- Free Agency
REGINA — It came down to one throw in the final seconds, and when the ball hit the turf, the collective air came out of the once raucous crowd at Mosaic Stadium.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers stunned the home crowd and the rival Saskatchewan Roughriders with multiple stops in the closing minutes of the game, making one final stand to finish the game and move on to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.
“I think everyone is a little bit (down right now),” Riders head coach Craig Dickenson said post-game. “Give credit to Winnipeg, they did what they had to do to win. But that locker room is hurting right now. We felt like we played good enough to win and it’s difficult to put it into words.”
Coming into the contest, the Riders had a few question marks on the offensive side of the ball, the biggest one being MOP-nominee Cody Fajardo. The 27-year-old missed the Riders’ season finale against Edmonton after suffering an oblique injury in practice. He was named the starter, but Dickenson said that if he wasn’t able to go for the entire game, Isaac Harker and Bryan Bennett would see time under centre.
Star receiver Shaq Evans was also a game-time decision after suffering a toe injury against the Eskimos in Week 21. After working out in front of Dickenson and receivers coach Travis Moore, the 28-year-old was cleared to play just hours ahead of opening kick-off.
Saskatchewan was in the game throughout. Despite scoring just seven points in the first two quarters, they went into the half down by a single score. Their defence was able to shut down the double-threat on the ground of Andrew Harris and Chris Streveler, but Zach Collaros would able to find some open targets in the passing game, with a 63-yard completion to Darvin Adams being the biggest dent in the Riders’ armour all game — A roughing the passer call also tacked on 15 yards.
The Riders’ offence still wasn’t able to get into the end zone in the third quarter, but they remained within seven points with a frame still to go.
They had every chance to narrow the gap down the stretch. The offence found itself in the red zone on three occasions in the fourth quarter alone. The first trip down, a miscue in the backfield saw third-string pivot Bryan Bennett get sacked by rookie Jonathan Kongbo for a loss of 4 yards, forcing the Riders to settle for a 13-yard field goal from kicker Brett Lauther.
With just over 2:30 to go in the contest, the Riders were knocking on the door once again. Following a 22-yard connection between Fajardo and Kyran Moore, they were set up at the Winnipeg 3-yard line. A William Powell rumble got them to the goal line, however, Fajardo was stuffed on the QB sneak on the goal line, resulting in a massive turnover on downs.
Luckily for Saskatchewan, that wasn’t the last opportunity they had. The defence would get the ball back into the hands of Fajardo in the final minute. After once again marching the offence down the field, an incomplete pass to Shaq Evans paired with a sack would give the Riders one last shot to tie the game from the Winnipeg 8. Fajardo chucked a ball up for Moore across the middle, but the ball would catch the crossbar, ending the game in the process.
“As an offence, we didn’t deserve to win that game,” Fajardo said. “We got down inside the five three times and couldn’t score a touchdown. When you play like that, you don’t deserve to win.”
Despite his injury, Fajardo still had a big outing, completing 65 percent of his passes for 366 yards for the game. He was able to get all of his main receiving targets involved but nobody was more involved than Moore, who finished with 119 yards on nine receptions. Naaman Roosevelt also had 87 yards on seven catches.
Fajardo also disclosed that he played through two torn muscles in his oblique in order to play in the Western Final.
“I just wanted to do everything I could to help this team win,” Fajardo said. “It doesn’t matter what the injury is, you’ve got six months off after this to heal it and be ready for training camp. So I was going to be ready to play through it regardless.”
The Riders certainly weren’t picked to be in the position they were in at the end of the season. They had a first-year head coach and, after the first quarter of the season, a first-time starter under centre. Both individuals ran with the opportunity in their respective roles, as Dickenson was named the West Division’s nominee for the CFL Coach of the Year award while Fajardo earned a Most Outstanding Player nomination. Both individuals will be in Calgary for the 2019 Shaw CFL Awards, however, they were hoping to be after more than just that hardware on their trip to Alberta.
“My heart just hurts for a lot of those guys that I’ll never get the opportunity to play football with again,” Fajardo said. “Guys will be going to different teams, unfortunately, but that’s just how the CFL is. This team will never be the same and that’s what hurts the most, that this is it for us.”
Heading into the offseason, the Riders can hang their hats on winning the West Division for the first time since 2009. They also won 13-plus games for the first time since 1969. Evans earned his first career West Division All-Star nod while Fajardo, Dan Clark, Charleston Hughes, Solomon Elimimian, Derrick Moncrief, Mike Edem and Jon Ryan were also named divisional All-Stars in 2019.
Additionally, Cameron Judge is also up for the Most Outstanding Canadian Award next week.
Despite the loss in the Western Final, the positives do outweigh the negatives in 2019. The team will be adding some more pieces to a roster that proved it is among the best in the entire CFL.
Still, this defeat will linger in the minds of Dickenson, the players and the fans for the entire offseason.
“I didn’t say much because I didn’t have a lot to say. I did thank them for the effort and the heart they showed — not just this game but all year,” Dickenson said. “Pats on the backs to guys that played through pain and injury and gave us everything they had. The last thing I told the guys was that the sun is going to come up tomorrow. Tomorrow’s a new day, and as bad as we feel now, it’s going to get better and there’s no shame in a battle well fought.
“I was proud of them.”