Bombers survive self-inflicted wounds


After a thrilling 21-17 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Sunday night’s West Division final, Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill proudly wore his Grey Cup ring from 2019 when speaking to the media.

Bighill brought it to IG Field and put it at the top of his locker so he could see it as he prepared to hit the field.

“I brought it as a reminder for what we’re going to play for. It’s a special time of year. This is where you want to be, to have an opportunity to go play in another Grey Cup. So, when the playoffs come, this is what I think about and so that’s why I had it with me today,” Bighill said post-game.

No, it wasn’t a perfect game by the Bombers. In fact, you could argue that it was their worst showing of the season. But when you have a team that has completely bought in and has talent across the board, you can still find ways to win when you’re not playing at your best. That was the story of the West final and now Bighill, and the majority of his teammates, have the chance to add another championship ring to the collection.

But their best is something they’re going to need this Sunday in a rematch of the 2019 Grey Cup. The Bombers meet the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the top prize in three-down football and this time, the Tabbies have the luxury of playing in their own house — Tim Hortons Field.

The coming days will see plenty of ink devoted to the last game of the CFL season, but before we dive into all the storylines surrounding the Grey Cup, let’s revisit the West Division final with five takeaways.

1. Six turnovers?!

Riders defensive end Micah Johnson couldn’t believe it.

It was brought to his attention after the game that the Bombers turned the ball over six(!) times. Saskatchewan was plus-four in the turnover category on the night.

“That’s crazy. The football gods were on their side today… There’s really no explanation for that… Usually if you go up plus-one, your chances (of winning) are significant. Anything over plus-two, you’re supposed to win that game,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s right and the numbers back it up.

The Bombers defence bailed out their offence by limiting the amount of points that Roughriders could score off of turnovers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The Bombers defence bailed out their offence by limiting the amount of points that Roughriders could score off of turnovers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The CFL has been tracking turnover data since 1962 and since then, only one team has ever won a playoff game with a turnover ratio of minus-4 or worse (the 1982 Ottawa Rough Riders).

Five of the Bombers’ turnovers came in the first half, but the defence bailed them out and held the Riders to 10 points off the errors.

“You come in at half after giving the ball away five times, and you’re down three, with this group — we’ve been down three before,” said head coach Mike O’Shea on Sunday.

“If you just forget about how you’re down three or why you’re down three, forget about trying to project what you should be up or what the score should be, and you just focus on the fact that, ‘Hey, we’re just down three. Let’s go.’ And I think our guys did a great job of that. Moving on very quickly at half-time, from all the crap.”

The turnovers, or “the crap” as O’Shea put it, were a mix of bad luck, bad decision making, and overall strong play by the Riders’ defensive unit. There were three interceptions thrown by Zach Collaros, fumbles by receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Rasheed Bailey, and a failed rushing attempt on a third down play by punter Marc Liegghio in the third quarter (the Bombers thought the Riders had an extra man on the field but they didn’t at the time of the snap). One of Collaros’s interceptions came in the first quarter on a throw to Nic Demski in the end zone. The former Manitoba Bison bobbled the ball before Riders defensive back Ed Gainey grabbed it.

Whatever the reasons may be, it was uncharacteristic as the Bombers turned the ball over only 20 times in 14 regular season games.

2. “The ruling on the field stands.”

If the Riders had scored on their final drive to win the game, this play would’ve gone down as one of the most controversial in CFL history.

It was third-and-four and Saskatchewan had the ball at their own 26-yard line with less than three minutes left to play. Quarterback Cody Fajardo tossed up a prayer to Duke Williams and the receiver came down with it for a 31-yard gain. Or at least, that’s what the refs believed.

The play was reviewed and it looked pretty obvious in the replay that the tip of the ball hit the ground, but the command centre saw it differently and the ruling on the field stood.

The decision was a head-scratcher to say the least. If the Bombers didn’t stuff out the Riders drive six plays later to keep the score at 21-17, the CFL would’ve had quite the fiasco on their hands.

3. Speaking of Duke Williams…

The freezing temperatures didn’t stop the Bombers-Riders rivalry from heating up.

There was some pushing and shoving at the end of the first half and according to the Bombers, it all started with Williams poking safety Brandon Alexander in the eye.

