The Saskatchewan Roughriders disappointing 25-21 defeat at the hands of the Toronto Argonauts was a dolorous end to a promising season. Like many road warriors in professional football history, the Riders entered the Eastern Final at BMO Field as the underdog crossover playoff participant from the other division, and the team packed to be away for three consecutive weeks in hopes of reaching the Grey Cup in Ottawa.
Initially, Saskatchewan’s defense appeared to let the sizeable Toronto crowd know that the issue of which franchise was headed for the championship game would be settled quickly. The Argos gambled on a third and inches play and lost when the Roughriders forestalled running back James Wilder Jr.’s effort to gain a first down.
Rider Nation observed what they believed would be a harbinger of success as quarterback Kevin Glenn was able to make completions with wide receiver Duron Carter and friends into Toronto’s territory. The drive ended without a major, but Saskatchewan was able to salvage three points from placekicker Tyler Crapigna for an early advantage with approximately 8:45 remaining in the first.
Moments later, another Roughrider drive failed and opted to punt the football from deep on their side of the field. The television commentators seemed willing to lambaste Head Coach Chris Jones for not conceding the safety in lieu of better field position on the next kickoff. All the conjecture was meaningless as Argos quarterback Ricky Ray completed a pass to running back Anthony Coombs for a short gain, but he fumbled the ball after a collision with two Roughriders that was recovered by Saskatchewan.
The contest turned dramatically when Glenn threw an interception at the 4:55 mark of the opening quarter to linebacker Terrance Plummer who expediently scored a touchdown as the Argonauts led 7-3 prior to conclusion of the first quarter. Glenn began feel intense pressure upon him from Toronto’s defense, especially after defensive lineman Shawn Lemon earned three sacks in the first half alone.
As the Argonauts’ defense began to assert itself, Jones elected to rotate quarterbacks Glenn and Brandon Bridge akin to the method of the late Tom Landry did with Roger Staubach and Craig Morton in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, the alternating experiment by Jones was almost as unsuccessful for him as it was for Landry during the second and third quarters.
The Roughriders’ offense was stuck in neutral following numerous interceptions and a plethora of two downs and out series. In fairness, both squads were equal with ten two downs and out failures each into the third quarter. Offensive futility for much the game was more of a testament to execution of defensive stratagem than feckless offensive units.
Nevertheless, the Toronto Argonauts managed to increase their lead with a major and a field goal following Saskatchewan infractions that extended drives and a Glenn interception on the Riders’ side of the field with less than 30 seconds remaining in the first half for a 17-3 advantage. When the snow flurries began to fall as the second half commenced, the Argos attempted a 43-yard field goal attempt by placekicker Lirim Hajrullahu that off-target to the right, but the ball was deep enough into the end zone of the Riders to surrender a rouge (single point); Toronto’s lead expanded to 18-3.
At 12:00 in the third quarter, the Roughriders averted a disaster by not fumbling a punt return inside of the ten-yard line. Bridge returned as quarterback for the preponderance of the contest. He used his legs to avoid the rush and ran for significant yardage deep into the Argo’s side of the field.
Bridge hit Carter for a touchdown at 8:47. The pivotal scoring drive provided light in the darkness for the Roughriders as they proved to themselves an ability to sustain drives in Toronto despite defensive pressure or dissonance from the clarion calls of fans of the Argonauts. Carter was so willing to impact the game that he even substituted as a defensive back at times for an injured teammate.
Perhaps, another factor in Saskatchewan’s resurgence was the all over the field presence of linebacker Henoc Muamba, especially in the second half. Muamba played an integral part tackling players and preventing them from advancing the football for first downs.
The Roughriders’ specialist Christion Jones scored a potential game winning punt return for an incredible 79-yard touchdown. Following a successful completion by Bridge for a two-point conversion, the Riders led Toronto 21-18 with only 2:44 on the clock in the fourth quarter.
At 1:16, the Argonauts faced a third down that could have given the victory to the Roughriders, but Ray managed to fire a poniard at Wilder Jr. down the seam for a first down inside of the 20-yard line. Ray followed this effort with another completion to receiver Armanti Edwards at the one-yard line.
Head Coach Marc Trestman inserted backup quarterback Cody Fajardo for short yardage. Fajardo successfully scored the game winning major after a second lunge into the line. After a Saskatchewan fumble from a failed lateral on their last possession, Toronto ran the clock out for the 25-21win to punch their ticket to Ottawa to face the Calgary Stampeders in the 105th Grey Cup next Sunday.
Rider Nation was left to deal with the realization that the valiant effort of their team concluded as a hardscrabble without the spoils of victory. Fortunately, the Saskatchewan Roughriders will have another opportunity to fortify the team additional talent to accompany the added experience of a youthful roster.