The Montreal Alouettes won their first Grey Cup since 2010 on Sunday night, arm-wrestling it away from the dynastic Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the final seconds of a wild game.
Despite trailing by 10 at the half, and facing an opponent playing in its fourth successive Grey Cup, the Alouettes rallied to a tense 28-24 victory.
Montreal quarterback Cody Fajardo’s last-second toss capped a seven-play, 83-yard march. It included a clutch 31-yard completion to Cole Spieker on third-and-five before a Tim Hortons Field sellout of 28,808 as Montreal ended 2023 with eight successive wins.
It was the first Grey Cup victory for Fajardo as a starting quarterback, a guy picked up for this season by Montreal just as he was considering retirement after the Saskatchewan Roughriders sent him packing. He was starting opposite Zach Collaros, the Bombers star quarterback and two-time Grey Cup champ – the one most experts picked to win the CFL championship.
Fajardo threw three touchdown passes on the night – good on 21 of his 26 for 290 yards on the night – including a 19-yard laser to receiver Tyson Philpot to win the game.
Fajardo was chosen the game’s most-valuable player. Philpot was the most valuable Canadian.
“Nobody expected us to win the game, except for the 1 per cent in that locker room,” said Fajardo. “I’ve got to thank the media for placing us ninth to start the year because that bonded this team together.”
Collaros went 18-of-22 for 223 yards for Winnipeg. The CFL’s leading rusher, Brady Oliviera, ran for 119 yards and a touchdown, Dakota Prukop rushed for a pair of touchdowns.
In 110 versions of this championship game, Sunday’s was the first meeting between Winnipeg and Montreal. Both opponents entered the championship game on a roll. The Bombers had won five games in a row, the Alouettes seven.
Winnipeg, fresh off a 14-4 regular season, was looking to continue a dynasty it had begun brewing in 2019, winning two of three straight Grey Cup appearances, but still aching from a one-point loss in last year’s against the Toronto Argonauts. Montreal, which finished the regular season in second place in the East, aimed to win its first championship since 2010.
Hamilton was the host for the second time in three years. Grey Cup flags waved on porches in the Stipley neighbourhood surrounding Tim Horton’s Field, while fans tailgated in parking lots under sunshine.
It was a mild November evening, by typical Grey Cup standards – it was 4C at kickoff inside the stadium.
The Bombers looked dominant for most of the first quarter. They opened scoring on a field goal by Sergio Castillo, then sent Oliviera – the 26-year-old Canadian player of the year in the CFL and finalist for the most outstanding player of the year – barrelling into the end zone for a confident lead.
But in the dying seconds of the quarter, the Alouettes answered, as William Stanback sprung free for a 32 yard touchdown run.
Winnipeg was closing in on the end zone again midway through the second, when the Als stripped Oliviera of the ball. It was reminiscent of what Montreal had done a week earlier to get to the big game – forcing a whopping nine turnovers while stunning the 16-2 Argonauts in the East final.
But the Bombers replied by stripping a ball to get it back. The difference was Winnipeg made it count. A nice run by Oliviera got the Bombers closer and then Prukop thrust over the line for a one-yard score and a seven-point lead.
But what Winnipeg did next was equally as important. Pushing with all its defensive might, it staged a huge goal-line stand, causing the Als to turn over the ball on downs just inches from the end zone. That preserved the Bombers’ 17-7 lead going into halftime.
While country star Carrie Underwood had played Hamilton’s Grey Cup festival earlier in the weekend, it was punk rockers Green Day starred in Sunday’s halftime show. The Grammy Award winners, appearing with hair tinted blonde, rocked through a medley of their hits. Front man Billie Joe Armstrong – now 51 but sounding as good as ever – tickled the crowd with a cheeky mike check – “can you hear me? This is *bleeping* Canada.” The whole set drew loud applause.
The energy continued when the game resumed. It’s looked as though the goal-line stand just before the half had fuelled – rather than deflated – Montreal. The Als cut the lead to three when Fajardo tossed a pass deep to Cole Spieker, who went 23 yards for the score. Then came another huge moment – Kabion Ento picked off a Collaros pass into the end zone.
“We knew we were underdogs, and when the playoffs started, everybody was like ‘Toronto and Winnipeg’,” said Ento. “That had nothing to do with us and what would happen between the lines. We believed in each other.”
The Als took the lead for the first time halfway through the fourth quarter, as Fajardo threw a 13-yard touchdown strike to Austin Mack. Mack finished with 103 yards in receptions.
The Bombers punched one in to wrestle the lead back – another four-yarder by Prukop.
Then Fajardo began marching the Alouettes down the field for the winning drive.
Fajardo had scrutinized in Saskatchewan, where he’d been their franchise guy, and when he was cast off, he and his wife discussed him retiring. Then Als General Manager Danny Maciocia gave him a two-year deal, convincing him he should keep playing.
Few expected much of the Als, as they played to 11-7 season. Then they won playoff games against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Argonauts.
Fajardo had suffered heartbreak against the Blue Bombers before, when he was Saskatchewan’s quarterback. In the 2019 West Final, he attempted a last-change game-tying touchdown pass into the endzone and it dinged off the goalpost. Then he lost again to the Bombers in the 2021 West Final. Those games rushed through his mind in Sunday’s game, with the Grey Cup on the line.
“I just kept telling myself third time’s a charm,” said Fajardo, reliving the drive, including the long shot to Spieker that set up the winner. “At that moment, I think I started to believe, and then the next play Philpot scores a touchdown and it’s just one of those things that felt like a movie.”
Philpot’s catch came with just 15 seconds left.
“Not bad for a bunch of misfits,” said Philpot. “This is the greatest day of my life. I have a Vanier Cup but I dreamed about this as a young kid.”