1st Half - Malik Clements 33 - Willie Jefferson 5 (1)
It was well after midnight on Saturday — long after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had driven home the last nail on their Western Final victory over the B.C. Lions – and the sounds of celebration could still be heard from inside the locker room.
Walking past that, yours truly quickly peeked inside and saw a scene that has become so familiar over the last few years – a dozen or so players had pulled chairs together and were still soaking up a win that propelled this franchise to a fourth straight Grey Cup appearance.
And that, it could be said, is a perfect snapshot as to what makes this group work and what makes it win so consistently. Call it cornball or hokey, it doesn’t really matter to those on the inside: this team is that tight and every player does battle to uphold his own honour and that of the man beside him.
That’s a secret sauce not uncommon to winning programs, yet it’s a vibe that emanates every single day in Bomberland. As Jermarcus Hardrick said earlier this week: “… I don’t want this to be the last one with this group. The reality is we’re getting older. Nothing is promised. A lot of us have been here a long time but no one knows what’s going to happen after the season.
“I want to come into the locker room another week, have fun with the boys and play one more with them. Hell, I’d give up an organ to play one more week with these guys.”
Hardrick was part of a group that was so dominant in Saturday’s 24-13 win over the Lions and, FYI, it didn’t cost him an organ, either.
“There’s a love for one another,” said quarterback Zach Collaros in his post-game media session. “I’m sure everybody comes up here and says the same thing and echoes the same thing – it’s honouring your teammate. We take that personally. It’s not just on the field, it’s how you prepare every single day so you can go out there and do your best to execute at a high level for those around you.
“… When you’ve done this a long time you understand what it takes to get there, and it doesn’t happen easily. You want to
be able to live in the moment and obviously we’re excited. I think we have a group that understands what it takes and to truly appreciate it. It was a really fun moment out there. Our fans were unbelievable all night long. I’ve been a part of a lot of really fun ones here. They made it really difficult for B.C. on offence, so hat’s off to them. The best fans in the CFL. They were amazing.”
More on the Blue Bombers win in the Western Final and their appearance in a fourth straight Grey Cup in this week’s UPON FURTHER REVIEW…
COLLAROS IS ALREADY A LEGEND IN BOMBERLAND… and his accomplishments and statistics just keep growing every time the veteran pivot steps on the field. Saturday’s Western Final win adds to that legend, as he’ll know be the first quarterback in the CFL’s long and storied history to start four straight Grey Cup games. Worth noting here: the Edmonton dynasty from 1978-82 featured Warren Moon, but veteran Tom Wilkinson started the 1978 and 1979 games.
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) November 12, 2023
“It means a lot,” said an emotional Collaros afterward. “I’m just so grateful to be in this organization and to be around the people I’m around every single day. To be able to play this sport – and it’s a special sport because it’s a team sport and it really takes 12 guys.
“… I think of guys like Jake Thomas, Paddy Neufeld, Jesse Briggs – guys who have been here for so long… the Willies (Jefferson), the Jacksons (Jeffcoat), the Stanleys (Bryant), Yosh (Jermarcus Hardrick), Mikey Miller – a guy who loves this game and hasn’t been able to play all season long but is still in the locker room leading and on the road doing what he can to help. I just think of those guys.
“I feel like I’ve been in this organization my entire career because the people are just so special. Especially in the locker room but I’m looking at Darren (Cameron, Senior Director of Player and Public Relations) and Osh is behind him. It’s just the people I get to be around every day. It’ll be something cool, obviously. I’m probably saying too much with Osh back there because we need to win the next one and that’s all that really matters, but I get emotional when I think about just being around the people I get to be around every day.”
THREE NUMBERS THAT JUMP OUT… after a longer look at the stats package, available here:
1 – The nine sacks against ties a CFL playoff record, first set by Hamilton in a win over Montreal in 1989 and then tied by the Blue Bombers in the 1992 East Final win over Hamilton. Grey Cup records are kept separately from playoff records, by the way, and the championship mark for sacks in a game is a whopping 13, set by the 1986 Tiger-Cats.
The Blue Bombers got two sacks each from Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat and Malik Clements, with Redha Kramdi, Kyrie Wilson and Brian Cole also chipping in with one each.
2 – The Blue Bombers finished +5 in the turnover ratio — massive in the playoffs –with three interceptions courtesy Wilson, Demerio Houston and Evan Holm and two turnovers on downs. Winnipeg did not commit a turnover.
