For the W: Late goal line stand sends Winnipeg Blue Bombers to Grey Cup

REGINA — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will play in their first Grey Cup since 2011, after a late goal line stand preserved a 20-13 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Western Final on Sunday.

Zach Collaros led a 107-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter, while Justin Medlock added four field goals, helping the Bombers silence a sold out Mosaic Stadium crowd of 33,300. Winnipeg will take on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw on Sunday, Nov. 24 in Calgary.

The Bombers led by 10 points in the fourth quarter, but Mercy Maston‘s tackle on Riders quarterback Cody Fajardo at the one-yard-line on third down stopped a potential game-tying touchdown with 2:37 left in the game.

Fajardo would get one last chance, but Winnipeg safety Brandon Alexander had a late pass knockdown while a third down throw with no time on the clock struck the crossbar of the upright, clinching a Bombers victory.

Kenny Lawler scored the game’s only touchdown late in the opening quarter, while Winston Rose had a 62-yard interception return in the third quarter of a game that Winnipeg led almost from start to finish.

Collaros was an efficient 17 of 25 for 267 yards and a touchdown, while Darvin Adams had a team-high 93 receiving yards for Winnipeg. Riders receiver Kyran Moore led the game with 119 receiving yards on nine receptions in a losing effort.

After a week of uncertainty due to an injured oblique, Fajardo started and finished the game at quarterback for the Riders, throwing for 366 yards on 27 of 41 passing. He rushed for 23 yards and was intercepted once.

Fajardo put his arm to the test early, throwing a strike to Naaman Roosevelt on the slant for an 11-yard pickup inside the Winnipeg 50 on the game’s opening drive. The Bombers’ defence answered with a sack from Drake Nevis, eventually leading to a punt single, but it was an encouraging start for Fajardo who completed his first two attempts and also sustained a hit.

Facing the CFL’s stingiest defence, Collaros and the Bombers went after the Riders vertically from start to finish on Sunday. After a deep shot to Adams fell incomplete, Collaros connected with Nic Demski for a 56-yard pass that would have put the offence inside the 10. But Demski was called for offside, negating the long gain and forcing Winnipeg to punt.

After two punts per side, the first game-changing play came on fumble by William Powell. The Riders’ running back had the ball knocked loose by Alexander, and it was recovered by the Bombers’ Steven Richardson at the Saskatchewan 34. The result was a 33-yard field goal by Medlock, giving the Bombers their first lead of the game, 3-1.

A 58-yard punt by Jon Ryan, followed by an illegal block against Winnipeg, pinned the Bombers at their own three. But their aggressive offence paid off, as Collaros found an open Adams, who beat man coverage for a 63-yard gain. Two plays later, Collaros connected with an open Lawler for a 26-yard touchdown, extending the Bombers’ lead to 10-1 late in the first quarter.

Collaros finished the opening frame with 113 yards and a touchdown on 5-of-6 passing, while Fajardo struggled to get in a rhythm, completing just three of seven attempts. The Riders punted on four of their first five drives and fumbled on the other, amassing just 34 yards of offence and two first downs.

While Fajardo’s early struggles continued into the second quarter, Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill made him pay the toll physically. The Riders’ pivot had to absorb two big hits in a row before the team’s fifth punt of the opening half.

With the first half winding down, the Riders’ offence suddenly came to life, ignited by three receptions from Roosevelt and two more from Shaq Evans, who was a game time decision due to a foot injury, deep into Winnipeg territory. However, Fajardo’s streak of six straight completions would come to an end, resulting in a 13-yard field goal by Brett Lauther to make it a 10-4 game.

The Bombers added a punt single with 19 seconds remaining, taking a seven-point advantage into the break.

Any momentum the Riders gained before halftime was squandered early in the third quarter, as the Bombers moved right into scoring range on a 42-yard pickup by Demski. However, the Saskatchewan defence tightened the screws, eventually forcing a 13-yard field goal following a nine-play, 63-yard drive.

Saskatchewan answered with a 42-yard field goal from Lauther, his second of the game, to stay within a touchdown, 14-7.

As Fajardo continued to find his rhythm, a 31-yard completion to Powell along the sideline put the Riders right back within striking distance. However, Fajardo’s next pass fell short of the intended target and into the hands of Rose, the CFL’s 2019 interception leader, who ran the ball back into Rider territory.

The Bombers would settle for Medlock’s third field goal of the game, a 43-yarder to make it 17-7, while Saskatchewan answered right back with a 13-yarder to restore a seven-point deficit with 10 minutes remaining.

With a trip to the Grey Cup at stake, the Bombers’ offence wasn’t about to ease up. Collaros continued to attack the Riders’ defence vertically, this time finding Drew Wolitarsky for a 34-yard gain down to the Saskatchewan 41. Medlock’s fourth field goal of the game would restore a 10-point lead for the road team.

Trailing by two scores, the Riders needed a big play, and fast. A 45-yard catch-and-run by Cory Watson prolonged hope, setting up a 33-yard kick by Lauther to make it 20-13 with 6:19 remaining.

A quick defensive stop later and the Riders would get their biggest play of the game thanks to some special teams trickery. As Marcus Thigpen split for the other side of the field, Medlock’s punt landed in Nick Marshall‘s hands on the far side with nothing but open space in front of him. Marshall’s 58-yard return set Saskatchewan up inside the Winnipeg 40.

The Riders came within inches of scoring on a dive to the end zone by Powell, who was ruled down at the one after a second down carry. Then, on third and goal from the one, Fajardo was immediately swarmed by a sea of Bombers. Defensive back Maston was credited with the tackle.

One possession later, Saskatchewan was allowed one final opportunity to equalize after Fajardo’s fumble was ruled an incompletion following an automatic review. Fajardo threw incomplete on second down, setting up third-and-10 with 27 seconds remaining. At that point, Moore made an acrobatic grab off a deflection from Marcus Sayles to sustain life in the Riders’ season.

A knockdown by Alexander set up a last-gasp, third-and-eight play, but Fajardo’s pass struck the crossbar, sealing a 20-13 victory for Winnipeg.

In a battle of two of the CFL’s most productive ground games, both Powell and Andrew Harris were held at bay. Powell finished with 48 yards on eight carries with a fumble while Harris was limited to 41 yards on 10 carries. Powell added 52 yards on three catches through the air.

Despite a slow start, the Riders wound up having the better day offensively, piling up 442 yards and 22 first downs compared to just 322 yards and 14 first downs for Winnipeg. In the end, however, the Bombers won the time of possession battle, while Saskatchewan failed to find the end zone, relying on four field goals from Lauther and a punt single for all their points.

For the Bombers, the win marks a second straight year they’ve eliminated their prairie rival from the post-season, after a 23-18 win over the Riders in the 2018 Eastern Semi-Final, also at Mosaic Stadium. Winnipeg looks to end the CFL’s longest active Grey Cup drought, which dates back to 1990.

The Riders, meanwhile, face a disappointing ending to an otherwise positive season, which saw them claim their first regular season West Division title in a decade, finishing with a 13-5 record.

After victories over Calgary and now Saskatchewan, Winnipeg will try to become the first third-seeded team to win a Grey Cup since the Ricky Ray-led Edmonton Eskimos in 2005.

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