A big game got the best out of Andrew Harris.
The veteran Winnipeg running back rushed for 136 yards and one touchdown in his return from injury as the Blue Bombers overcame six turnovers in a 21-17 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division final.
“I got a workout this morning and I felt good,” said Harris, who was a game-time decision. “Sometimes, your emotions and the stakes of the game elevates your play a little bit and that’s what I thought happened today.”
Harris, playing his first game since Oct. 15 because of an injured knee, had 23 carries and a three-yard TD run in front of 31,160 fans at IG Field, who braved on-and-off snow, gusty winds and a wind chill that made it feel like minus-20 C.
The victory set up a Grey Cup rematch next weekend in Hamilton. The defending Grey Cup-champion Blue Bombers will face the Tiger-Cats at Tim Hortons Field after Hamilton beat Toronto 27-19 in the East final.
“If you didn’t know before, you understand how much (Harris) loves the game of football and how much he loves being on the field with his teammates,” Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea said.
Winnipeg ended a 28-season CFL title drought by defeating Hamilton 33-12 in the 2019 championship game. The 2020 Grey Cup wasn’t held due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This rivalry is as big as it gets,” Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill said of the Riders. “And this win right now is it feels great. I mean, it’s exactly what we wanted – to get that opportunity to go to the Grey Cup.”
The Bombers finished first in the West Division this season and earned a bye into the final after putting up an 11-3 record in a shortened 14-game campaign. Saskatchewan went 9-5 and beat the Calgary Stampeders 33-30 in overtime in the semi-final.
Winnipeg also got touchdowns Sunday from receiver Rasheed Bailey and backup quarterback Sean McGuire on a sneak. Kicker Sergio Castillo made all three converts.
William Powell had a one-yard touchdown run for Saskatchewan and Duke Williams pulled in a pass for a 67-yard catch-and-run TD. Brett Lauther was good on two converts, booted a 16-yard field goal and missed an attempt from 36 yards out.
“Nobody thought we’d have a chance in this game, and here we are with the ball with a chance to go down the field and win the game,” Riders quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “So I thought we played a really good game, just not enough.”
Fajardo was marching the offence down the field when he threw a 31-yard reception to Williams with 2:14 remaining. Williams was hurt on the play and Saskatchewan ended up turning the ball over on downs.
Fajardo was 19-of-27 passing for 265 yards and one TD for the visitors.
The score was tied 7-7 after the first quarter, Saskatchewan led 10-7 at halftime and the Riders held a 17-14 edge after the third.
Five of Winnipeg’s six drives in the first half ended with turnovers, including three interceptions and a pair of fumbles. A sixth was added in the third quarter.
“It was unfortunate the way we started the game off, especially offensively,” Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros said. “I feel like we could have had a pretty substantial lead there.
“Our defence kept us in it all night long, and our special teams, and we were able to come in at halftime and regroup a bit and understand that the plays are there to be made.”
Collaros, the West Division nominee for most outstanding player, completed 17 of 21 pass attempts for 229 yards with one TD and three interceptions.
Saskatchewan defensive lineman Micah Johnson didn’t realize Winnipeg had six turnovers. The Riders only scored 10 points off them, and had two turnovers of their own.
“Football gods on their side today,” Johnson said. “That’s crazy. I didn’t know they had that many turnovers. There’s really no explanation for that.
“Usually the turnover margin, you go up plus-one, your chance is significant. Plus-two, anything over two, you’re supposed to win that game, so that’s crazy.”
On the game’s first possession, Collaros threw to a wide-open Nic Demski at the back of the end zone but the ball bounced off his hands and into the grasp of Riders defensive back Ed Gainey. The turnover didn’t lead to any points.
On Winnipeg’s next drive, receiver Drew Wolitarsky had the ball knocked out of his hands by Riders defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy. Elie Bouka scooped it up and ran 94 yards, helping set up Powell’s one-yard TD at 7:00.
The Bombers responded with a six-play, 71-yard drive capped by Bailey’s TD catch at 11:21.
Riders defensive back Nick Marshall intercepted Collaros, a turnover that led to Lauther’s 16-yard field goal at 5:02 of the second quarter that made it 10-7.
Harris’s three-yard TD run at 13:39 of the third gave Winnipeg its first lead of the game,
After Williams’ TD, the Bombers replied with McGuire’s one-yard sneak and a 21-17 lead at 6:34 of the fourth.