Before a thundering, green-bleeding herd of diehard supporters, the Saskatchewan Roughriders seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver a Grey Cup to the people of Regina.
The Riders had failed in their last two attempts at the CFL’s championship prize when they suffered back-to-back heartbreaks in the 2009 and ’10 Cups. This time, playing the club’s first title game in frenzied Rider Nation, they over-powered and out-numbered the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for a 45-23 win before an ecstatic crowd of 44,710.
Saskatchewan running back Kory Sheets smashed a Grey Cup rushing record with 20 carries for 197 yards and two touchdowns as the game’s most valuable player. Quarterback Darian Durant completed 17 of 24 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns – a pair to the veteran slotback Geroy Simon who has been a mentor to so many Riders. The franchise that said it was built for championships earned its first one since 2007.
“It feels great to get that rushing record, but it feels better to get the Grey Cup, because we did it for Darian, we did it for the city,” said Sheets, a Purdue product who said he’s never been on a championship squad before now. “This team was built to win.”
The Riders defence pressured Ticats veteran quarterback Henry Burris, sacked him three times, and held Hamilton to 329 yards of offence against Saskatchewan’s 513. The 38-year-old quarterback and the resilient Ticats squad who had just rallied to two dramatic playoff wins just kept hitting the wall. It spelled defeat for Coach Kent Austin, who had once delivered Rider Nation Cups as both a quarterback and a coach.
The Saskatchewan capital was over-run with jubilant fans in green jerseys and wigs, overalls, watermelon heads and Pilsner beer cases folded into cowboy hats. Any tiny pockets of black and gold inside the stadium were rendered invisible by the overwhelming wash of green.
Ticats with the wind at their backs in the first quarter mustered only a field goal when former Rider kicker Luca Congi opened the scoring with a 45-yarder.
Durant appeared jittery in the opening moments, fumbling on both of Saskatchewan’s two opening offensive series. But it didn’t last.
The Riders pivot navigated a seven-play, 75-yard drive for Saskatchewan’s first touchdown, culminating in a 15-yard pass to Geroy Simon for the lead. The 38-year-old slotback known as Superman, a time-time Grey Cup champ in B.C. brought to Regina this season, recorded his first touchdown pass in a Grey Cup.
“Geroy came to me during the week and said ‘Doubles, I’ve never caught a touchdown pass in a Grey Cup’, and I said ‘you know what G? That’s going to change this week’. I told him he was brought here for a reason.”
To open the second quarter, Durant hit a wide-open Chris Getzlaf over the middle for a 38-yard pass, the Saskatchewan-native who would earn the game’s Most Valuable Canadian award upon finishing with three big catches for 78 yards. It set up a 20-yard field goal by Chris Milo.
The Riders then diced through the Ticats on a seven-play, 50-yard drive, which Jock Sanders finished with a three-yard touchdown run.
A sloppy snap between Burris and centre Marwan Hage led to a turnover, but it was cancelled out by a Durant fumble on the next series. The door was still open, but Hamilton couldn’t walk through.
“It’s a bitter disappointment,” said Burris. “We fought our butts off all year, and we felt we could have given ourselves a much better opportunity to be successful.”
Instead, the Riders took over and scored again, thanks to a 29 yard pass to Getzlaf that delivered the Riders right to the goal line. Sheets then Sheets bumped in the final yard for the major.
The Ticats then managed a 20-yard field goal, but the Riders kept right on bullying as Durant connected on a 42-yard touchdown pass with Simon, the slotback’s second on the night. Saskatchewan’s 31 points in the first half set a Grey Cup record.
The Ticats had a short burst in the second half. Burris ran in an 18-yard touchdown to chip away at the massive deficit, and the Ticats held the Riders scoreless in the third quarter. But the Riders then slammed the door shut with more touchdowns – a catch by Weston Dressler and another short jiving run by the charismatic Sheets. The second-year back smashed the Grey Cup record set by Johnny Bright in 1956.
When the final whistle blew, Rider Nation exploded in delirious joy, their green hearts beating with pride. The quarterback who fans had often criticized after the other Grey Cup losses now joins a small, elite group of Rider championship signal-callers: Ron Lancaster, Austin, and Kerry Joseph.
“I’m not going to bed tonight,” said Durant, his teammates dancing, smoking cigars and repeating dousing him in champagne. “I know Rider Nation is on fire and the city is on fire, and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I’m going to enjoy it.”