WINNIPEG — It was the last game at Canad Inns Stadium, and you could tell. A ceiling tile in the press box collapsed because of a water leak early in the game; there were leaks reported elsewhere as well, and presumably the odd ice floe. The south scoreboard had a few surviving light bulbs, but not enough to tell you how much time was left, or the down and distance. It might have a history, but it’s hard to see how this place will be missed.
Its final game wasn’t exactly a crowning masterpiece, but nobody here seemed to mind. In a defensive struggle on a slick carpet that robbed Hamilton of much of its speed — and with Hamilton quarterback Kevin Glenn again star-crossed when it mattered — the Winnipeg Blue Bombers booked a ticket to the Grey Cup with a 19-3 victory in the Canadian Football League’s Eastern Division final on Sunday.
Winnipeg had lost seven of its last 10 games, and backed into hosting this game. In a season defined by mediocrity, they are the last team standing in the East. Someone had to be.
With the temperature a tidy –14C at game time, and on a field that didn’t afford the same kind of carpeted comfort Hamilton enjoyed at Olympic Stadium last week, it was a game of field position, of incrementalism. Hamilton opened the scoring on an 18-yard field goal eight minutes into the game; Winnipeg’s attempted response involved a third-and-one late in the first quarter from the Hamilton 28, and the Bombers elected to try a handoff from the shotgun. Running back Chris Garrett ran straight into the back of a couple of his own offensive linemen and Winnipeg turned the ball over on downs.
But the Bombers kept coming with a superior gound game, and a defence that never allowed another point. Winnipeg’s first touchdown came on the kind of trick play that receiver Terence Jeffers-Harris — released by Winnipeg Thursday, signed by Hamilton Friday — must not have had in his playbook. On first-and-goal from the three-yard line, backup quarterback Alex Brink rolled out and hit defensive end Jason Vega for a touchdown with 10:58 left in the second quarter.
Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce, meanwhile, was just good enough. He fumbled twice in the first half, but got lucky. The first time it was recovered by teammate Cory Watson; the second time the oft-injured Pierce dove under charging linebacker Rey Williams and somehow escaped with both the ball and his health. Two plays later, Garrett fumbled but poked the ball out of bounds. The drive sputtered at the Hamilton 15, and the field goal gave the Blue Bombers a 10-3 lead at halftime.
Five minutes after halftime, history repeated itself — not precisely, but close enough. In 2007 Glenn was leading Winnipeg to an East final victory in Toronto when he and Charles Roberts fumbled a handoff — Glenn dove for the ball and had his arm broken by Argonauts linebacker Kevin Eiben. Winnipeg was forced to give Ryan Dinwiddie his first career start in the Grey Cup, with predictable results.
This time, Glenn took off and ran from his own 16, and got five yards before he was dragged down by Winnipeg’s Rodney Fritz. It was an innocuous enough play — you figured a fumble was a possibility — but the Hamilton quarterback stayed down. He was helped off the field, slowly. He never came back. When the Tigers-Cats got the ball back, Quinton Porter replaced him.
And with that, the game was essentially decided, though we might have been heading there anyway. The Winnipeg defence, the team’s passport all season, came with a renewed fury, and Porter eventually committed Hamilton’s first turnover of the day, throwing an interception with 9:28 left in the fourth. Hamilton had been one for 10 this season when held below 30 points; this made it one for 11.
Pierce, meanwhile, kept running into the teeth of the Hamilton defence, refusing to slide despite his history. Too often his opponents have been the bulls, and Pierce has been the china shop. This time, he avoided disaster, over and over. It may not be the wisest approach, but the 30,051 brave souls in the stands seemed to appreciate it. He tossed a late interception with just under seven minutes left, but it didn’t matter — Porter was like a taller Dinwiddie, and Hamilton’s season was done. Winnipeg out-gained Hamilton 271-39 on the ground, and 449-176 overall, and scored a touchdown on the game’s last play. Nobody cared enough to kick an extra point. The Bombers held the ball for 12:45 in the fourth quarter alone.
So now it’s off to Vancouver for the Bombers, despite everything. Someone had to survive the mess in the East, in this season of inescapable parity. Someone had to stagger out of the muck. Winnipeg hasn’t won back-to-back games since Labour Day. Meanwhile, since Winnipeg beat B.C. twice in early August, the Lions have won 10 of 11 going into the West final against Edmonton. Of course, in this crazy CFL season, one never knows.