Grey Cup Preview: What you need to know about Alouettes vs. Blue Bombers

Arash Madani and Justin Dunk discuss Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros' performances in the post-season over the past three years, why the Montreal Alouettes' chances at winning the Grey Cup will come down to the defence, and more.

On paper, the first Winnipeg Blue Bombers-Montreal Alouettes Grey Cup contest in history feels like a mismatch.

Of course, many were saying the same thing last week about the Alouettes-Toronto Argonauts East final — and we all know how that turned out.

The upstart Als, after going winless against the three top teams in the CFL (Toronto, Winnipeg and the B.C. Lions during the season), stunned the 16-2 Argonauts last week to earn a spot in Sunday’s title tilt in Hamilton.

Montreal has momentum, too, having won seven in a row.

This will be the Als’ toughest test yet as they face a Blue Bombers team that has made reaching Grey Cups a habit. However, the Blue Bombers aren’t fully healthy as star receiver Dalton Schoen (ankle) and linebacker Adam Bighill (calf) are listed as game-time decisions

Here’s a look at the 110th Grey Cup.

The Schedule

Sunday, 6 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. PT at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

The Odds

Winnipeg was favoured by 8.5 points by FanDuel as of Saturday.

At Stake

The Blue Bombers, denied a Grey Cup three-peat last year when the Toronto Argonauts blocked a late field goal, are looking to win their third championship in the last four years.

The Alouettes won in their last two Grey Cup appearances in 2009 and ’10. They were the last team to win back-to-back Grey Cups before Winnipeg in 2019 and ’21 (the 2020 season was cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic).

Pre-Game and Halftime

Ottawa singer/songwriter and four-time Juno winner Jamie Fine plays a before-game set.

Longtime California rockers Green Day play at halftime ahead of their 2024 tour with the Smashing Pumpkins.

The Weather

Looks good. It is expected to be about -1 C on Sunday evening with just a 10 per cent chance of precipitation. The winds also are expected to be light (11 km/h), which will please the kickers at a notoriously windy venue.

Playoff History

The Blue Bombers (14-4 in the regular season) easily have been the top team in the league since acquiring star quarterback Zach Collaros in a trade-deadline deal with the Argonauts in 2019. Battling injuries at the time and not playing in Toronto, Collaros turned around his career with Winnipeg and is the leader of one of the best runs in CFL history.

The Blue Bombers beat the B.C. Lions 24-13 in the West final last week, marking the second year in a row Winnipeg ousted B.C. in the contest before the Grey Cup.

The Alouettes (11-7 in the regular season) are back in the Grey Cup for the first time since 2010, ending the league’s longest drought, after beating the league-leading Argos 38-17 in last week’s East final.

Montreal lost to Toronto 34-27 in last year’s East final.

The Alouettes are in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, while the Blue Bombers are making their seventh consecutive appearance and are playing in a CFL-high 29th Grey Cup game.

Season Story

The Blue Bombers took a hit in the power rankings early when they lost 30-6 to visiting B.C. in their third game. There were also tough overtime losses in Ottawa and Saskatchewan in the pre-Labour Day portion of the schedule.

But the Blue Bombers won five of their final six, including a key overtime contest in B.C., to secure top spot in the West again — giving them the all-important playoff bye and home-field edge for the division final.

The Alouettes were ownerless when free agency started in February, forcing general manager Danny Maciocia to be creative as many of the top available players weren’t interested in the uncertainty.

Pierre Karl Peladeau bought the team in March and Maciocia delivered him a winner.

The Alouettes were streaky all year. The current seven-game win streak was preceded by a four-game losing streak and, before that, a four-game win run.

“I vaguely know what this team has gone through from change of ownership to almost not having a team, (and a) new head coach,” said star receiver Austin Mack, a great off-season signing by Maciocia. “You see all these changes. You see a city that just wants to thrive and wants to support a team. But if the team isn’t good, nobody’s going to be there for them.

“So to go from a great start to a bad losing streak to back up to even .500 to lose again for four straight weeks and now we’re on this nice run … For us to bring this back to Montreal, I think it would be huge for the city.”

The Coaches

Mike O’Shea (Winnipeg) vs. Jason Maas (Montreal)

O’Shea wasn’t buying the comparison to CFL coaching legends at the meet-the-coaches press conference earlier this week.

“That just sounds goofy,” O’Shea said when asked if he has reached the legendary status of guys like Hugh Campbell, Don Matthews and Wally Buono.

“I hold those coaches in very high regard. I’ve had interactions with all of them and I would never think about myself in the same conversation as those guys, ever.”

O’Shea can think whatever he wants, but fact is the former star linebacker has put himself at that level.

No coach has won three Grey Cups in four years since Campbell’s five-in-a-row Edmonton dynasty from 1978 to ’82.

O’Shea is 6-1 in Grey Cups as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

The native of North Bay, Ont. is the CFL’s longest-serving head coach, having been in the role since 2014. He is 96-62 in regular-season play.

Maas, a former quarterback, is appearing in his first Grey Cup game as a head coach in his first year at the helm of the Alouettes. He won two Grey Cups as a player, though was not the starter for either game with Edmonton.

Maciocia hired Maas after the Saskatchewan Roughriders fired him as offensive co-ordinator after last year’s missed-playoff campaign.

It’s rare for a fired co-ordinator to get a shot as a head coach the next year, but it has proven to be a great hire.

The fiery Maas is in his second go-around as a head coach after guiding Edmonton from 2016 to ’19, losing in three division finals and missing the playoffs in the other year. He is 50-40 as a head coach in the regular season.