3 – The time of possession was dominant, too, with Winnipeg having the ball for 37 minutes and 44 seconds – a whole quarter more than the Lions 22:16.
DEMSKI AND THE ‘GTD’… Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey and Greg McCrae were all listed as game-time decisions for the Blue Bombers heading into Saturday and there were some real concerns about whether Demski would be able to go at all.
But he did suit up and pulled in three passes for 37 yards.
“Honestly, I didn’t know until (Saturday) morning,” Demski told bluebombers.com. “I got the green light this morning I could go. All week I prepared like I was playing, definitely a lot of ups and downs and it was definitely a roller-coaster mentally, but I’m so happy everything worked out.
“Running out there I just had to get the confidence I could do everything because earlier in the week it didn’t feel that great. We kept working at it and luckily it worked out. My body liked me today, on game day. I’m just happy my body held together, and I was able to make it through it.”
TWEETED IT OUT AFTER THE GAME… and I’ll repeat it here: defensive coordinator and Richie Hall and his staff don’t get enough love for what they’ve done over the last few seasons, and especially so on Saturday.
Aside from the Hail Mary TD at the end of the first half, the Blue Bombers defence really made the night miserable for Vernon Adams, Jr. and the Lions high-powered offence.
“It started with the front seven and goes to us in the back end. It’s like a string – they help us, we help them,” said cornerback Jamal Parker. “When we played them previously back in October, we did some good things, but the issue was (Adams, Jr.) was getting out of the pocket and converting. So, all we did was basically watch that film, take a layer of that, evolve it and use it for this gameplan and then execute it.
“We didn’t let the outside noise get to us. Don’t get me wrong, he had a good game (in the Western Semi-final). But we have 53-plus people in this room. We watched the football film, not the TV copy… he’s a great quarterback, don’t get me wrong. But we’ve got a great defence, too. We knew what we had to do to execute the plan.
“The key to that? It’s the culture. It’s what we did. When I came in here last year, that was already long set. It’s everything here. It’s either hop on board or they’re going to kick you off the ship. This locker room will never waver. It will never be too high or too low. It’s all about us.”
WE HAD TO DELAY POSTING THIS ‘IN MY WORDS’ PIECE… with Rasheed Bailey as his status for the game wasn’t known until 30 minutes before kickoff. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s certainly worth the read.
A STORYLINE THAT WILL NEED TO BE MONITORED… this week but doesn’t look good initially is the status of future hall of fame linebacker Adam Bighill, who had to be carted off in the first half with an undisclosed leg injury.
Head coach Mike O’Shea would not rule him out yet, but the visuals were not good. And the reactions from his teammates were telling.
“I’m just sad. He’s what it is to be a Bomber,” said Collaros of Bighill. “He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s physical, obviously, but all the things he does – his talent – speaks for itself. The intangible stuff is what’s hard to put into words for Adam. I probably text him once a month and just kinda thank him for being my teammate and just being a kind of leader, not just on the field but off the field as well. I know we’re the same age, but he’s someone you can always draw something from and learn from and look up to so to speak. When something like that happens, any time it’s a teammate it’s tough but a guy like him, you just know how dedicated he is and how much he puts into it every single day. He lives it. So, hoping for the best there.”
Brian Cole, Malik Clements and Shayne Gauthier were sensational in filling in for Bighill after the injury, but that’s an iconic player who could be missing from the defence on Grey Cup Sunday.
THIS IS EPIC… Tui Eli celebrating the win with his family:
TAKE A BOW… Blue Bomber Nation, as Saturday’s fifth straight sellout of 32,343 was also the third-highest crowd in club playoff history behind the 1987 East Final (32,946) and the 1981 West Semi-final (32,936)
“They are just the best, there’s no discussion,” said O’Shea. “If anybody wants to challenge that then they should fly here, buy a ticket to a home game and sit in that crowd and they’ll understand what goes on,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “They’re into it, they’re loud, proud, they’re passionate, they’re relentless. We’re so thankful to have them. The players in that locker room really understand that and they truly value playing in front of a group of fans like that. It’s not like that everywhere.”
THE LAST WORD… goes to Jefferson, who was straightforward late Saturday night when talking about clinching the West Division for a fourth straight year.
“It feels good to be on top for the West at the end of the season, but we’re not done,” he said. “This is not what we signed up for at the beginning of the season. We didn’t come in for camp and say we wanted to be the Western Division champions at the end of the season – we said we wanted to win a Grey Cup and that’s what we plan on doing. We plan on going to Hamilton and finishing our work.