Blue Bombers persevere to set up Grey Cup rematch vs. Tiger-Cats

Andrew Harris ran for 136 yards and one touchdown as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers held off the Saskatchewan Roughriders 21-17 as they advance to Grey Cup.

WINNIPEG — It would have been easy for Zach Collaros to throw up his hands in the air and get discouraged.

After all, he’d driven the Winnipeg Blue Bombers down the field on each of the first two possessions and done his part to ensure his team found its way into the end zone in Sunday’s CFL West final.

Instead of watching his team build an early two-touchdown advantage after a pair of impressive drives, the quarterback was probably left in disbelief by a bobbled ball by Nic Demski in the end zone that led to an unlikely interception and a fumble by Drew Wolitarsky at the two-yard line that turned into a 94-yard recovery going the other direction.

But that’s not the way that Collaros rolls.

He wasn’t about to feel sorry for himself and he was quick to look for solutions and for ways to lead his team to victory.

So, no this will not go down as an offensive explosion for Collaros, but thanks to a stout defensive effort and an impressive ground attack led by the return of running back Andrew Harris from a knee injury, the Blue Bombers are heading back to the Grey Cup after earning a 21-17 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday before a raucous crowd of 31,160 at IG Field.

“There were some things that happened where there were some turnovers but nobody panicked in any phase of our team,” said Collaros, who finished the game 17-of-21 for 229 yards, with one touchdown (to Rasheed Bailey) and three picks. “(Coach Mike) O’Shea came in and gave us a little talk, obviously not rah-rah or anything, just told us to be ourselves. We were able to do that.”

The remarkable thing is that Collaros had only one pass attempt hit the ground and that came on a drop by fullback Mike Miller.

The three other misses ended up in the hands of an opponent, including two ill-advised passes — one into coverage and the other caused by pressure when he was trying to throw the ball away but put it into the hands of linebacker Nigel Harris.

That first interception came at the end of an impressive drive to open the game and should have been a touchdown for Demski, who lost the handle and deflected the ball right into the waiting hands of Ed Gainey.

However, when his team needed him most, the West nominee for the Most Outstanding Player award delivered a couple of important strikes on methodical drives that put Winnipeg ahead.

The first of those was an outstanding grab by Kenny Lawler late in the third quarter as he was falling to the turf and the other was a Darvin Adams completion early in the fourth that extended a drive.

One of the feel-good stories coming out of the game was the return of Harris, a Winnipegger who had been plagued by a knee injury for the past seven weeks.

Although he was officially listed as a game-time decision and his only full practice came on Wednesday before he suffered a setback, Harris wasn’t about to miss out on an opportunity to play in front of his hometown crowd with a spot in the Grey Cup on the line.

Harris, who was the MVP of the 2019 Grey Cup, played the role of a bulldozer in this one, pacing the offensive attack with 23 rushes for 136 yards, averaging nearly six yards per carry.

And these weren’t easy yards either, as many of them came with Harris dragging the pile along with him.

Earlier this week, Blue Bombers offensive lineman Pat Neufeld called Harris the heartbeat of the team.

On Sunday, Harris did his part to provide an emotional lift.

When he wasn’t in the backfield providing protection or running the ball ferociously, there was Harris running up and down the sideline, trying his best to get the fans into it as the defence pushed for a stop.

Harris recognized the importance of playing in a West final against the team’s biggest rival and as he’s done so often during the course of his career, he raised his level of play on the grand stage.

“Definitely a memorable one for the fans and for this organization,” said Harris, who was limited to seven games during the regular season after suffering the knee injury following a touchdown against the Edmonton Elks on Oct. 16. “I’ve been in this league for a long time and played a lot of snaps. I know that it’s win or go home in these situations. There’s a certain attitude, a certain stigma, a certain feeling that you get in playoff time. I never want to go home in these situations. I want to give it all that I have. That energy, that enthusiasm, that fire in your belly just elevates and your play kind of comes out after that.”

Harris was quick to credit the play of the offensive line and also shared his appreciation for those on the defence.

“It means that we’re resilient and we’ve got thick skin,” said Harris, who finished with 145 all-purpose yards and scored on a one-yard touchdown run. “There’s no quit in our team. We didn’t give up, we didn’t falter. We came in at halftime and really just looked around and said ‘hey, what are we doing here guys?’ We were just making small mistakes, little things. We definitely secured our emotions and came out in the second half with a different attitude.”

