executed run-oriented packages fairly well all season but was suddenly asked to throw the ball in the playoffs. He threw a pair of incompletions, including an interception to Shaquille Richardson deep in Toronto territory.

Collaros played poorly on Sunday but he’s still the league’s two-time reigning Most Outstanding Player and he’s certainly better than Prukop. Outside of short yardage situations, Collaros needed to be in the game no matter what. Voluntarily taking your best player off the field is foolish.

Toronto had a lot of success running the ball in the first quarter with Andrew Harris and A.J. Ouellette combining for seven carries for 47 yards, an average of 6.7 yards per carry. The tandem was sensational in the East Final and appeared to be primed for another big game in Regina.

The Argos called 15 passing plays in the second quarter, resulting in only seven completions. Harris and Ouellette didn’t touch the ball one, though Harris was targeted on a screen pass that fell incomplete. The club’s only running play of the quarter was a one-yard sneak by backup quarterback Chad Kelly.

Harris and Ouellette were no longer effective when Toronto went back to the run in the second half, rushing nine times for 32 yards combined. Had they stayed with the running game, it might have been a different story.

Empty seats

It was disappointing to see so many empty seats come game time at Mosaic Stadium. It’s understandable that fans were disappointed by the matchup but Saskatchewan is supposed to be the heartland of the CFL. This was the first Grey Cup at the new stadium and it should have been full.

A ton of tickets hit the secondary market this past week and there was speculation local fans might still use them if they went unsold, though that doesn’t appear to have been the case. The east grandstands were between 50 and 60 percent full, by my estimation. Here’s a photo taken late in the second quarter.

Crisis averted

I spoke to a pair of local fans at a meet and greet on Friday night who expressed their disappointment in Winnipeg’s success at Mosaic Stadium since the facility opened.

The Blue Bombers won the first regular season game ever played at the venue in 2017 along with its first West Semi-Final in 2018 and West Final in 2019. Had Winnipeg won on Sunday, the club would have completed the sweep of “firsts” in the new building.

The two fans told me that they would buy Argonauts jerseys to show their appreciation if Toronto won Sunday’s game. Given that he was named Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Canadian, I’d imagine they’ll opt for Henoc Muamba’s name and number. If the Argos lost, the two fans told me they would burn Mosaic Stadium to the ground.

(For legal reasons, I should clarify that these two individuals were speaking facetiously. They clearly have no intention of burning Mosaic Stadium to the ground.)

Speaking of Regina’s new facility, this week was my first opportunity to spend a meaningful amount of time at Mosaic Stadium and it fully lived up to its reputation. The amenities behind the scenes at Mosaic Stadium are far superior to IG Field, though I think the stadium in Winnipeg provides a slightly better viewing experience for fans.

I spoke to Roughriders’ president and CEO Craig Reynolds this week and he emphasized how helpful the construction of IG Field was in the planning stages of Mosaic Stadium. Every major construction project experiences problems and unforeseen issues, but the crew in Regina was able to better anticipate them by monitoring the construction in Winnipeg.

In the end, the debate over which stadium is better is probably irrelevant. The prairies are just lucky to have two phenomenal facilities, especially considering the outdated nature of their predecessors.

Paint-gate

The league made changes to the turf in honour of Grey Cup, adding a CFL logo at midfield and a team logo to both end zones. The issue is that the existing logos at Mosaic Stadium aren’t painted on the field — they’re sewn into the turf.

Crews painted the new logos first, which led to the bizarre image of a Blue Bombers logo superimposed over a Roughriders logo. The painters then added green paint to cover the existing logos, though they should have done at least one more coat as the logos remained somewhat visible on the field.

This might be a nitpick, but having the logos painted properly on the field is an important thing to get right for a championship game. The Grey Cup is supposed to be a spectacle. The field needs to be immaculate.

Going to the dogs

I’ve always envied veteran reporters who have a wealth of wild stories from their time covering the CFL. On Saturday, I got one of my own.

The press box at Mosaic Stadium was mostly empty in the early afternoon while the Argonauts were holding court at field level. I was busy working on a column when a police officer entered the room to guide a detection dog around the various workstations.

The dog trotted around accompanied by the officer, though I haven’t the faintest clue what they were hoping to find. It’s perfectly legal to own outdated laptops, chargers, and bottles of aspirin. Unless you’re a fresh pot of coffee or a box of cookies, the press room is a safe place to be.

Moments later, there was a loud clatter behind me. I turned to see the dog had pounced atop a desk, causing work bags and empty coffee cups to go flying. It had clearly detected something — undoubtedly a nefarious object risking the safety of the press.

The officer gently picked up the dog and sheepishly placed it back on the floor before completing the sweep. After they left, I looked to see what the dog had detected: it was a half-eaten pulled pork sandwich.

Next up

The Blue Bombers are entering the off-season off a loss for the first time since November 2018.

The club’s free agent list is substantial but not overwhelming. Zach Collaros already signed a three-year contract extension with the team last month, while Willie Jefferson is negotiating a potential extension as well. I’ll report the list in full over the coming days.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the league, the teams, and the countless volunteers who made this year’s Grey Cup possible. It was an excellent week of celebration around the game and the football community that we all hold so dear.

Finally, I would like to thank you all for following my work on 3DownNation. It is a pleasure to cover the CFL and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on your behalf and I look forward to a bright future. Cheers.

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