Saskatchewan Roughriders receiver Duke Williams. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Saskatchewan Roughriders receiver Duke Williams. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

“It just reiterates that they felt they had to do extra to try to win this game. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many things with Duke over the last couple of years where he’s doing that extra stuff. Everyone thinks he’s a great player but, if he cut that out, a lot of people will respect him a lot more,” Bighill said.

“At the end of the day, my focus is on my guys, peel back, get into the locker room and focus on what we need to focus on and beat them on the field. At the end of the day, we can’t take a stupid penalty and hurt ourselves. So, I think we did a good job of that and the victory for us is not in retaliation but in going to the Grey Cup.”

Bomber fans were upset with the Riders before kickoff. There was a pregame ceremony for Bob Irving, the legendary voice of 680-CJOB who was calling the final game of his remarkable 47-year career, as he was being inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club’s Ring of Honour. Just as Irving stepped behind the podium on the field and began to speak, the Riders ran out of the tunnel and onto the field. The boo birds came out in full force as Bomberland wasn’t too happy about Irving getting interrupted.

Labour Day and the Banjo Bowl are always must-see, but next year’s battle of the Prairies could be more intense than ever.

4. Trouble in para… er, Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo gets up after getting sacked by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the second half in Winnipeg, Sunday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo gets up after getting sacked by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the second half in Winnipeg, Sunday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Is Cody Fajardo the answer in Riderville?

He was the breakout star of the 2019 season and was named the West Division’s Most Outstanding Player nominee, but in 2021, the 29-year-old University of Nevada product took a step back.

He completed 70 per cent of his passes for 2,970 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, but it was in the post-season where Fajardo’s numbers really took a dive.

The Riders beat the Calgary Stampeders 33-30 in overtime in the West Division semifinal, but Fajardo threw four interceptions in the process. Considering the opponent and the extreme weather, Sunday’s West final in Winnipeg wasn’t exactly an easy situation to have a bounceback performance, but the Riders’ defence did everything they could to give their quarterback a chance and he responded by being average at best.

On one hand, you can point the finger at Fajardo and question whether he’s worth paying over $500,000 next season, which also happens to be the final year of his deal. On the other hand, he was working with an offence that didn’t have a single West Division all-star this season. He’s also taken the Riders to the West final in his first two years as a starter.

“I think people sometimes forget I’m only in my second year as a starting quarterback. If you look around the league, there’s a lot of guys who have started multiple years, especially the top-tier guys in this league,” Fajardo, who’s been in the CFL since 2015, said on Saturday.

“People hold me to a higher standard, which I’m OK with, because I think it brings the best out of me, but I’m still learning like everybody else was in their early years. Even though I am a veteran in this league, I’m still just young and green behind the ears as a starting quarterback.”

No matter what side you’re on, 2022 will likely be a make or break year for Fajardo in the land of watermelon heads. And just to add a bit more pressure, Regina hosts next year’s Grey Cup.

5. What a night for Harris

Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris rushed 23 times for 136 yards and a touchdown Sunday against the Roughriders.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris rushed 23 times for 136 yards and a touchdown Sunday against the Roughriders.

What’s left to say about Andrew Harris at this point?

It’s hard to believe that a 34-year-old running back coming off a knee injury would be the best player on the field, but that was the case on Sunday.

Harris, a game-time decision after practising only once in the past seven weeks, rushed 23 times for 136 yards and a touchdown. Micah Johnson said Harris was the difference in the game.

“Too many seven-, eight-yard runs. We gave up too much in the run game,” Johnson said.

“(Harris) is a good, patient runner. He’ll make you pay if anybody pops their gap or if he finds a gap through patience in the backfield. There were too many times where we were a gap short. It didn’t really matter how we were going to face it, they were going to gain yards with it. Hats off to them, they did some good things schematically.”

Riders head coach Craig Dickenson doesn’t buy the story about Harris. After the final whistle, Dickenson told reporters he believes Harris was 100 per cent and that the team has just been resting him in recent weeks.

Can’t blame Dickenson, or anyone, for thinking that, but regardless if that’s accurate or not, it doesn’t change anything. Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine are solid tailbacks, but the Bombers are that much more dangerous when No. 33 is carrying the ball.

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

 

 

 

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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