Sun Nov 21 07:57pm EST
The Saskatchewan Roughriders are going back to the Grey Cup. Sunday's West Final didn't always look promising for them, but they made enough plays to win and came up big at crucial moments to hang on for a 20-16 victory over the Calgary Stampeders on the road at McMahon Stadium. They persevered through weather (temperatures of -17 degrees Celsius, wind chill of -30 degrees, falling snow late in the game and an icy field throughout), injuries (notably to Rob Bagg, Luca Congi, Omarr Morgan and Barrin Simpson, who played but was limited), and tough times (an 11-0 deficit after the first quarter). Saskatchewan battled back, though, and they eventually came up with the win, the first by a road team in the West Final since 2007, and set up a 2009 Grey Cup rematch with the East Division champion Montreal Alouettes.
One of the crucial keys to Saskatchewan's victory was the play of wide receiver Chris Getzlaf, brother of NHL star Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks. Chris looked like a mighty Duck himself Sunday afternoon, hauling in eight passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. He had been huge against the Stampeders all season long, and one of the reasons why was their lack of depth in the secondary. As I wrote in my preview, Calgary's all-star cornerback tandem of Brandon Browner and Dwight Anderson is tough to top, but their linebackers and central secondary aren't as strong. With Browner and Anderson matched up against Weston Dressler and Andy Fantuz for most of the day, that opened holes for Getzlaf. Offensive coordinator Doug Berry took advantage of that matchup, calling play after play for Getzlaf, including some slotback-style routes over the middle where Calgary completely ignored him. The Stampeders couldn't shut him down, and that hurt them in the end.
Calgary got off to a good start, though, and they held an 11-0 lead after the first quarter. That didn't come particularly easily, however. They started with a Burke Dales single off a punt, added a Rob Maver field goal and finally got a touchdown after an interception off Riders' quarterback Darian Durant (pictured above right with the West Division trophy) gave them a short field. Henry Burris found an open Arjei Franklin over the middle, and he evaded a tackle and dashed in for a touchdown. Meanwhile, the Stampeders' defence completely shut Durant down early on; he only completed three of his first 11 passes for 21 yards with an interception.
Durant then woke up, though, and he led a tremendous Saskatchewan drive from deep in their own territory that ended with a touchdown pass to Chris Getzlaf. The Stampeders couldn't create any offence of their own, though, and Saskatchewan got the ball back. After a drive that proceeded by fits and starts, they faced first and goal, but Weston Dressler got smoked on first down for no gain. Durant was under pressure on second down and threw a pass too high for any receiver, but Brandon Browner took out Dressler before the throw, resulting in an illegal contact call that gave Saskatchewan another down. Durant took full advantage thanks to a spectacular play by Cary Koch, who made a tremendous leaping catch right at the back of the end zone and managed to get his feet down in bounds. That gave the Riders a 14-11 lead heading into the halftime break. Durant's halftime stats weren't great (12/21, 105 yards, two touchdowns, one INT), but neither were those put up by Burris (11/16, 146 yards, one TD, one INT). Durant really got it done on the ground; Wes Cates was held to 13 yards on four rushes, but Durant picked up 31 on three scrambles.
Perhaps the most important factor in the first half was the way the Riders contained Calgary's vaunted run game: Joffrey Reynolds had 39 yards on seven carries, Jon Cornish only gained three yards on two carries, and Burris got one yard on one scramble. Calgary also didn't prove terribly disciplined, committing 10 first-half penalties for 74 yards against Saskatchewan's four for 10.
The most critical call of the game may have come on a Wes Cates run in the third quarter. On second and two, he stretched for the first down but lost the ball. The ruling on the field was a fumble and recovery by Saskatchewan, but it was tough to tell on replay if he was down first. Saskatchewan head coach Ken Miller challenged, the Riders won after a long review, and they went on to record a touchdown drive. Cates eventually punched it in after another illegal contact call on Calgary, and the Riders took the lead. It was only a 20-15 lead thanks to a botched snap on the convert, though.
Penalties continued to be a factor later in the game, most notably in the fourth quarter when Romby Bryant picked up an objectionable conduct penalty after a big gain. That knocked Calgary back 10 yards, and a sack of Henry Burris followed by an incompletion moved the Stampeders back out of field goal range. They eventually had to punt, keeping Saskatchewan's lead at five.
The final minutes saw the most bizarre play of the day, with Saskatchewan's Ryan Grice-Mullen muffing a punt thanks to the icy conditions. Calgary raced downfield and looked to have recovered for a touchdown, but Wes Lysack couldn't hang on and knocked it into the end zone. Saskatchewan linebacker Jerrell Freeman made a potentially season-saving play, racing all the way back to fall on the loose ball. It was ruled that Calgary fumbled it into the end zone, making it a touchback rather than a single or safety and giving Saskatchewan the ball. Thanks to some stellar play from Cates and Durant and Calgary burning their timeouts early, the Riders were able to gain enough first downs to kill the clock and hang on for a 20-16 win.
Durant finished with 20 completions on 36 attempts for 180 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. It wasn't a stellar quarterbacking performance and wasn't even the best one in this game (Henry Burris was 19/28 for 229 yards and a touchdown with an interception), but it was good enough for Saskatchewan to win. They got a lot of help from Cates (60 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown), and Durant also shone on the ground (six carries for 51 yards). Their defence might have been even better, though, especially against the run, where they held Calgary to 86 total yards on 15 carries. It wasn't a picture-perfect performance from Saskatchewan, but it was enough to get the job done. That gives them a chance to avenge last year's Grey Cup defeat, and that's all they can ask for.