HAMILTON — Mother Nature huffed and puffed and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats delivered several haymakers, but the resilient Winnipeg Blue Bombers stood their ground.
As a result, coach Mike O’Shea’s Bombers are back-to-back Grey Cup champions after an absolute thriller in the 108th version of the CFL championship game.
After a season lacking sizzle, the Bombers rallied from a 22-10 hole early in the fourth quarter to beat the host Ticats 33-25 in overtime before a Tim Hortons Field raucous and record crowd of 26,324 on Sunday.
“We believe in each other, we know what we have in that locker room,” Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill said. “We don’t have people who roll over. That was the most adversity we faced all year long … We’ve got a lot of guys that love each other and play for each other and will never quit.”
The Bombers, who beat the Ticats 33-12 in the 2019 Grey Cup (the 2020 season was cancelled because of COVID-19), are the league’s first team to defend the title since the Montreal Alouettes won in 2009 and ’10.
With gusts of more than 40 km/h dramatically affecting the game, O’Shea elected to take the wind in the fourth quarter after winning the toss and deferring.
The decision paid off.
Trailing 22-10 early in the fourth, the Bombers rallied to take a 25-22 lead before the Ticats tied it on an impressive late push.
“Down three at the half — we can be down a lot more than that and we’re still taking the wind in the fourth. It was blowing,” said O’Shea, who improved to 6-0 in Grey Cups (three as a player, one as an assistant coach, two as a head coach).
This truly was a three-phase victory for Winnipeg – with the offence, defence and special teams all making huge plays.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers celebrate their victory against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 108th CFL Grey Cup in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, December 12, 2021. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)
Winnipeg kicker Sergio Castillo made his fifth field goal in as many attempts from 45 yards out with 1:52 to go to give the Bombers a 24-22 lead. Winnipeg signed Castillo, who played for the NFL’s New York Jets last year, midway thought the season.
“We needed that veteran kicker to come in and give everybody the confidence they needed,” O’Shea said. “We’ve got good people in the building, we just needed that one little piece to get over the hump.”
A single on the ensuing kickoff made it 25-22 before the Ticats drove all the way to the Winnipeg six. But Bombers defensive back Deatrick Nichols knocked a pass away in the end zone, forcing Hamilton to settle for a short field goal to tie it.
Bombers star quarterback and 2021 CFL most outstanding player Zach Collaros, who threw two interceptions into the wind in the third quarter, then stepped up on the first possession of overtime. He threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Darvin Adams and then found Rasheed Bailey for the two-point conversion.
Winnipeg’s Kyrie Wilson intercepted Jeremiah Masoli’s pass after it was tipped twice on Hamilton’s possession to end the game.
“It’s the last game of the year, it’s the Grey Cup. Down nine, down 12, what are we going to do — pout about the last possession,” said Collaros, who also threw a huge 29-yard catch-and-run TD to Nic Demski in the fourth quarter and was named the most outstanding player of the Grey Cup.
“You’ve just got to keep swinging.”
— CFL (@CFL) December 13, 2021
The Ticats fell just short of becoming the fourth straight host team to win the Grey Cup after qualifying. Therefore, the CFL’s longest current active Grey Cup drought (Hamilton last won in 1999) will go on at least one more year.
The Ticats certainly put up a fight with Masoli replacing Dane Evans at quarterback (the reversal of last week’s East final) when the latter was hurt after a hit in the second quarter.
But the Bombers simply didn’t flinch in front of a hostile crowd, showing why they finished 11-3 and dominated the league this season. On a night when they couldn’t really get star running back Andrew Harris going and Collaros struggled to hit top gear, they still found a way to get it done.
“This one we were at the top of the food chain the whole way through, we were the team to beat. We showed we were the team that couldn’t be beat,” Bighill said. “We had to come to work every day humble to earn that opportunity to keep that top spot because everybody was chasing us. Everybody had a circle on that calendar.”
In the end, the Bombers won a nail-biter and CFL fans got a much-needed fantastic finish after a challenging year.
“Just to the way we won it, those are things you write in the movies,” Castillo said. “The team is down and they keep on coming back. You couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”
Collaros, concussed here in 2019 as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders before being traded twice that same year (to Toronto and then Winnipeg) and also a former Ticat, may have summed it up best.
“Two great teams, two great organizations, the wind. Throw that into the mix for the Grey Cup — wouldn’t have it any other way.”