Grey Cup primer: Our head says Winnipeg but our heart says Hamilton
Bombers, Ticats reverse roles for their CFL title-game rematch
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The Grey Cup is back
After being erased by the pandemic last year, Canada's version of the Super Bowl returns from hiatus this weekend. Here are some things to know about the 108th Grey Cup game, which kicks off Sunday at 6 p.m. ET in Hamilton:
It's a rematch. But the tables have turned
It feels like a million years ago, but in 2019 the Winnipeg Blue Bombers snapped their 29-year championship drought by beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12 in Calgary. Two years, a global health crisis and an entire lost CFL season later, the same teams are back playing for the title.
But things are different. Back in 2019, Hamilton was the 15-3 regular season juggernaut that had scored the most points in the league and given up the fewest. The Tiger-Cats were four-point favourites against a Winnipeg team that went 11-7 and had to win back-to-back road playoff games to get to the Grey Cup. Now, the defending champion Bombers are the toast of the CFL after going a league-best 11-3 in the shortened regular season while scoring more and surrendering less than anyone else. They're favoured by, you guessed it, four over a Ticats team that went a pedestrian 8-6 before defeating Montreal at home and upsetting Toronto on the road in the playoffs.
Our head says Winnipeg
It's a testament to the Bombers' quality that they could turn the ball over a nightmarish six times in the West Division final vs. Saskatchewan and still come out with a 21-17 win. Even accounting for this rare lapse, Winnipeg is averaging 25 points per game this year and giving up just 14.
Winnipeg's defence is frightening. In terms of points per game allowed in the regular season, the 2021 Bombers are the CFL's stingiest team in a half century. Anchoring the D is linebacker Adam Bighill, who's won his third Most Outstanding Defensive Player award. Up front, pass rushers Jackson Jeffcoat and Willie Jefferson combined for 16 sacks in the regular season and another two in the West final, where they each forced a fumble. Rookie defensive back DeAundre Alford tied for second in the league with four interceptions. Good luck finding a weakness to attack.
Despite its struggles on Sunday, the Winnipeg offence is scary too. Zach Collaros threw an uncharacteristic three interceptions vs. the Riders — half his total from the entire regular season — but was the CFL's most efficient passer this year and led the league in touchdown throws. He's won Most Outstanding Player when the CFL awards were announced Friday. Collaros has a great connection with Kenny Lawler, the only player to top 1,000 receiving yards this season — though Lawler was held to just three catches for 49 yards by Saskatchewan. Winnipeg can also shred you on the ground with star Canadian running back Andrew Harris — a three-time CFL rushing leader and the reigning Grey Cup MVP. He returned from a knee injury last week to run for 136 yards and a TD.
But our heart says Hamilton
The underdog is always at least somewhat lovable, and the Tiger-Cats bring some extra narrative cuddliness to the table. When Hamilton lost the Grey Cup game to Winnipeg in 2019, it inherited the humbling title of longest-suffering CFL town. It's not quite as bad as the Bombers' was, but the Ticats' championship drought has reached a deeply unpleasant 22 years.
The last time Hamilton won the Grey Cup, the world's biggest worry was Y2K. The MVP of that game, quarterback Danny McManus, is now 56 years old. The Most Valuable Canadian, receiver Mike Morreale, is also a quinquagenarian who now runs a pro basketball league. So, yeah, it's been a while. And how heart-warming would it be to see the Ticats finally capture the Grey Cup in their own stadium, in front of their own fans?
If that happens, Hamilton will likely have its defence to thank. Anchored by playmaking linebacker Simoni Lawrence (who was the East nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player) and a strong set of linemen, the Ticats' D forced five turnovers in the playoff win over Montreal. It also held CFL rushing champion William Stanback to just 29 yards on 12 carries after allowing a league-low 4.2 yards per tote in the regular season. These guys could be a tough nut for Harris to crack on Sunday.
A backup quarterback might be the X-factor
A key question is, can the Hamilton offence do enough against this menacing Winnipeg D? It's a middle-of-the-road unit (fifth out of nine teams this season in yards gained per play) without a real superstar and with considerable uncertainty at the sport's most important position. Twenty-eight-year-old backup quarterback Dane Evans will make just his fourth start of the year on Sunday after coming off the bench to replace a struggling Jeremiah Masoli in the East final.
Evans was great, completing all 16 of his passes for 249 yards and a touchdown, and rushing for a pair of TDs to lead the Ticats to a 27-19 comeback win over the rival Argonauts. He also won the respect of his teammates by stripping the ball from an Argo defensive player who'd recovered a fumble, preventing a possible touchdown (not something you usually see from a quarterback). But now Evans is facing a team that gave up 130 points fewer than Toronto did this season. And he didn't exactly shine in this exact same spot two years ago. Evans was Hamilton's QB in the 2019 Grey Cup loss to the Bombers, who picked him off twice and held him to 16-of-27 passing for 203 yards.