Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros (8) hands the ball off to running back Brady Oliveira (20) during the first half of the 110th CFL Grey Cup against the Montreal Alouettes in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, November 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
HAMILTON – It’s not only about a dynasty denied that’s going to eat away at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers right now, tomorrow, next week and in the years to follow.
That lost potential place in history is going to affect the legacy of the 2022 and 2023 squads, no doubt, but the men in the locker room weren’t thinking about that in the immediate moments right after Sunday’s 28-24 loss to the Montreal Alouettes in the 110th Grey Cup.
They were thinking about opportunity lost to share a championship together. And that’s what is going to hurt more than a thousand wasp stings.
“I’m numb. And it just hurts, because I love these guys,” said right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick inside a morgue-like Blue Bombers locker room. “This is not the way any of us wanted this to end. But I love these guys. I’m proud of them because we left it all out there.”
A third championship in four years was there for the taking right until the final whistle. The Blue Bombers were leading 24-21 inside the final minute when Grey Cup MVP Cody Fajardo hit Cole Spieker for a 31-yard gain – on third and five, no less – and then found Tyson Philpot for a championship-winning 19-yard score with just 13 seconds remaining.
Fajardo was 21 of 26 for 290 yards with three TDs against one interception to earn the MVP honours while Philpot, who had six catches for 63 yards, was named the Most Valuable Canadian.
“It’s just really hard to walk away with a loss right now,” said receiver Drew Wolitarsky. “I really just had this moments and visions of celebrating with this team. This s–t felt like destiny. This one’s hard for me. I really felt like destiny to win this with this team. Everything felt like it was meant to be with this team – who we had, the guys we had and the feeling we had.
“I kept believing right up until that last kickoff return. It’s just really hit me that we lost.”
The Blue Bombers built a 17-7 halftime lead but couldn’t find traction for a stretch in the third quarter in a game where the Alouettes side just kept punching back every time the club landed a shot. Montreal took its first lead with just over 11 minutes left in the game on a Fajardo to Austin Mack score, but the Blue Bombers answered with a Dakota Prukop TD with 3:12 remaining. Winnipeg went two and out on its next possession and then gave the ball back to the Als with 1:55 left to set up the late dramatics. With that, an Alouettes team that came into the game having won seven straight got it done when it mattered most.
“Credit them – they came in hot, and they did what they needed to do when they needed to do it. They played a damn good game,” said head coach Mike O’Shea of the Als.
“You look at the entire game and we’re a few plays short. And they made some plays, they generated some plays in good positions – timely.
“… I don’t know if our guys will remember the score. They’ll remember we lost, and they’ll remember their teammates who put everything they had in when they stepped on the field.”
More on the Blue Bombers Grey Cup loss Sunday night from our view in the press box…
MIRACLES OF MIRACLES:
The Blue Bombers announced at 6:01 ET that receiver Dalton Schoen and linebacker Adam Bighill would both be active for the roster – this despite neither player practising all week and not even taking part in the pre-game warmup.
Their ability to suit up given their status in the days leading up to Sunday is remarkable, especially with Bighill carted off the field at halftime of last week’s Western Final win and Schoen hadn’t played or practice since Winnipeg’s win in Vancouver on October 6th after suffering a leg injury.
It’s a testament to the two players, obviously, and their dedication – on Saturday O’Shea referred to their work to get ready as a ‘courageous battle’ – but also testament to head athletic therapist Al Couture, the doctors and staff that worked tirelessly to give the players a chance to suit up before it became official in the moments before kickoff.
Schoen finished with three catches for 36 yards while Bighill had a tackle.
“It’s frustrating when in the most important game of the season and the biggest game of my career I wasn’t able to practice at all for the last few weeks,” said Schoen. “I was super grateful for the opportunity to play. Our training staff did an awesome job to get me ready enough to be out there on the field and thanks to Osh for sticking true with me and giving me the chance.”
They will be a deeper dive to the loss over the winter, but the Blue Bombers turned the ball over twice in the red zone – a Brady Oliveira fumble and a Zach Collaros interception in the end zone – and couldn’t get the Als off the field late in the game.
“We didn’t play a clean football game and in the biggest game of the year… that’s not us,” said Oliveira, who finished with 19 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown and had one catch for eight yards. “We preach about playing smart football and we made way too many mistakes today to win the game. I thought we should have put them away early. They made more plays. You’ve got to give them credit – they earned it.
“We shouldn’t have lost this game. We had so much belief on the sideline that we were going to win this game. We just kept it way too close. We made too many mistakes as a group, myself included.”
Collaros finished 19 of 23 for 236 yards with the one interception, while the Alouettes generated four sacks. Afterward it was an emotional Collaros who addressed the media.
“I’m sad. You play to win the game, you play to win the last one and we came up short,” he said. “Montreal was a few plays better than us.
“I’m just really sad because there’s a lot of good guys in the locker room; guys that might not be able to play again and you want to win for them and the guys that couldn’t be out there. There’s a lot of good people and you just don’t want to let people down. It’s terrible.”