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CALGARY — Grey Cups are not won on paper, but certain trends reveal the factors that could decide Sunday’s matchup between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
For instance, Ticats quarterback Dane Evans has averaged 35 passing attempts per start since Jeremiah Masoli was injured, a number he is likely to surpass against a Winnipeg team that simply forces opponents to throw the football. Hamilton’s aerial attack against the Bombers’ secondary is one matchup that will no doubt impact what happens in Calgary.
Another question will be whether Winnipeg can move the ball on the ground with Chris Streveler and Andrew Harris. The Ticats have allowed just 76 yards per game one the ground since Labour Day, including just 98 yards the last time these teams met — well below Winnipeg’s season average of 148 rushing yards per game.
The Ticats may have swept the season series, punctuated by a 33-13 victory on the road back in September. However, the arrival of Zach Collaros at quarterback alters the outlook of Sunday’s Grey Cup, as the veteran quarterback has yet to lose a start with the Bombers.
With that, what are the three biggest statistical storylines for Sunday’s game? CFL.ca breaks it down.
All signs point to plenty of big play opportunities for the Ticats on Sunday, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Big plays in the CFL are defined as rushes of 20-plus yards and passes of 30-plus yards on offence, and punt returns of 30-plus yards and kickoff returns of 40-plus yards on special teams.
No team made more explosive plays in the passing game than Hamilton this season, led by sophomore quarterback Dane Evans. Of the Ticats’ league-leading 31 passes of 30-plus yards, Evans was in on 21 of them, while the Hamilton receiving duo of Brandon Banks and Bralon Addison combined for 12. The Ticats did not relent in the Eastern Final, adding three more explosive passing plays on long completions to Addison (48 yards), Banks (47) and Coombs (34) as part of a 386-yard effort by Evans.
Considering the Bombers’ defence has allowed a league-high 32 plays of 30-plus yards through the air, these two trends provide an interesting backdrop for Sunday’s finale, with the promise of a high volume of passing attempts including plenty of shots downfield. As a whole, the Ticats’ offence has averaged a CFL-best 313 passing yards per game this season, as part of the top-ranked offence overall at 396 yards per game.
Despite Evans’ relative youth and inexperience — he celebrates his 26th birthday on Tuesday — the Ticats’ quarterback has been the league’s most productive pivot since the start of September, averaging 374 passing yards per game with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Look for him to test the Bombers’ secondary early and often.
It’s been about three years since Zach Collaros was considered an elite quarterback in the CFL, but the 31-year-old is showing signs of his old self after three starts with his new team. The Bombers’ quarterback is still in search of his first 300-yard game, but the underlying numbers suggest he’s trending in the right direction.
Since joining the Bombers mere moments before the trade deadline back in October, Collaros has completed 50 of 74 passes (68%) for 681 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. It’s a small sample size, and he hasn’t thrown the football a ton, but his 9.2 yards per attempt put him in elite territory considering Dane Evans, Cody Fajardo and Vernon Adams Jr. were this year’s co-leaders (among qualified passers) at 9.1.
Perhaps it remains unlikely that Collaros returns to being an elite CFL quarterback at age 31, but he sure played the part in Sunday’s Western Final win over Saskatchewan, challenging the league’s top-rated defence vertically all evening, including a 60-plus yard completion to Darvin Adams for the second straight game. If you looked closely enough, you might have seen glimpses of the quarterback that was well on his way to winning Most Outstanding Player before being injured in 2015.
Even the greatest of skeptics can’t argue with Collaros’ impact on the Bombers. With the support of the league’s most dominant rushing attack, Winnipeg’s new quarterback has compiled a quarterback rating of 109.1, and he’s done it against two of the CFL’s best defences in Calgary and Saskatchewan, winning all three of his starts.
Nothing levels a playing field in football like turnovers and bad weather. The latter shouldn’t have any impact in this year’s Grey Cup, with sun and a high of two degrees expected on Sunday. Turnovers, on the other hand, are sure to have a profound impact, no matter how painfully cliché it may sound.
While the Ticats ranked second in the CFL with a plus-eight turnover ratio in 2019, they failed to maintain a positive ratio over the second half of the season, finishing minus-three over the last nine games. Meanwhile, the Ticats threw the second most interceptions in the league, including 13 from Dane Evans.
With a Hamilton offence that is likely to put the ball in the air often on Sunday, the Bombers’ secondary will have opportunities to be aggressive and make plays. Led by the league’s interceptions leader in Winston Rose, who had nine, the Bombers finished second in the CFL with 24 interceptions and second in total takeaways with 45.
Including a 62-yard interception return by Rose in the Western Final, the Bombers won the turnover battle 3-0 vs. Saskatchewan, helping them secure a last-minute 20-13 victory on the road to advance to the Grey Cup. Winnipeg lost the turnover battle in a 33-13 loss the last time these teams met, and may need to flip the script in order to have a chance against the high-octane Ticats on Sunday.