- FREE AGENCY
REGINA — Winnipeg and Saskatchewan clash for a fourth time this season in Sunday’s Western Final, with the winner earning a trip to Calgary for the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw. Last year, the two sides met in the semi-final, with Winnipeg advancing after a 23-18 road win.
Once again Mosaic Stadium will be the scene, as the Riders try to reach their first Grey Cup since winning on home turf in 2013 and the Bombers hope to put an end to the worst championship drought in the CFL dating back to 1990.
Sunday’s division final features a number of close matchups on both sides of the ball, from veteran running backs William Powell and Andrew Harris to the league’s premier pass rushers in Willie Jefferson and Charleston Hughes.
The Riders took two of three regular season contests, but the Bombers are hot, coming off a stunning 35-14 win over the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon. Who has the edge? CFL.ca breaks it down, position by position.
Cody Fajardo has emerged from third-string quarterback to become the West Division Most Outstanding Player. Often considered a scrambler, Fajardo has been just as effective with his arm, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt — tied for the highest in the CFL. Though Fajardo has been stellar since day one, Zach Collaros gives the Bombers production they’ve been missing since Matt Nichols was injured. Collaros and Chris Streveler complement one another in a unique and dangerous way. The Riders have the edge, but only if Fajardo is healthy enough to play.
With more than 1,900 yards from scrimmage and a 6.1-yard rushing average, Andrew Harris is in the midst of a career season. He’s a perfect fit for the Bombers’ offence, which deploys him in multiple ways but also deploys Nic Demski and Chris Streveler enough to prevent teams from keying on Harris too much. On the other side, William Powell‘s 12 rushing touchdowns double his previous career high in his first year with the Riders, leading the CFL’s third-ranked rushing attack. Still, no team has come close to matching the Bombers’ run production.
The Bombers’ receivers are better than they get credit for — it’s hard to be productive on a team that favours the run game so much. Darvin Adams is still one of the most explosive receivers in the league, as evidenced by his 71-yard touchdown in the semi-final against Stamps corner Tre Roberson. Rasheed Bailey and Kenny Lawler are also dangerous. In the end, the Riders have the edge, led by Shaq Evans, who led all qualified receivers with 18.5 yards per catch, along with Kyran Moore, who is credited with a league-best 120.3 quarterback rating on passes his way.
The Riders and Bombers boast two of the deepest, most reliable offensive lines you will find in the three-down game. Winnipeg and Saskatchewan have allowed 35 and 37 sacks respectively — both in the top four in the league — and are the first- and third-ranked teams rushing the ball. Dan Clark, Philip Blake and Brendon LaBatte form a veteran inside trio for the Riders, even pushing former first round pick Dakoda Shepley to the bench. In Winnipeg, Stanley Bryant is widely regarded as a top tackle opposite Jermarcus Hardrick. This one is just too close to call.
Led by Charleston Hughes and his league-leading 16 sacks, the Riders have gotten to the quarterback 56 times this season, tied for the most in the league with Edmonton. Hughes and A.C. Leonard are an impressive duo, powering the CFL’s stingiest defence with just 294 yards allowed per game. The Bombers’ defensive line specializes against the run, allowing just 64.2 yards per game on the ground — the lowest mark since 1995. Yet Willie Jefferson has also made life difficult on quarterbacks with 16 knockdowns, 12 sacks and six forced fumbles.
Once known as ‘Team 100’ in their days roaming the defence in BC, Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill go head to head for a chance to play in the Grey Cup. Bighill’s 61 tackles are the lowest of his career since becoming a starter, but he and Kyrie Wilson have helped lead an historic run defence in Winnipeg. On the other side, Cameron Judge is up for Most Outstanding Canadian after a 61-tackle, five-sack season, while Elimimian leads the Riders with 88 tackles in 15 games. Another tough call between two closely-matched defences.
A former CFL defensive back, Riders defensive coordinator Jason Shivers has picked up the baton from Chris Jones, leading arguably the league’s most athletic and talented defensive secondary. Mike Edem has enjoyed a career year at safety, while Loucheiz Purifoy, Nick Marshall and Ed Gainey are versatile, proven and highly-gifted defenders. The Bombers’ secondary has handled itself well, despite a high volume of attempts as opponents avoid running the ball. After shutting down Bo Levi Mitchell, it would seem Richie Hall has found the right mix on the back end.
Despite featuring exciting playmakers like Marcus Thigpen, Loucheiz Purifoy and Kyran Moore, the Riders have struggled to make big plays in the return game, ranking second last with just six ‘big play’ returns. Despite the Riders averaging a CFL-best 25.4 yards on kickoff returns, the Bombers have been more explosive, led by Janarion Grant and his three touchdown returns this season — including one against Saskatchewan. Special teams are unpredictable at the best of times, but the Bombers’ 13 big play returns indicate consistent success in 2019.
Despite 12 of his punts resulting in single points, Riders punter Jon Ryan has still managed to pin opponents inside the 10-yard-line on nine different occasions — tied with Justin Medlock. No matter who has the edge punting the ball, the Bombers have been decisively better on field goals, with Medlock converting on 86 per cent of his tries compared to the Riders’ 78 per cent. Medlock is hot coming into the Western Final, hitting all four of his attempts against Calgary with a long of 52 yards.