One of the great comeback stories in recent CFL history is heading for its final chapter.
Led by Chris Garrett, a leading character who wasn’t even in the book back in chapter one, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats 19-3 on Sunday afternoon at Canad Inns Stadium.
That sends the blue and gold to the 99th edition of the Grey Cup game, next week in Vancouver, a trip the Bombers haven’t taken since 2007 when they lost to Saskatchewan in Toronto.
Winnipeg, winners of just four games in 2010, hasn’t won Earl Grey’s mug in 21 years, going back to a 1990 wipe out of Edmonton at B.C. Place.
Garrett, who was cut out of training camp and started the last six games in the backfield after veteran Fred Reid and his replacement Carl Volny both went down, was just the hot toddy needed by a Bomber offence that had to have a ground game to move at all.
He finished with 190 yards on 29 carries, plus another 10 on one catch for a nice even 200 on the day, much of that in the fourth quarter when the Bombers dominated the clock and the field at a time the Cats might have expected to mount a comeback with the brisk wind.
Garrett topped things off with a short touchdown run as time expired.
Afterwards he told the press he's dreamed of winning the Grey Cup and earning the top player nod.
"It's getting closer and closer to being true," Garrett said. "But there's some work to be done to get to that stage. I'm just ready to work so I can get there."
Nothing there for Cats
Winnipeg’s swarming defence did not allow the Cats to get much going, and once QB Kevin Glenn left with an injured leg, and/or ankle, late in the third quarter, things were pretty much decided.
Glenn was 13-of-18 for 113 yards before being downed and replaced by Quinton Porter, who had nothing.
Overall, the Bombers held Hamilton to 176 yards of attack. The visitors needed to run to win, and they just could not as Avon Cobourne gained just 28 yards on nine carries.
Buck Pierce started and went the whole way in temperatures that hit around -22 with the wind chill, something that may have helped the beaten-up Winnipeg quarterback because it acted as a ready made ice pack for all his injuries.
The QB was 16 of 28 for 175 yards and one interception.
Back-up Alex Brink tossed a quick three yarder to eligible lineman Jason Vega in the second quarter for the game’s other major score.
"You know we really believed in ourselves all year long, we knew we could do this," said coach Paul LaPolice, who saw his club start quickly this season before struggling through the second half of the schedule. "The players believed in themselves and I’m so proud of what they did this year."
Slow start from both sides
Football in the freezer is never good football and the first half bore that out.
Glenn was having trouble getting the ball to his receivers, even when they were standing just a few yards away, and unable to run the ball at all the Cats bogged down whenever they got into Winnipeg territory.
The Bombers, on the other hand, were struggling with the ball itself, fumbling it three times, only to get it back each time.
Hamilton came out of the opening quarter with just a 3-0 lead, and that was more because of a strong defensive performance and a questionable third and one call by Winnipeg on the Hamilton 30, where the Bombers, in field goal range, tried to run out of the shotgun and were easily stuffed by the surging Cats’ line.
After the end switch, the Bombers came out in the second quarter ready to move the ball with authority for the first time, led by Pierce and Garrett.
Pierce ran twice for first downs, putting the ball in the Hamilton red zone, from where Garrett hustled down to the three yard line.
In came defensive lineman Vega, who declared himself eligible to the referee, something that has tipped off opposing defences since the days of William "The Fridge" Perry.
But Vega put in a terrific fake block, peeled to his right and caught a little dump from Brink (in supposedly for a short yardage play) about the length of the laces on the ball over the goal line and it was 7-3 for the hosts.
Winnipeg added a field goal later for the 10-3 lead at the half.
Both teams were able to get into the other’s end of the field in the opening 30 minutes, but finishing those drives was tough, especially for a TiCats club that had scored 52 points in the semi-final against Montreal the week before.
Garrett had 72 yards on 11 carries in the half. Pierce was 9-of-13 for 112 yards, Glenn 12-of-17 for 110 yards before everyone headed for the warmth of the dressing room.
The third quarter was highlighted by a Palardy field goal to make it 13-3, and the injury to Glenn.