Jamie Douglas, Daniel Crump/CFL.ca
The matchup that fans across the country have waited all year to see in the West is finally upon us.
After establishing themselves early in the season as the West’s top-two teams and providing us with a fascinating three-game season series, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will host the BC Lions on Saturday in what has the potential to be an epic Western Final.
Saturday’s winner-takes-the-West showdown is chock full of everything you want to see when two heavyweight teams with Grey Cup aspirations collide.
These teams met three times this year, with the Bombers taking the season series in an overtime classic, playoff-like atmosphere in Week 18. Prior to that, they traded blowout wins (the Lions hit the Bombers with a 30-6 win in Week 3 and the Bombers clapped back in Week 9, trouncing the Lions 50-14).
So as they get ready to hit a huge stage on Saturday with a berth in the 110th Grey Cup on the line, what can we expect? We’ll hope for something that resembles that Week 18 encounter.
Big (ground) play VA?
One of the few knocks on the Lions this year has been their inability to establish the run game. The Lions finished the regular season dead last in rushing yards, with 1,391 (77.3 per game), despite being third in the league in net offence (6,682 yards). The Bombers, meanwhile, led the league in rushing yards with 2,503 (139.1 per game). Vernon Adams Jr. gave us something to think about in the Lions’ Western Semi-Final win, though. Adams was quick on his feet, taking seven carries for 54 yards and three rushing touchdowns, shrewdly picking his spots and finding holes in the Stampeders’ defence. It’s a taller order this week, but Adams could look to punch up a BC run game that’s tended to fall into the background this season. That could be due in part to our next storyline.
Receiver depth for days
Both teams boast incredibly deep receiving corps. BC has Keon Hatcher and Alexander Hollins, who both broke the 1,000-yard receiving mark this year. Jevon Cottoy had a career year with 807 yards and four touchdowns. There’s Lucky Whitehead, Justin McInnis and Dominique Rhymes, who fought through injury this year and still managed 535 yards with six touchdowns, good for the second-most on the team.
On Winnipeg’s side, team-leading receiver Dalton Schoen (1,233 yards) has been dealing with an ankle injury. As the Bombers hit the field later on Tuesday for their first practice of the week and injury reports start to roll in, Schoen’s status will be one to keep an eye on. While Schoen would be missed if unable to go, the Bombers have a ton of top end talent capable of filling that star player’s void.
It starts with homegrown talent, Nic Demski, who broke the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the first time in his career this season. Kenny Lawler rejoined the team this year after a season in Edmonton and the 901 yards and six touchdowns he recorded this season still manage to undersell the impact he can have on a game. Drew Wolitarsky and Rasheed Bailey are two players that could feature prominently on other teams and both are capable of stepping in and having a big day, if the game plan calls for Zach Collaros looks to them enough. Finally, Janarion Grant and Brendan O’Leary-Orange showed late in the season that they can make big contributions to the offence when called upon.
Saturday’s game is a meeting of some of the very best receivers in the league (not to mention two elite quarterbacks). Whether it’s one player’s Herculean effort, like Keon Hatcher’s nine-catch, 194-yard showing in the Western Semi-Final, or a balanced effort from a loaded receiving corps, there will be an elite collection of playmakers looking to make an impact on Saturday.
Two d-linemen intent on changing the game
One has had a record-setting season; one has had a CFHOF-worthy career. And while Mathieu Betts and Willie Jefferson won’t line up against one another on Saturday, they’ll be doing everything they can to out-perform each other and leave their fingerprints on their team’s ticket to the 110th Grey Cup.
Betts’ fourth season in the CFL saw him come roaring out of the gate with 10 sacks in his first six games, en route to a league-leading 18 on the year. That set a new standard for a National player, got Betts a West Division All-Star nod and made him the West’s nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
In his ninth CFL season and his fourth in the Bombers’ Blue and Gold, Jefferson has maintained the incredibly high standard he’s set for himself. His 11 sacks this year were one off of his career-high 12 that he had in 2018. Always a disruptor, Jefferson added three forced fumbles to go with the 21 tackles he had through 17 games.
From the start of his career in Edmonton, through his time in Saskatchewan and now having made himself at home in Winnipeg, Jefferson has shown that he’s capable of a variety of big plays on big stages. He can get to the quarterback, he can force the ball loose, he’s an interception threat and more than anything, makes full use of his six-foot-seven frame (and a wingspan that surpasses that). Jefferson led the league in pass knockdowns this year, with 13.
We’ll find out on Saturday whether it’s the emerging star or the established veteran that has the bigger impact.