Speaking of that vaunted defence, the Blue Bombers had some extraordinary performances from the defensive dozen this season.

But it was the collective unit that delivered what was mostly a masterpiece in this game — with the exception of a couple of missed tackles on a 67-yard catch-and-run for Duke Williams.

However, the defence was the biggest reason the Blue Bombers faced only a three-point deficit at halftime, despite a whopping five turnovers in the opening two quarters.

In the final minute of the fourth quarter, with the Roughriders putting a drive together much like they did a week earlier to defeat the Calgary Stampeders, the Bombers defence came up big again.

On a third-and-three, Blue Bombers defensive back Nick Taylor knocked down a pass that was intended for Mitchell Picton.

That was the exclamation point for a defence that kept Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo in check — especially in the running game as the fleet-footed pivot was limited to 21 yards on six rushes.

Speaking of impact plays, Blue Bombers defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat each finished with two tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

But Winnipeg has things to work on before next week’s Grey Cup in Hamilton against the host Tiger-Cats.

In addition to the three interceptions, the Blue Bombers had a couple of fumbles that were forced by good defensive plays.

Punter Marc Liegghio failed to convert on a botched fake in the third quarter as he was trying to catch the Roughriders with too many men on the field, and the Blue Bombers finished with a six-pack of giveaways.

For a team that prides itself on ball security, that didn’t sit well with O’Shea.

The Blue Bombers know full well they’ll need to do a better job on the ball security front.

“Absolutely. It’s a good lesson. There’s a couple things to take away from that,” said O’Shea. “One is just move on and focus on the next play. Just understand the situation and move on. And two, that we have to play cleaner, or it’s not always going to look like that. They trust each other as a team and they have each other’s backs, and that’s very important. That gets tested, don’t get me wrong. That gets tested in a game like this. But if I looked back at how they passed this test compared to other teams I’ve been associated with would fare on that test, it was amazing. And not just the outcome. I’m talking about how they figured it out and stuck together and got going.

“I don’t feel lucky, if that’s what you’re asking. I mean, we’ve got a good defence. And we know Sask took the ball away and our defence held them in check. So it’s not good fortune. That’s hard work and preparation, guys going out there with the right mindset saying, ‘I love this opportunity,’ not ‘Woe is me, oh my gosh, we turned the ball over.’ They step on the field and go, ‘This is awesome. Let’s go. Make our teammates proud.’”

Instead of lamenting an upset loss that would have haunted them throughout the off-season, the Blue Bombers overcame the adversity presented to them and will now have the opportunity to extend their reign as champions.

Great teams find a way even when they might not be clicking on all cylinders and the only thing that matters right now to the Blue Bombers is that they found a way to extend their season.

There are no style points at this time of year, just a recognition they’ll need to be sharper next Sunday.

“I can’t really explain it. It’s not like us. It’s unexplainable and it’s inexcusable,” said Harris. “We’ve got to be better. All parties need to be better and everyone on offence needs to be better.

“The ball is the Cup. If you don’t have the ball, you can’t win games and you can’t win the Grey Cup. So, we need to have the ball in our hands, to secure it and hold onto that and keep it for long drives.”

The Grey Cup is a rematch of the 2019 event, although this time the Tiger-Cats will be on their home field — which should only add to the intrigue.

“It means everything because it’s the only goal we set out to do,” said Blue Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill. “This is such a special group of guys that put in such a huge amount of work, collectively, for each other. No egos. No Me’s and no I’s. It’s all we’s and for each other. Our locker room is something special. It’s something that I love and value so much and I know all the guys do, too.

“Because it’s such a good feeling that we lay it out there on the line for each other and we believe in each other, and we know we’re going to get it done and we’re going to leave it all out on the field. Defending the Cup is right where we want to be, and our hard work has got us to this point.”

As Harris was departing the field waving a massive blue flag with a W on it and handed out a few high-fives with fans in the crowd, you got the sense he would like to be part of another celebration.

If that’s going to happen, you can expect Harris to find himself in the middle of the action once again.

When asked if the Tiger-Cats might have a score to settle dating back to the result in 2019, Harris ended his press gathering with two words that served as the equivalent of a mic drop.

“Let’s go.”

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