By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press
REGINA — Zach Collaros is happy to ride the whirlwind.
A Winnipeg Blue Bomber for less than six weeks, the quarterback helped his new team to a 20-13 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Sunday’s West final and to a berth in the Grey Cup.
The Bombers, who finished third in the West with an 11-7 record, take on the East Division’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats (15-3) in next Sunday’s Grey Cup game in Calgary.
The Ticats downed the Edmonton Eskimos 36-16 in Sunday’s East final.
Collaros started the season a Roughrider, but was traded twice and landed in Winnipeg on Oct. 9 via the Toronto Argonauts.
The 31-year-old pivot experienced the Grey Cup in 2012 as a rookie backup for the Argos, who hoisted the trophy that year.
Collaros was Hamilton’s starter in the 2014 Grey Cup when his Ticats were beaten by the Calgary Stampeders. Five years later, he’ll experience the CFL’s championship game again.
“My first three years you know you’re thinking ‘I’m going to do this every year, or every other year,'” Collaros said after Sunday’s win.
“Not everybody gets to do that. It’s a precious thing and you’ve really got to cherish it. It’s not easy to do. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s a really exciting feeling.”
In his third straight start as a Bomber, Collaros completed 17 of 25 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown throw to Kenny Lawler.
He engineered a pivotal first-quarter drive to score the only touchdown of the game.
From their own three-yard line, the Bombers raced downfield on a three-play, 107-yard scoring drive that included Collaros’s 63-yard pass to Darvin Adams and his 26-yard touchdown throw to Lawler in the end zone.
Justin Medlock kicked field goals from 44, 43, 32 and 13 yards for the Bombers, who won a second straight playoff game on the road after going 3-6 away from IG Field in the regular season.
Saskatchewan’s Brett Lauther kicked field goals from 12, 13, 33 and 42 yards in front of an announced sellout of 33,350 at Mosaic Stadium.
The Roughriders topped the West division with a 13-5 record, and thus had a bye week while the Bombers beat the Stampeders 35-14 in the division semifinal.
But Saskatchewan starter Cody Fajardo played Sunday with what he revealed following the game to be a pair of torn oblique muscles.
He couldn’t run the football as aggressively as he had in a season of 611 rushing yards. Fajardo was 27-for-41 in passing for 366 yards and was intercepted once.
Trailing by a converted touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Roughriders were on Winnipeg’s doorstep three times and failed to produce a major.
On a third-and-goal with four seconds left, Fajardo’s pass to the end zone bounced off the crossbar.
“I just told coach the crossbar is 80 per cent air and 20 per cent iron, and I hit it,” Fajardo said.
“It’s a pretty sick feeling in my stomach. Just the fact the play didn’t get to be played out. When you hit the crossbar, it’s a dead ball. Felt like we had a guy open.”
Winnipeg’s defence denied Fajardo on a one-yard plunging attempt for a touchdown with 2:37 remaining.
Trailing 17-7 to start the fourth, the Roughriders had third-string quarterback Bryan Bennett under centre for a short-yardage scoring play. A miscommunication cost the hosts a touchdown.
“As an offence we didn’t deserve to win that game,” Fajardo said. “We got down there inside the five I believe three times and didn’t score a touchdown.”
Winnipeg last played in a Grey Cup in 2011 when the Bombers fell 34-23 to the host B.C. Lions.
Blue Bomber fans haven’t celebrated a Grey Cup win since 1990.
“We’re one step closer,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. “I’m pretty sure they’re not going to be satisfied nor will we, unless we handle our business.”
The one-two punch of Collaros and rushing quarterback Chris Streveler that was so effective in a semifinal win over Calgary was deployed less Sunday perhaps due to Streveler’s injured foot.
Streveler, who rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown against Calgary, threw one incomplete pass in his only appearance in the first half.
Saskatchewan’s defence was ready for Streveler to run in the second half, holding him to 10 yards on four carries.
But the Roughriders offence dashed the hopes of their fans with fourth-quarter near-misses.
“Look at that finish. That game was wild at the end. I enjoyed every minute of that,” O’Shea said. “If that film travelled across North America, how could anybody not love our game?
“It’s easy to believe in our guys. We’re going to find a way to get it done. I know it was a crossbar and it’s kind of anticlimactic really.”
After knocking off the 2018 Grey Cup champions and the West Division’s top team in the playoffs, the Bombers need to win just one more game against a higher-ranked team to hoist the trophy at McMahon Stadium.
“We’ve got to make sure we stick to our process and our preparation, try to avoid all the noise that a Grey Cup brings and think about this as just a football game and not the Grey Cup, which is tough to do,” O’Shea said.
— CFL (@CFL) November 18, 2019