REGINA — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders meet for the first time in a Western Final since 1972, as two of the CFL’s most bitter rivals square off for a fourth time this season at Mosaic Stadium on Sunday.
Even those that are new to the rivalry have learned in as little as months what a win on Sunday would mean to fans of both teams.
“It’s crazy, it’s going to be a big factor,” said linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who signed with the Riders as a free agent after nine seasons with the BC Lions. “I kind of felt it when we played Winnipeg the first time here at home. I was going for groceries and I had 12 people come up to me wanting to take a picture, and the biggest question they asked was if we’re going to beat the Blue Bombers.
Saskatchewan took two of three regular season games, but the playoffs mark a brand new chapter for the two prairie rivals who battled all season to be the best in the West. While the Riders won 13 games to claim their first West Division title in a decade, the Bombers cooled off the second half of the campaign, struggling to a 4-5 record on the back nine.
A season-ending injury to Matt Nichols in Week 10 had a large impact, but the late-season addition of Zach Collaros has given Winnipeg new swagger. After back to back wins over Calgary, including a 35-14 road win in the Western Semi-Final, the Bombers look more like the team that was 8-2 through the first three months.
“It’s exciting, just to see the way our team is progressing, the way Zach stepped in with no hesitation — we didn’t drop the ball when it came to offence and stuff like that,” said defensive end Willie Jefferson. “When we came and everything got rolling and clicking, it made it easier for the defence.”
“That’s who he is,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “That’s what you would expect from him. We knew what we were getting when we got him. Highly competitive, intelligent, good team guy, able to fit in right away seamlessly.
“Any time you’ve got a guy who’s been in different systems and had success in different systems, they understand how to learn the next one. He came right to work, he knows exactly what he needs to get started. I’d say he came as advertised.”
For Collaros, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. After being traded from Saskatchewan to Toronto, then Toronto to Winnipeg moments before the trade deadline in October, the veteran has started two games, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and one interception.
Last week, his 71-yard touchdown to Darvin Adams — which traveled 40 yards in the air, beating one of the CFL’s top defensive backs in Tre Roberson in the process — was a pivotal play in the fourth quarter to give Winnipeg a two-score lead.
“It was a really big play in the game,” said Collaros. “A play we talked about during the week, we got a good look for it, Darvin ran his route perfectly and got a step there on his corner.”
Collaros isn’t the only quarterback the Riders must prepare for. Despite dealing with a foot injury, Chris Streveler was a big part of the Bombers’ game plan, running 13 times for a team-high 82 yards and a touchdown. With Nic Demski and Andrew Harris also part of the run game, Winnipeg ran for 195 yards against one of the CFL’s stingiest defences.
“They have a lot of weapons,” said Elimimian, who led the Riders with 88 tackles. “Paul LaPolice does a good job of getting guys in position to do what they’re good at and get defences off track. We saw it against Calgary, whether it was Demski or Streveler
“For us the key is to be physical and on assignment in terms of where we’re aligned. It’ll come down to physicality, they want to run the ball. For us it’s winning first downs and making them throw the ball on second and long. That’ll be a plus for us.”
The Riders might also opt to deploy a dual quarterback system, but for different reasons altogether. Cody Fajardo was under watch all week by the media, as the star quarterback and Most Outstanding Player finalist deals with an injured oblique muscle on his back.
Rookie Isaac Harker handled many of the first team reps in practice while Bryan Bennett is also prepared to play, but Fajardo has been named the starter.
“Cody had a full week of practice, he will be our starter in the game tomorrow,” said Riders head coach Craig Dickenson. “He’s shown that he’s healthy. He’s going to have some soreness and some stiffness, but he’s shown that he can execute and run the offence the way we need him to. We feel he’s going to be good.”
Fajardo has been a revelation for the Riders this season. Already on his third CFL team at age 27, he went from third-string, short-yardage quarterback to becoming one of the league’s best. This season he combined for 28 touchdowns and averaged a league best 9.1 yards per attempt, throwing only eight interceptions.
Just how much will the injury limit him?
“For me, that’s something I have to think about too — if I get out there and things aren’t going right, I have to be able to remove myself from the game,” said Fajardo. “It would be selfish of me to go out there and put my team at risk if I can’t do what’s asked by Coach McAdoo and our offence.
“I have to be smart and level headed with that decision,” he added. “Hopefully adrenaline takes over and I don’t feel anything and that’s my wishing, but I can’t base everything on that.”
The rematch of last year’s Western Semi-Final — a 23-18 win for the Bombers at Mosaic Stadium — could see a similar type of battle on Sunday. The Bombers’ run defence has put up historic numbers, allowing the fewest yards per game (64.2) since the 1995 Calgary Stampeders. Teams are running against the Bombers just 26 per cent of the time.
Saskatchewan, however, is unlikely to abandon the run, boasting one of the CFL’s most balanced offences, often putting the ball in the hands of William Powell, who doubled his previous high with 12 rushing touchdowns in his first season as a Rider.
“This is how they’re built,” said Dickenson of the Bombers. “You can see that when you look at their roster. Big, strong, physical, very good on special teams, very good at taking the ball away. They want to run the ball.
“When you give up 65 rushing yards a game all year and the next best is 95, that tells you all you need to know about them up front. Very physical. Their coach was a hard-nosed football player and he instills that in his team.”
Bombers running back Andrew Harris will also be motivated entering Sunday’s contest. The Winnipeg native is hoping to help his team end the CFL’s longest Grey Cup drought, dating back to the year 1990. Last season the Bombers were eliminated by Calgary in a Western Final that went down to the wire.
“I remember how I felt after that game,” said Harris. “There’s a picture that someone took that I’ve looked at a few times already and I could just see the disappointment and disgust in my face and, for myself, I’m using that as my motivation, I just don’t want that feeling again.
“Games affect players differently and I’ve talked to a few guys who were here last year about it and how we don’t want to repeat that situation. For me, sometimes it’s the negative stuff and the bad things that inspire me and get me going, and it’s definitely been a tool for me this week and I’m looking forward to this game.”
The Riders could be without receiver Shaquelle Evans, who will be a game time decision according to Dickenson. Evans is dealing with an injured foot that is suspected to have occurred during the team’s season finale. If Evans can’t go, Kenny Stafford will line up in his place. Jordan Williams-Lambert has been left off the team’s roster for Sunday.
Winnipeg will be without defensive back Jeff Hecht and receiver Lucky Whitehead, who have both been placed on the one-game injured list.
BY THE NUMBERS
6.1 – Yards per carry for Bombers running back Andrew Harris, the highest of his career. Harris has totaled 1,909 yards from scrimmage, including a league best 1,380 yards on the ground, just 10 yards shy of a career high.
26 – Rushing touchdowns for the Riders this season, the most in the CFL. By most measures the Bombers and Riders are the two best running teams in the league.
48% – Bombers’ run percentage on first down, the highest in the CFL. Winnipeg averaged 148 rushing yards per game, easily the most in the league in 2019.
294.4 — Yards allowed per game by the Riders’ defence, the best mark in the league. They’ve been equally stingy against the run and pass, ranking second in both categories.
AFI, Yare Media and the CFL
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