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WINNIPEG — The end goal may be the same, but the path to winning another Grey Cup with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers has felt different this season for Zach Collaros.
The starting quarterback has had a full season with the CFL team, unlike 2019 when he joined the club late in the campaign and helped lead them to a final victory that ended the club’s 28-season championship drought.
“It's better because you know the guys in the locker room, you have a better familiarity with the system and the terminology and all those things,” Collaros said at a Tuesday press conference.
The Bombers will host the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division final Sunday afternoon, a repeat of the battle from 2019 that Winnipeg won 20-13 in Regina.
That game held special meaning for Collaros, who started 2019 with the Riders. He suffered a concussion in the regular-season opener and was traded to Toronto in late July. The Argonauts then traded him to Winnipeg on Oct. 9 and he went 4-0, including the 33-12 Grey Cup victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“It should be a fun one,” said Collaros, the division nominee for the league’s most outstanding player award. “And it's going to be an amazing atmosphere.”
Sunday’s playoff rematch at IG Field is on track to have 30,000-plus fans in the stands.
Winnipeg finished first in the West Division and earned a bye into the final after putting up an 11-3 record in the 14-game regular season that was shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Saskatchewan went 9-5 and beat the Calgary Stampeders 33-30 in overtime in the semifinal.
Sunday’s winner will advance to the Dec. 12 Grey Cup game in Hamilton to meet the victors of the East final between the Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts.
“This is good for the CFL,” Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea said. “It's good for fans and this should be good for all four teams involved.”
O’Shea is up for the coach of the year award against Toronto’s Ryan Dinwiddie.
The Bombers beat the Roughriders 23-8 in the Labour Day Classic this season and followed that up with a 33-9 win in the Banjo Bowl.
Collaros, who led the league with 20 touchdowns, isn’t sure how much they can take away from those victories.
“It does feel like a long time ago,” the 10-year veteran said. “Watching those two games, they were a little different in both of them in how they approached us. Definitely different than how they've played the last five or six games.”
The Roughriders went 4-2 in their final six regular-season games.
In the semifinal against the Stampeders, Saskatchewan quarterback Cody Fajardo threw four interceptions but also scrambled 10 times for 89 yards.
Winnipeg defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall said they’re aware of Fajardo’s abilities and the need to be “very cautious, very conscientious” when rushing him.
“It's just a matter of us going out there being aggressive, doing what we have to and limit explosion plays and play at a high level for 60 minutes or 60-plus minutes,” Hall said. “That's what we're anticipating from them, you know, but that's what we demand for ourselves.”
Winnipeg’s stifling defence only allowed a league-best 13.4 points per game, the lowest since 1970.
The Bombers do have a question mark on offence. Star running back Andrew Harris (knee) hasn’t played since Oct. 15 and hasn’t practised. Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine have taken his place.
Offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce said it’s too early in the week to predict whether Harris will be ready to suit up Sunday.
“Obviously, we all know what Andrew can do, but the other guys have showed improvement each week and have done a fantastic job for us,” Pierce said. “So, yeah, we'll look at this week. I think the rest has been good for everybody so we'll see where that goes.”
There’s often debate about whether a team benefits with the rest that comes with a bye in the playoffs or whether rust creeps in. Collaros said it’s been good for the Bombers.
“I thought we really used our time wisely, not just on the field but in the meeting rooms as well,” Collaros said. “And, obviously, working out and taking care of our bodies.
“There's different ways you can approach the bye. We chose that we're all going to be in here, use this time to get better. I thought it was beneficial for us. And, hopefully, the results yield that on Sunday.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2021.
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press