Prairie showdown


The wait is finally over.

Following weeks of meaningless football the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are ready to defend their Grey Cup title. Champions in 2019, the last CFL season to be played before COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 campaign, the 11-3 Bombers welcome the Saskatchewan Roughriders to IG Field for the West final on Sunday.

The stakes haven’t been greater this year, with the winner punching its ticket to the 108th Grey Cup in Hamilton on Dec. 12.

“I will say it feels a little bit different. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t,” all-star safety Brandon Alexander said following practice Friday.

“The body feels different. Your mind feels different. The atmosphere does feel different because it is a win-or-go-home situation, and everybody knows that. The approach is a little bit different, not different in terms of doing everything different, it’s just amplified.”

With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on heading into Sunday’s West final.

1. Bad blood

You really couldn’t ask for a better pair of opponents. A game featuring of the CFL’s two most rabid fan bases, the Bombers-Roughriders rivalry has lived up to its hype for decades, built on each side possessing a healthy disdain for the other.

That was certainly the case in 2021, even with the Bombers winning both games in the season series handily, by a combined score of 55-17.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Saskatchewan Roughriders players rough it up at the Banjo Bowl in Winnipeg in September.

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Saskatchewan Roughriders players rough it up at the Banjo Bowl in Winnipeg in September.

After a 23-8 dismantling of the Roughriders in the annual Labour Day Classic, Saskatchewan headed to Winnipeg for the Banjo Bowl rematch the next week. While the Bombers won that by an even greater margin, 33-9, the score doesn’t tell the whole story.

Winnipeg had a narrow lead just before halftime, 12-9, when a goal line fight broke out late in the second quarter, resulting in two players on Saskatchewan getting ejected. When asked about the bad blood, no one on the Bombers wanted to add fuel to the fire.

With so much on the line Sunday, it’s guaranteed is both sides will be highly motivated to beat up on each other.

2. Harris watch

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Andrew Harris (left) takes a handoff from QB Zach Collaros during Blue Bombers practice Wednesday at IG Field.</p>
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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Andrew Harris (left) takes a handoff from QB Zach Collaros during Blue Bombers practice Wednesday at IG Field.

Speaking of guarantees, my feeling last week was that it was simply a foregone conclusion Andrew Harris would be back in the lineup. Now, I’m not so sure.

The Bombers star running back has been out since mid-October with a knee injury. What we know is he’s been working the last seven weeks with the Bombers training staff, preparing for a return for the playoffs. We also know he was back at practice for the first time on Wednesday, before being limited Thursday and not practising Friday.

The fact Harris hasn’t upped his level of participation throughout the week should be concerning. I still think he dresses Sunday, though it’s truly going to come down to a game-time decision.

The good news is even if Harris can’t go, the Bombers are in good hands with Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine. Both are Canadian, so there’s no need to mess with the ratio, and both have proven more than capable of carrying the ball, with each player recording at least one 100-yard rushing game in 2021.

Still, there’s something special that comes with No. 33 in the lineup, bringing an energy unlike any other player. His return would only add to what’s already going to be must-watch TV.

3. Something to prove

A season removed from being named the West nominee for the CFL’s most outstanding player award, Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo enters Sunday with his future in Riderville at stake.

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Amber Bracken

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Amber Bracken

Think that’s too harsh? Consider what Fajardo said this week following a 33-30 OT win over the Calgary Stampeders, where he threw for one touchdown and rushed for another, but also had four interceptions and had a 41.1 QB efficiency rating.

“People might have been calling for my head (if we didn’t win),” Fajardo said. “I’ve seen over and over again where if you don’t perform in high-pressure situations and you don’t find ways to win games, the organization moves on.”

Where Fajardo did shine against the Stampeders was in the run game, finishing with a team-leading 89 rushing yards. The Bombers are aware of his mobility, so Fajardo will need to display a strong arm, too, if he hopes to find a way to the Grey Cup.

If not, his future will likely be in question over the off-season. Especially with a few quality quarterbacks expected to hit the open market.

4. Built on consistency

The Bombers defence has been nothing short of spectacular this season. Winnipeg led the CFL in almost every meaningful statistical category, including allowing the fewest offensive points (12.9) against per game, the fewest offensive touchdowns (15), the fewest net offensive yards (281.3) per game, while forcing the most turnovers (38).

Indeed, the Bombers D has been built on consistency, giving them a chance to win every week. That can’t change on Sunday, and while getting to Fajardo will be key, the Roughriders have other weapons that will need to be kept in check.

Saskatchewan Roughriders running back William Powell fights for yards against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Mark Taylor

Saskatchewan Roughriders running back William Powell fights for yards against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Mark Taylor

The Bombers have yet to play against the Roughriders’ two best receivers this season. Shaq Evans broke his foot earlier in the year, keeping him out of the lineup for both games against Winnipeg, and Duke Williams signed with Saskatchewan in early October after spending a couple years in the NFL. Both are expected to factor in heavily.

They also have a bruising running back in William Powell. Powell hasn’t had a stellar season, but would certainly be a factor if Mother Nature forces the game to be settled on the ground.

The Bombers haven’t allowed a touchdown by the Roughriders this season. Their hope is they’ve saved the best for last.

5. Kickin’ it

With the forecast predicting a dip well below zero, as well as a chance for flurries, special teams should factor in significantly. And if there’s one area the Roughriders have an edge, it’s this phase.

The Bombers will roll with rookie punter Marc Liegghio and Sergio Castillo as their place kicker. Liegghio has struggled at times this season, but is no stranger to Canadian winters, having experienced many cold-weather games during his career at Western University. Castillo is from Texas but has years of experience in the CFL and earlier this week claimed he’s good with whatever conditions come.

That’s good news, as we saw in last week’s West semifinal — in which the Calgary Stampeders missed three field goals — a tough day at the office for a kicker can make or break a game. Ditto when it comes to punting for field position.



<p>Winnipeg punter Marc Liegghio.</p>
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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg punter Marc Liegghio.

The Bombers will also need to be sharp on their cover teams. The Roughriders have a dangerous weapon in returner Jamal Morrow, with the 26-year-old averaging 39 yards on two punt returns against Calgary, including one ran back for a touchdown. Morrow returned another kick to the house earlier in the win, but it was called back because of a penalty.

Winnipeg will counter with returner Janarion Grant, who, when he has open space, is as fast as anyone in the league. With the Bombers seemingly having the edge on offence and defence, a strong effort on special teams will go a long way to earning a berth in the Grey Cup.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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