10 Plays that Made a Champion | Willie The Conqueror

Football can be a complicated game, with the Xs and Os, the arrows and lines that make up the diagram of a play as complex as an advanced mathematics formula. Countering that are those occasions when the game is as simple as a mano-a-mano battle of strength, of speed and of will.

And rarely does Willie Jefferson finish second in a one-on-one situation.

Fans of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers saw evidence of that in Jefferson’s first season in blue and gold, as the dominant defensive end was a difference-maker throughout 2019 and ultimately named the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

After the votes for that honour were counted – and just three days following his being properly feted at the CFL’s annual Most Outstanding Player Awards – Jefferson cemented that status in the 107th Grey Cup.

All of this brings us to the seventh instalment in our ’10 Plays That Made A Champion’ series – Jefferson’s strip sack of Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Dane Evans that was recovered by Adam Bighill and led to the game’s first touchdown by Andrew Harris.

As far as tone-setters go, it was about as subtle as a stiff uppercut to the mandible.

“That’s what won the Grey Cup: our front set the tone for the game,” said Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall in a recent chat for this series. “They couldn’t handle our ends Willie and Jackson (Jeffcoat) and they couldn’t handle Stove (Steven Richardson), Drake (Nevis), Jake (Thomas) and Biggie (Bighill) up the middle.

“The only thing I wish about on that play – and this is getting greedy – is I wish Biggie would have scored on it. That would have been the cherry on top.”

“The funny thing about that play,” added Jefferson, “is just before that I was flagged for roughing the passer and that ended up taking a sack away from Jackson (Jeffcoat).

“Me and Jackson still joke about that because there were times during the season where I’d have a guy and he’d come in and do something where it wasn’t called a sack. Or vice versa. It’s the little things, sometimes, where penalties come take away from the stat.

“But we felt that from the very beginning of the Grey Cup that it was going to be a defensive game. And with them having the No. 1 offence we knew it was going to have to be a defensive game for us. We were going to have to be big.”

The various storylines swirling around Harris heading into the game and his subsequent two-touchdown performance made him an easy pick for MVP of the 107th Grey Cup.

That shouldn’t overshadow the work of Jefferson, who had three sacks, two forced fumbles and two tackles and Jeffcoat, who had two sacks and a forced fumble of his own from the other defensive end spot.

In short, they brought extreme heat against a potent Ticats offence and an offensive line that featured two CFL All-Stars in left tackle Chris Van Zeyl and centre Brandon Revenberg – Van Zeyl was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman – while right tackle Ryker Mathews was an East All-Star.

“It IS mano-a-mano a lot of times out there,” said Jefferson. “The thing that Coach Glen (Young) and Coach Richie (Hall) said in the days leading up to the game is our defensive line had to win our one-on-ones. With Hamilton being the type of team they were and playing the way they did during the season, their offence was so strong doing one-on-one blocks. They knew what they could do, especially with all the explosive offensive talent they had. They felt their offensive linemen could win one-on-one blocks.”

“(Van Zeyl) is somebody I had played against numerous times,” Jefferson continued. “We had the awards a couple of days before the game and with him winning offensive lineman of the year and me winning defensive player of the year… it was a perfect set-up to see which side was going to be better in that game. I knew coming into that game I was going to have to play a little harder, do a little extra going against him.”

The Bombers finished the day with six sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions as part of a dominant defensive performance that, coupled with the work of the offensive line on the other side of the ball, represented a complete annihilation of the line of scrimmage.

“It didn’t matter what kind of protection they had, they couldn’t handle Jefferson and Jeffcoat,” said Hall. “A lot of our guys played great games, but those two were in another world. And then when they tried to run the ball our guys up front stopped them. There were times they had guys open, but because of the pressure Evans never got comfortable.

“Remember, the last time we played them they took it to us pretty good in Winnipeg (a 33-13 Ticats win on September 27). But those guys came out on Grey Cup Sunday and from the opening whistle they made a stand. There was a takeaway on the opening series and then we come back with not just a strip sack, but on the play before we destroyed the play with pressure, it’s just that there was a penalty.

“If you can’t protect the quarterback, I don’t care what plays you draw up, that makes it very hard on your offensive coordinator.

“Defensively our motto was ‘Start fast, finish strong,’” added Hall. “And they started fast. They exploded out of the gate.”

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