O’Shea (special teams co-ordinator) and Maas (quarterbacks coach) worked together on Scott Milanovich’s Grey Cup-winning staff in Toronto in 2012. Also on that staff were Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach Orlondo Steinauer and Edmonton Elks head coach Chris Jones.

The Quarterbacks

Zach Collaros (Winnipeg) vs. Cody Fajardo (Montreal)

This is a rematch of the 2019 and ’21 Western finals when Fajardo was with Saskatchewan and lost both games.

Fajardo got the top job in Saskatchewan in 2019, after Collaros, then a Roughrider, suffered a head injury in the season opener against Hamilton. Collaros was then traded to Toronto and, months later, dealt to Winnipeg.

Collaros, 35, began his CFL career in Toronto in 2012 before enjoying some productive but injury-marred years with Hamilton from 2014 to ’17 and then joining Saskatchewan in 2018.

[brightcove videoID=6341398879112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

It looked like his career was on the verge of being over before he guided the Blue Bombers on a surprising Grey Cup run in 2019. He was the CFL’s most outstanding player in 2021 and ’22 and remains one of the league’s top quarterbacks.

Collaros is 2-2 as a starter in the Grey Cup. He is making a record fourth consecutive start as a QB in the championship game.

Fajardo, 31, also began his CFL career in Toronto on the practice roster in 2015. He saw limited time with the Argos and the Lions in 2018 before getting his shot with Saskatchewan in 2019.

After leading the Roughriders to two straight appearances in the West final, Fajardo struggled last year with a Saskatchewan team that collapsed down the stretch in a Grey Cup-hosting year. Fajardo, playing behind a bad offensive line, was removed as starter with two games to go.

Fajardo joined his former offensive co-ordinator, Maas, in Montreal when he signed as a free agent with the Als — who lost QB Trevor Harris to Saskatchewan.

Once again, Fajardo was hit a ton this season — he’s probably spent more time on the ground than any pro quarterback the past two years. There is no doubting his toughness.

While Fajardo isn’t considered by many to be one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, seven other starting QBs would love to trade spots with him right now.

Four Matchups to Watch

Blue Bombers defensive line vs. Alouettes offensive line

Blue Bombers defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat are the co-leaders among active CFLers with three sacks apiece in Grey Cup games.

They’ll be poised for more against an Alouettes offensive line that has struggled to protect Fajardo all year.

[brightcove videoID=6341334876112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

The Als QB was sacked seven times last week against Toronto. Meanwhile, the Blue Bombers had nine sacks versus B.C.

Those numbers need to change dramatically if the Als have thoughts of pulling off an upset. Not having Bighill leading the overall defence certainly could affect Winnipeg, but they still have the big edge in this matchup.

Blue Bombers returner Janarion Grant vs. Alouettes kick returner James Letcher Jr.

Two of the most dangerous players in the league will be in the special-teams spotlight.

Grant had a Grey Cup record 268 return yards last year against Toronto, including a championship game record 102-yard punt return.

Letcher was promoted from the Als’ practice roster in Week 17. Down the stretch, he had a 125-yard return on a missed field goal for a touchdown against Edmonton and a 99-yard TD on a punt return against Hamilton.

The five-foot-seven Letcher, who is the league’s smallest player, added a 105-yard kickoff return for a TD last week against Toronto.

Blue Bombers running back Brady Oliveira vs. Alouettes’ defensive front

The Blue Bombers haven’t missed a beat with Oliveira taking over for fellow Winnipeg native Andrew Harris the past two years.

Oliveira ran away with the CFL rushing title and was a dominant force in the first half last week against B.C., going for 101 yards, before being held to eight yards on seven carries in the second half.

You would think the Als will have watched the tape of that game closely to see what worked and what didn’t work for the Lions.

If the powerful Oliveira gets momentum, it opens things up for Collaros, star receiver Kenny Lawler and the rest of the passing attack.

The Als haven’t been good against the run in recent weeks. That needs to change for Montreal to have a chance.

Blue Bombers WR Kenny Lawler vs. Alouettes secondary

Lawler is one of the top big-play threats in the league. He averaged 18 yards a catch this season, third in the CFL.

But the Alouettes were second against the pass this season. They picked off Argos star quarterback Chad Kelly four times last week.

[brightcove videoID=6341362408112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Led by homegrown safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, the Als will likely feel they can match up well against the Blue Bombers passing attack — especially with longtime sack specialist Shawn Lemon challenging Collaros up front and Schoen out or limited.

Final Notes

The last two Grey Cups in Hamilton have been quite entertaining. Two years ago, the Blue Bombers beat the hometown Ticats 33-25 in overtime. That was the first Grey Cup in Hamilton since 1996 when the Doug Flutie-led Argos (with O’Shea as a linebacker) edged Edmonton 43-37 in a snowstorm at the old Ivor Wynne Stadium. The 1996 game is considered one of the best Grey Cups in history. … Next year’s Grey Cup is at BC Place. The 2025 championship is in Winnipeg. … Blue Bombers kicker Sergio Castillo was five-for-five on field goals in the 2021 Grey Cup in Hamilton. Perhaps that will give him some confidence after he missed two of five field goals last week against B.C. … Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters’ contract expires after this season. He has said he wants to return, but has also acknowledged the deal has to get done quickly after the game. If a deal isn’t worked out, the University of Guelph product should be in high demand. … Also worth watching in the weeks to come is the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ coaching search after they fired Craig Dickenson following the season. Milanovich, who became offensive play-caller in Hamilton midway through this season, is believed to be a strong candidate. Blue Bombers offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce also could be in the mix.


Winnipeg 28, Montreal 13

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.