CALGARY — It’s been 35 years since the last time Winnipeg and Hamilton met in a Grey Cup, and on Sunday one of the league’s two longest active droughts will come to an end.
The storylines almost write themselves, as Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros looks to cap off his comeback with a Cinderella finish against his former team. Further than that, though, Sunday’s matchup is a clash between opposing philosophical extremes, a divide between air and ground.
Dane Evans, who entered the year as the backup to Jeremiah Masoli prior to his season-ending injury, has been the league’s most productive pivot since Labour Day. On the Winnipeg side, Andrew Harris had the best season of his career, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt and combining for 1,909 yards from scrimmage.
The Bombers’ run defence may be one of the best in CFL history, allowing just 64 yards per game — the lowest total since the 1995 Calgary Stampeders. Yet the Ticats prefer the sunny skies, where they’ve leaned heavily on the league’s top receiving duo of Brandon Banks and Bralon Addison.
Hamilton was the better regular season team, sweeping the two-game series and finishing with a 15-3 record. Yet the Bombers are hot, having won back to back road games in Calgary and Regina to advance to the Grey Cup.
Does anyone have an edge? CFL.ca breaks it down, position by position.
Zach Collaros has proven he is not afraid to challenge defences vertically, going straight for the heart of the CFL’s top-rated defence several times in the Western Final. Collaros has been steady, while the presence of a downfield passing attack has added a new dynamic to the Bombers’ offence. Still, no quarterback has performed better than Dane Evans since the start of September, and the sophomore — who turns 26 on Tuesday — didn’t shrink in the spotlight of his first career playoff game. Evans is advanced beyond his years.
The Ticats called an audible in the Eastern Final, calling on veteran tailback Cameron Marshall against the Eskimos. Whether it’s Marshall or seven-year veteran Tyrell Sutton, Hamilton has plenty of proven options at the position. It may not matter, as no one holds a candle to 2019 rushing champion Andrew Harris, who posted a career high 6.1 yards per attempt to go with 1,909 yards from scrimmage. Harris has been quiet throughout the playoffs so far, but is the best all-around back in the three-down game.
Combining for nearly 2,800 receiving yards this season, Brandon Banks and Bralon Addison are the engine that powers the Ticats’ league-leading offence. Banks is considered the favourite to win Most Outstanding Player on Thursday after putting up career highs in yards (1,550) and touchdowns (13). The Bombers didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver this season, though Darvin Adams has come on strong with 14 catches and 198 yards in two playoff games. In the end, add in a healthy Luke Tasker along with rookie Jaelon Acklin and the Ticats have the edge.
Chris Van Zeyl is a ratio-breaker at tackle, while Mike Filer and Brandon Revenberg form a dominant inside presence on the Ticats’ O-line. Add in Ryker Mathews, who’s barely been beat from his left tackle position, the the Tabbies boast one of the league’s most formidable units up front. With several new starters in 2019, the Bombers may not be as recognizable — though they’re no less impressive. Led by dominant tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, Winnipeg is easily the CFL’s best team on the ground, averaging 148 yards per game.
In a battle between two of the CFL’s most impressive defensive lines, Willie Jefferson is the tie-breaker. The first-year Bomber possesses a skill-set that is unique to the three-down game, leading the league with 16 pass knockdowns to go with 12 sacks and six forced fumbles. On the other side, Ted Laurent and Dylan Wynn form arguably the most dominant inside duo you’ll find in the league, with Wynn leading interior linemen with 11 sacks. Add in Ja’Gared Davis and his 13 sacks and you have a defensive front that has brought misery to all opponents.
Everyone knows about the Bombers’ success against the run, allowing just 64 yards per game in 2019 — the second-lowest in modern history. Adam Bighill and Kyrie Wilson have been a big part of that, combining for 124 tackles this season. Quietly, however, the Ticats have been stout on the ground of late as well, allowing 76 yards per game since Labour Day, among the league’s elite. With a career-high 98 tackles, Simoni Lawrence is in the midst of a career year, while Justin Tuggle pitched in with 80 tackles plus an interception in the Eastern Final.
With opponents avoiding the run against Winnipeg, the Bombers have faced a league-high 661 passing attempts this season. Their secondary has been up to the task however, owning a middling pass defence yardage-wise but also forcing 45 turnovers, second in the league behind Calgary. The Ticats’ secondary has been better, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 79.9 rating and 61.9 completion percentage — both league lows. The addition of shutdown corner Delvin Breaux from the injured list puts this unit over the top.
Sunday’s Grey Cup will see two of the league’s premier return aces square off, as Janarion Grant and Frankie Williams were leaders of their field in 2019. Grant led the CFL with 14.4 yards per return on punts along with three touchdowns, while no player had more 30-plus yard returns than Williams with 10. Williams averaged one yard better than Grant on kickoff returns. As a whole, with a combined 19 ‘big play’ returns between them, Grant and Williams are sure to make an impact, while Brandon Banks could also be involved.
A perfect 20-for-20 over his last six games, Justin Medlock has converted all eight of his playoff field goal attempts, including two from 43 yards away in the Western Final. While Ticats kicker Lirim Hajrullahu kicked the Grey Cup game winning field goal two years ago, Medlock has had no issues handling pressure situations throughout his nine-year career. Both players take on multiple duties in the kicking game, but Medlock deserves the slight edge going into Sunday, especially considering his recent success.