WINNIPEG — In the midst of a franchise-shaping run of success, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have a new never-been-done before milestone. For the first time in franchise history, they’ll play in their fourth straight Grey Cup game.
With their convincing 24-13 win over the BC Lions in the Western Final on Saturday, the Blue Bombers punched their ticket to the 110th Grey Cup, giving a rowdy, sold-out crowd of 32,343 fans yet another thing to go home happy about.
Zach Collaros made 14-21 passes for 158 yards, while Brady Oliveira took the ball 29 times for 109 yards and a touchdown. It was the Bombers’ defence, though that was radiant on a cool early winter night on the prairies. The unit racked up nine sacks on Vernon Adams Jr. and forced him into a trio of interceptions.
Adams finished with 225 yards on 13-24 passing and a touchdown as the Lions fell to the Bombers in the Western Final for the second consecutive year.
The Bombers will face the Montreal Alouettes in the 110th Grey Cup in Hamilton on Sunday, Nov. 19, after the Als stunned the Toronto Argonauts, becoming the second team in CFL history to deny a 16-2 team the chance to compete for a championship.
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» Box Score: Western Final by the numbers
» Through The Lens: Lions at Blue Bombers Western Final images
The Lions showed some fearlessness on the opening drive of the game. After a 22-yard rush from Taquan Mizzell got the Lions to the Bombers’ 35-yard line, the Lions showed some flare with a series of reverses that ended up in the hands of Adams. Before he could make a play, though, he was sacked by Kyrie Wilson. The drive resulted in a 48-yard field goal from Sean Whyte at 3:33, giving the Lions an early 3-0 lead.
The fans at IG Field roared as the ball was handed off to Oliveira on their ensuing drive, with their Most Outstanding Player nominee barrelling for a 15-yard gain to get to midfield. Oliveira touched the ball nine times on that 10-play march up the field and capped it off with an eight-yard run — the final yards helped forward by the Bombers’ o-line — for the touchdown. Sergio Castillo‘s convert made it a 7-3 game at 10:44.
The Lions’ hopes took a big hit early on, when both defensive back T.J. Lee and wide receiver Keon Hatcher were lost to injury and did not return.
Oliveira, meanwhile, continued to feature prominently in the game plan. He hit 96 yards of rushing on the Bombers’ opening drive of the second quarter. After Collaros was unable to connect with Kenny Lawler in the end zone, Castillo’s 48-yard field goal attempt missed, resulting in a rouge to put the Bombers up 8-3 at 3:51.
In a matter of minutes, the Bombers flashed dominance in the other two phases of the game. A Brandon Alexander pass deflection and a subsequent Jackson Jeffcoat sack of Adams — that had the quarterback limping to the sideline — led to a Lions’ punt. Nick Hallett got his body in front of the punt, sending the crowd into a frenzy. He recovered the ball and again with a pile of blue jerseys at his back, forced his way into the end zone. Castillo’s convert at 5:31 had the Lions staring up out of a 15-3 hole.
The Bombers’ defence had only whetted its appetite. Adams made his way back onto the field, but had his pass attempt hit one of the battling bodies of the linemen in front of him. The ball popped up into the air and was corralled by Wilson, setting up Collaros and the offence at BC’s 38-yard line. five plays later, Castillo was sending a 28-yard field goal through to put the Bombers up 15, at 18-3 at 9:36.
Perhaps the greatest adversity thrown the Bombers’ way in the first half came when veteran linebacker Adam Bighill went down on a non-contact injury. He slowly left the field on his own accord, but did not return to the game.
After a dismal first half, the Lions dug up something to try to build on in the game’s final 30 minutes. With the clock expired, Adams scrambled out of the pocket and looked downfield, heaving the ball to the end zone. Amidst a throng of outstretched arms, the ball bounced into the waiting hands of Justin McInnis, who made a quick-reflex play in the right place at the right time. Whyte’s convert made it 18-10 at the half.
The Bombers did what they could to squash that momentum quickly. Willie Jefferson forced a fumble on Adams as he scrambled out of the pocket on second down and while Adams recovered, the opening drive of the quarter was quickly snuffed out. After a lengthy Winnipeg drive, the Bombers came away empty-handed as Castillo hit the right upright from 34 yards out, leaving it an 18-10 game midway through the third.
Despite the Bombers’ tremendous pressure on Adams — the crowd was in a brewing frenzy every time he was flushed out of the pocket — the offence was able to make some gains. Whyte’s 43-yard field goal chipped into the Bombers’ lead, narrowing it to five at 18-13 at 10:47.
Adams led a promising drive into the fourth quarter, pushing the ball into BC territory on a short-yardage play before the Bombers’ defence struck again. Demerio Houston showed why he led the league in interceptions this year when he read Adams’ pass attempt, pulled it in and ran it back 20 yards, setting up the offence on BC’s 54-yard line.
Collaros found Lawler for a 29-yard gain as a key part of a seven-play, 51-yard drive that the Lions’ defence stopped at their three-yard line. That led to a 10-yard Castillo field goal, that made it 21-13 at 6:29. Castillo added a 35-yarder at 11:50 to push it to 24-13, creating a comfort zone for the home team in the game’s final minutes.
In desperation mode, Adams had his pass attempt to Dominque Rhymes broken up by Evan Holm, forcing a turnover on downs with 2:30 to play, marking the Lions’ third turnover of the night.
Holm added an interception to his resume on the night and would have hit the end zone had Adams not wrapped him up at BC’s seven-yard line. Collaros took a knee to close out the game.
The fans at IG Field, decked out in blue, ringing cowbells and cheering and chanting, closed out the final minutes of the game on their feet, showing appreciation for the excellence that’s played out in front of them over the last four seasons.