Underdogs have their day
Led by a castoff QB, Alouettes stun Bombers and capture Grey Cup in dying seconds
DAMIEN COX TWITTER: @DAMOSPIN
Eight turned out to be just enough. Perfect, actually. The Montreal Alouettes needed to run the table to bring football glory back to the city, and they did it. Eight straight wins, culminating with upsets of the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL East final and then the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Sunday’s 110th Grey Cup game, helped them deliver the championship moment few thought they were capable of. For the first time in 13 years, the Alouettes are champions after a touchdown strike with only 13 seconds left — from a quarterback discarded by another CFL club to a receiver whose father once won a Grey Cup. “It’s like a movie,” said the quarterback, Cody Fajardo, cut loose by the Saskatchewan Roughriders after last season. Fajardo spotted Tyson Philpot, son of former CFL running back Cory Philpot, on an in-route near the Winnipeg goal-line in the dying seconds of a hard-hitting, hardfought game and hit him in the numbers for the winning score of a dramatic 28-24 triumph at Tim Hortons Field. “We talked about it all year, that it was going to come down to one play,” Philpot, a product of the University of Calgary, told TSN. “I dreamed about this as a kid, to get the game-winning touchdown. This is surreal.” Fajardo told TSN the result was a triumph of his team’s collective spirit and his own unwillingness to give up his football career. “It’s a true underdog story,” he said. “Maybe one day I can write a book about it.” On a chilly, clear night in Hamilton before a sold-out audience of 28,808, the CFL got a thrilling championship game featuring two teams that had, incredibly, never met before in a Grey Cup. The Bombers built an early 10-0 lead, were up 17-7 at halftime and took a 17-14 margin into the fourth quarter. But despite being far more experienced while making their fourth straight Cup appearance, for the second year in a row the West champs couldn’t finish the job. Montreal trailed the entire way until, with 11 minutes left, Fajardo hit former Ohio State Buckeyes receiver Auston Mack with a hitch pass at the 13-yard line and Mack ran it to pay dirt for a 21-17 lead. It didn’t last. The Bombers got a good kick return, then drove 56 yards in just under six minutes before backup quarterback Dakota Prukop plowed into the Montreal end zone for his second touchdown of the game and restored the Winnipeg lead, 24-21. Toronto had denied Winnipeg a three-peat last year in Regina, but this time it looked like the Bombers would be good enough to claim a third title in four years. But Fajardo, very ordinary in the East final win over the 16-2 Argos, had other ideas. Facing a do-or-die third-and-five chance at the Winnipeg 50-yard line, Fajardo faded back and heaved one that receiver Cole Spieker came down with at the Bombers 19. On the next play, Fajardo found Philpot in the end zone for the winning score. The game capped what has been another year of essentially treading water for the league. Viewed from a positive point of view, commissioner Randy Ambrosie has overseen stability, including bouncing back from a season lost to COVID. From a more negative perspective, none of Ambrosie’s extravagant promises, including the never-ending discussion of a 10th franchise in Atlantic Canada, have really come to fruition. Even promises of more wideopen offence really haven’t resulted in all that much, and the league was dealt a humiliating blow when its U.S. television partner, CBS Sports, declined to pick up the Grey Cup game after buying 34 regular-season contests. But here’s the thing, the same truism that has long been the case with the CFL: a great Grey Cup washes away all the blemishes, at least temporarily. The game was so good, even CBS might have regrets about not showing it. The underdog Alouettes went in feeling they would likely need to employ a formula similar to the one they had used in the East final to beat Toronto: avoid turnovers and create points through their formidable defence. None of that happened, however, at least not in the first half. Instead, in a wild, up-and-down opening 30 minutes, it was the Alouettes who turned the ball over twice, resulting in a 17-7 Winnipeg lead at halftime. The West champs came out strong, scoring 10 points on their first two possessions, including a nine-yard touchdown run by the CFL’s top Canadian, running back Brady Oliveira. It looked like it might be a one-sided affair at that point. But two plays got the Alouettes into the game. First, a contested catch over the middle by Mack that moved Montreal into Winnipeg territory at the 32-yard line. Running back William Stanback took in from there, romping just across the goal-line to make it a 10-7 game. In the final minute of the first half, trailing 17-7, it looked like Montreal was destined to hit pay dirt again after receiver Tyler Sneed’s catchand-run got the Alouettes to the Winnipeg three. But Stanback managed only two yards, then backup quarterback Caleb Evans was stopped not once but twice from the one-yard line on a fabulous Winnipeg goal-line stand to stop the East champs with eight seconds left on the clock. That looked like it might be a historic stand that would live forever in Winnipeg football history, a story folks in those parts would tell their grandkids about. As it turned out, the Alouettes had more offensive firepower than anyone believed. They also had a quarterback looking to regain his reputation and a receiver with CFL bloodlines who combined to make history in the dying seconds of a brilliant Grey Cup game.