November 14, 2010
It was a dream ending for Jason Clermont, but a nightmarish one for his former team. Clermont, the veteran slotback unceremoniously cast aside by B.C. a few years back, has become a bigger part of the Saskatchewan offence over time this year, and he came up with the critical play to seal the Riders' 41-38 victory in this year's West semi-final. On a critical second down in double overtime, a blitz left Clermont wide open over the middle, and he hauled in a pass and rumbled into the end zone for the game-clinching touchdown (pictured above). It was his first touchdown as a Roughrider, and it couldn't have come at a more critical time.
Saskatchewan was on the ropes for much of this contest, and they trailed 16-7 at the half. They were down 19-14 heading into the final frame, but their long-dormant offence finally woke up under Darian Durant and took a seven-point lead on a Warren Kean field goal with 3:26 left. It looked like they'd come away with the win in regulation time, but Lions' quarterback Travis Lulay continued to prove just how much of an emerging star he is with a spectacular final drive. It ended on a tremendous Flutiesque Hail Mary throw to the end zone with no time left, and an even better catch by Emmanuel Arceneaux in double coverage. The ensuing Paul McCallum convert sent the game to overtime and ensured an incredible finish was in the offing.
The overtime featured some unbelievable plays of its own. B.C. almost stopped Saskatchewan on the first overtime possession, but a pass interference call on Ryan Phillips gave the Riders the ball at the one. Controversy then ensued, with a Wes Cates carry that was ruled a touchdown on the field and upheld on replay. From this vantage point, it wasn't clear if Cates had crossed the line or not, so the call on the field was likely what decided it. As per usual with closely contested games, though, there were plenty of B.C. fans crying foul. They had a case, but not a substantial enough one to tar this finish.
Saskatchewan got the two-point conversion (which they were forced to go for thanks to a rule change this year) on a pass to Andy Fantuz, and then they almost got a crucial defensive stop of their own. Keith Shologan made a critical tackle on a scrambling Lulay on first down, and the Riders' 13th man then came into play. The crowd, which had made things difficult for B.C. for much of the day, caused a time-count violation that backed the Lions up significantly. Lulay then found Arceneaux for a 21-yard gain, though, got some help from an illegal contact penalty on the Riders' Chris McKenzie, and scrambled in for a touchdown himself. Crowd noise caused another time-count violation that backed them up on the convert, but Superman returned to save the day for the Lions; Geroy Simon made a terrific end-zone grab to send the game to a second overtime period.
The Lions' second overtime possession didn't go as well, though. After a pass for Jamal Robertson was knocked down, Lulay only gained six yards on a scramble. The Lions could have gone for it on third and four, which would have kept their chances of a touchdown alive (and even if they failed, put pressure on Saskatchewan kicker Warren Kean), but they elected to kick. McCallum again made a tough kick in his old stomping grounds, drilling a 37-yarder, but that still gave Saskatchewan the chance to win with a touchdown.
B.C. almost made enough of a defensive stand to keep the game going, but they couldn't quite pull it off. After Cary Koch dropped Durant's first-down pass, Chris Getzlaf made no mistake, hauling in his only catch of the day and stretching for 11 yards and a first down. B.C. then brought the blitz on the next play and almost got to Durant, but their focus on covering Saskatchewan's more prominent receivers left Clermont wide open over the middle. Durant hit him and he rumbled into the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown that would send the Roughriders on to Calgary for next week's Western Final.
The Lions have nothing to be ashamed of with the way they played. They persevered against incredible odds yet again, the way they had done for so much of the stretch run, and they showed that there's a lot of talent and hope out for the future out West. In a lot of ways, they may be in better shape with a first-round loss here than they were with a East semi-final appearance last season. They have more stability at quarterback with Travis Lulay, they have promising young talent like Arceneaux (pictured at right making his game-tying catch), Steven Black, Yonus Davis and Solomon Elimimian, and they still have a good core of veterans. Some will undoubtedly still question Wally Buono's leadership, but I think the way he handled this team both down the stretch and in this game proves he still has something left to give. I wrote this morning that the Lions had the talent and potential to keep this one close if they played their best, and they certainly did that.
For B.C., the star of the day was unquestionably Lulay. His stats were good if not great (28 completions on 47 attempts, 60 per cent completion percentage, 357 yards and two touchdowns with one interception), but he got it done at the most critical times and certainly kept pace with Durant, the CFL's passing yardage leader (20 completions on 37 attempts for 310 yards today, 54 per cent completion percentage, three touchdowns). He spread the ball around to seven different receivers and also picked up 39 yards and a touchdown on five carries. He showed he's got what it takes to play quarterback in this league, and I'd expect him to be the Lions' opening-day starter next season.
The Riders deserve plenty of credit for their own performance, though. They looked nervous and edgy at first, but came together in crunch time and found a way to pull off the win despite some crucial absences thanks to injury (including Barrin Simpson, Rob Bagg and Luca Congi). With the Lions' defence keying on the likes of Fantuz and Getzlaf, Weston Dressler had an incredible day, hauling in eight passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Cates was solid on the ground, rushing for 65 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, and despite iffy moments, the much-maligned defence and special teams got it done when it counted.
With the victory, we'll see a Calgary - Saskatchewan West Final next week for the second consecutive year. The Stampeders will be hosting this one thanks to their superior regular-season record, but they can't afford to take this Saskatchewan team lightly. The Riders have certainly been inconsistent this year, but if they can pull together, they've got the pieces to walk away with this season's Grey Cup. Whether they can do that or not remains to be seen, but this is a tremendously talented squad. They may have showed their weaknesses today, particularly in the first half, but their second-half comeback and outlasting of a desperate Lions' team in overtime also demonstrated their tremendous potential. We'll find out in the coming weeks if they can live up to it, but I wouldn't bet against them. They're putting it together at the right time, finding ways to win despite adversity and making the most of the players they have rather than lamenting the ones they've lost. Clermont's touchdown demonstrates that, and that bodes well for Saskatchewan's championship hopes.