Blue Bombers golden when it mattered most in West semifinal
Andrew Harris runs wild to propel Winnipeg to playoff victory over Roughriders
It was almost as if the Winnipeg Blue Bombers couldn't get out of Regina quick enough Sunday night when the clock hit zeroes at Mosaic Stadium.
The team blasted from their bench in a blur of blue and gold, racing across the field and running straight into their locker room. Now the Bombers are heading to Calgary for the West final and look like a team on a mission after defeating the Saskatchewan Roughriders 23-18 in the Western semifinal.
It was the Bombers first playoff win since 2011 when they beat Hamilton in the East final. Winnipeg also hadn't defeated Saskatchewan in the playoffs since 1965.
To say there was a high level of concern in Rider Nation in the hours leading up to the playoff game was an understatement.
News broke late Saturday night the team's starting quarterback Zach Collaros wouldn't even be suiting up for the game after suffering a hellacious hit to the head in the team's last regular season game in late October.
Blue Bombers prevail in West semifinal:
That meant the hopes and dreams of Rider fans were pinned squarely on the shoulders of Canadian backup quarterback Brandon Bridge. A year previous, Bridge was used effectively, swapping in and out of games with Kevin Glenn throughout the season and nearly leading the team to a Grey Cup appearance before losing in the East final.
But this season was different.
Bridge seemed unsure at times and unable to find open receivers when he came into games for Collaros. That's also how Bridge looked for much of the Western semifinal against the Bombers on Sunday afternoon.
High above the new Mosaic Stadium in Regina, there's a banner the team unfurls at the beginning of every game — a 13th-Man flag. A salute to the raucous fan base of the Roughriders.
So perhaps it was a sign of things to come at the beginning of Sunday's game when they tried to unveil the flag, but it didn't unfurl. It got tangled and stuck. A misfire of sorts.
The Roughriders offence led by Bridge couldn't find their rhythm. There were flickers. Bridge did his best to run for his life at times and was successful on a few occasions. He finished the game rushing for 86 yards. But when the team needed a big second down conversion, Bridge was unable to find open receivers.
Despite that, the game was still hanging in the balance heading to the fourth quarter.
Winnipeg held a narrow 13-12 lead with just 15 minutes left in a game that showcased two solid defences. It was cold. Windy. Elements were certainly in the way of both offences' ability to execute.
With the snow and wind swirling midway through the final frame, it was Canadian running back Andrew Harris who stole the show and took over the game.
With the score 16-12 for the Bombers with six minutes left to play, Winnipeg's Most Outstanding Canadian ran wild. He galloped down the field with runs of 37 yards, 14 yards and then finally capped a 53-yard scoring drive by plunging into the end zone.
Harris single-handedly took over the game and gave the Bombers an 11-point lead with time winding down. He finished the game with 19 carries for 153 yards rushing.
Roughriders last minute gasp
The Roughriders didn't quit. On the ensuing kickoff after the Bombers touchdown which seemingly put the game out of reach, Loucheiz Purifoy returned the football into Winnipeg territory. Not long after that Nick Marshall ran into the end zone for the Roughriders. The two-point convert failed, making the score 23-18 with just over two minutes left.
But Harris's powerful running continued when the Bombers got the ball back. He salted away more than a minute of valuable time for the Roughriders who were trying to mount a last-minute miracle.
The team in green did get the ball back with about 40 seconds remaining in the game, but it was too little too late.
There was outrage as the seconds ticked down with the Roughriders trying to drive for the winning points. Bridge took a wicked hit to the head that went uncalled and forced him to leave the game with just eight seconds remaining. The crowd was furious and booed their displeasure as Bridge laid in a crumpled heap on the field.
That meant third-string quarterback David Watford would have to come into the game for the Roughriders for one last Hail Mary pass. It was intercepted by the Bombers to secure the victory.
Following the game, the CFL released a statement saying the hit on Bridge "was clearly a missed call" and that a solution is needed to get calls right, especially when player health and safety is involved.
A statement from <a href="https://twitter.com/CFL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CFL</a> Commissioner Randy Ambrosie: <a href="https://t.co/YIwhEnrfET">pic.twitter.com/YIwhEnrfET</a>—@CFLFootballOps
Could this be Winnipeg's year?
The surging Blue Bombers now get set to travel to McMahon Stadium in Calgary to take on the Stampeders in the West final next Sunday.
Winnipeg has won six out of the last seven games and seem to be playing with a high level of confidence. The last time the Bombers and Stamps met in the playoffs was during the 2001 Grey Cup game, which Calgary won.
It has been a long Grey Cup drought for Winnipeg. The team last won the championship in 1990. They've played in three Grey Cup games over that time, losing every time.
But this is a different team with a different swagger. They showed it off in the snow Sunday night in Saskatchewan.