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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa RedBlacks are Grey Cup-bound for second straight year

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris attempts a pass during first half CFL Eastern Final action against the Edmonton Eskimos, in Ottawa on Sunday, November 20, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

As far as Canadiana goes, it was right up there with Tim Hortons, maple syrup – or even too much apologizing.

Winter conditions, blowing wind, no traction … and the glory goes to a gritty little guy who grew up in Winnipeg and just happens to plow through opposing lines like they're little more than an overnight dusting on the back streets.

Say hello to Kienan Lafrance, former unknown, this morning the most popular figure in Ottawa after helping his RedBlacks to a 35-23 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL's East Division final.

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Yes, that Edmonton … from Alberta. We'll get to that later.

The 2016 East final was expected to be an air show, and it was. Just not as advertised.

Two teams that loved to throw during the regular season – the RedBlacks with 663 passes for 6,191 yards, the Eskimos 662 times for 5,992 yards. And why not, with Edmonton boasting the top two receivers in the CFL, Ottawa with three of the top seven?

Sunday afternoon at Ottawa's TD Place, however, the fly zone was a precarious place to risk for quarterbacks Henry Burris of the RedBlacks and Mike Reilly of the Eskimos.

In the end, it was the ground game that decided this playoff matchup, including an exceptional 75-yard punt-return touchdown by Ottawa's Tristan Jackson in the third quarter and then, in the final minute of the game, Lafrance unapologetically grinding out the touchdown that scraped away the last Edmonton hopes.

When it was over, the 25-year-old Winnipegger, a replacement for the injured Mossis Madu, had carried a slippery ball 153 yards in atrocious conditions – just six short of his season total.

"Unbelievable," Edmonton coach Jason Maas said of Lafrance's exploits. A year ago, Maas was the offensive co-ordinator for Ottawa, so was already familiar with Lafrance's potential.

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"He's got the ability," Maas said. "He proved that today."

Burris said that the RedBlacks offence had gathered on the sidelines in the second half and talked about what they had to do to hold on to their early lead. "He said 'Give me the hole,'" Burris said Lafrance said to the linemen. "'This is why I'm here.'"

Lafrance couldn't quite recall saying that, but he did remember worse conditions that he had played in: "My high-school final."

Did you win? "Yes."

Were you the star? Pause, blush, "Yes."

The victory will send the three-year-old RedBlacks on to the Grey Cup final for the second successive year.

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Ironically, they lost a year ago in the Grey Cup in Winnipeg to these same Eskimos in a game in which Ottawa had built up a 13-0 lead before Burris was intercepted and the game turned into a 26-20 Edmonton victory.

This year, in the East final, there would be no such setback. Ottawa took an early 17-0 lead with Burris calling the plays, sticking to the ground and relying on short passes. When Greg Ellingson hauled in a Burris pass for the game's first touchdown, Ellingson fell backward into the end zone and completed a perfect snow angel.

It was a game in which there were more flags than footballs in the air, a game in which MVP honours, as far as some were concerned, should have gone to the young man desperately pushing a heavy pile of wet snow to the sidelines, the 24,248 fans at TD Place cheering as though he'd scored a touchdown when he finally struggled across the line.

It was a game that required some explaining even before it was played. The RedBlacks, with a losing regular-season record of 8-9-1, had finished first in the weak East Division, thereby earning a bye into the final. The Eskimos had come third in the West, but its superior record (10-8) over poor eastern teams such as the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts, put Edmonton into the crossover playoff spot, which they then won against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Ottawa will now meet the true "western" representative for the Grey Cup when it faces the Calgary Stampeders in Toronto next Sunday.

With no coach's challenge available for weather calls, the two teams had to deal with what Burris called "some of the craziest inclement weather you could ask for." There were fumbles, passes slipped through open arms, penalties had to be called when players slid into punt returners.

The football, Burris said, "was like a slippery noodle out there unless you had the laces."

Edmonton coach Maas said that "footing was probably as big an issue as anything" during the game but refused to grab the obvious excuse. "I didn't think the weather was a huge factor," he said.

"It looked like a snow belt out there," laughed Ottawa coach Rick Campbell. "That definitely made a big difference." Still, he reminded his players that CFL stands for "Canadian" football, and that they should not "let weather get between us and our goal."

They didn't in the end, though the Eskimos did mount an impressive fourth-quarter comeback that took them to within five points of the RedBlacks following a perfect Reilly pass to slotback Adarius Bowman.

The RedBlacks may have fumbled the ball five times, but they lost only two of them. Reilly had a fumble recovered and the better day in the air, completing 20-of-41 passes for 340 yards, but his completion rate, 49 per cent, was inferior to Burris's 58 per cent on 15-of-26 attempts for 246 yards. Total offence was slightly in Ottawa's favour, 410 yards to 397, with Lafrance's 157 yards critical.

Now Lafrance – listed at 5 foot 10 but easily the shortest person in the large media scrum surrounding him at game's end – can look forward to next week, when he will have a chance to wear a Grey Cup ring home to Winnipeg.

"I'm hungry," he said, smiling ear to ear. "Everyone here is hungry.

"And it's time to eat."

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