By MARTY KLINKENBERG
Monday, November 26, 2018
EDMONTON -- The Calgary Stampeders overcame two years of frustration and a slippery field on Sunday to beat the Ottawa Redblacks, 27-16 in the 106th Grey Cup at Commonwealth Stadium. It is the eighth time the team has won the championship of Canadian football and the first time in four years, and comes after losses in the title game in each of the last two years.
Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell - the CFL's most outstanding player this season after tossing a league-best 35 TDs - was 24-for-36 passing for 253 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in what could be his final game with the Stampeders.
The talented quarterback from Texas - who was the game MVP - has reportedly received queries from teams in the NFL.
The loss ended the Redblacks' dream of winning another Grey Cup. It was their third appearance in the championship finale since their inaugural season in 2014.
They won in 2016.
A sellout crowd of 55,819 turned out on a chilly but seasonable day for late November in northern Alberta. The temperature was near freezing at kickoff and fell over the next few hours. Players on both teams struggled with their footing on the icy turf. Thousands of fans tailgated in the parking lot beforehand and cheered wildly for three hours after that in between a halftime performance by Alessia Cara, the Grammy Awardwinning singer from Canada.
If not exactly rooting for the Redblacks, many Edmontonians cheered against their provincial rivals, booing as they came out for pregame warmups. Calgary will play host to the Grey Cup next year, perhaps then Calgarians can return the favour if the Eskimos get that far. After a promising start, they went 9-9 this season and missed the playoffs.
Both teams looked nervous at the start. Ottawa's Brad Sinopoli, the league's most outstanding receiver, dropped an easy throw from Trevor Harris on the second play. Mitchell underthrew a receiver in the end zone and was picked off by Jonathan Rose, who was suspended for shoving an official during last week's East Division final but had the decision reversed on appeal. Harris had another throw batted down, then had a poorly thrown toss intercepted at his own 37-yard-line by Ciante Evans.
That turnover led to the game's first score, a 21-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Mitchell to Eric Rogers. The Redblacks blitzed on the play, leaving Rogers wide open in the right flat. He bolted into the end zone untouched.
Ottawa put a drive together at the end of the first quarter but still ended up without points. Lewis Ward, the most outstanding rookie and special-teams player in the CFL, sent a 48-yard field goal try wide to the left. The Redblacks kicker made 51-of-52 previous field-goal attempts this season, including a record 33 in a row.
Ward made amends a few minutes later, however, converting a 29-yard kick with 12 minutes 32 seconds left in the second quarter to cut Calgary's lead to 7-3. The field goal was set up by a 27-yard completion from Trevor Harris to R.J. Harris. It was only Harris's second completion of the game. He had three attempts go awry in the first quarter; he only missed three passes in a 46-27 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East Division final last week.
The Stampeders drove 75 yards to their second score, a drive that featured completions by Mitchell of 20 and 11 yards to Rogers, 26 yards to Julian Lynch, five yards to Chris Matthews and 17 for a touchdown to Lemar Durant with 8:10 left in the second. The teams traded turnovers - another interception by Mitchell and a fumble by Ottawa's William Powell - before Harris found Julian Feoli-Gudino down the sideline for a 55-yard score. A two-point convert pass from Harris to Jean-Christophe Beaulieu trimmed Calgary's lead to 14-11with 2:15 left in the half.
Disaster struck for the Redblacks on the next-to-last play of the half when Calgary's Terry Williams fielded a punt at his own 13 and raced 97 yards, reaching the end zone with one second remaining. It was the fourth punt Williams has returned for a touchdown this season, and the longest in Grey Cup history.
The teams traded field goals in the third quarter, then Rene Paredes of Calgary added another in the fourth to increase the margin to the final.
With the victory, the Stampeders' Dave Dickenson avoided the ignominy of becoming only the second coach to lose three Grey Cups in a row.
The always-confident Mitchell had joked this week about coming out on the losing end in the two previous Grey Cups. He said he planned to eat a bowl of Wheaties for breakfast Sunday morning from a box with Doug Flutie's picture on it for good luck.
Former teammates had sent messages urging him on throughout the week.
"People have been texting and saying, 'Hey man, go finish the thing,' " Mitchell said Saturday after the Stampeders' final pregame practice.
Calgary easily won both regular-season meetings between the teams and was listed as a fourpoint favourite.
The Stampeders scored the second-most points in the league and allowed the fewest while compiling a CFL-best 13-5 regularseason record. They were the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot in Week 13, but struggled in the West Division final before coming away with a 22-14 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Ottawa went 11-7 before it clinched a berth in the Grey Cup with the triumph over Hamilton in the East final. Harris set a playoff record by completing 90 per cent of his passes and throwing for six touchdowns in the game.
It was the first Grey Cup start for the 32-year-old, who played for a handful of teams in the Arena and United Football Leagues before he landed in the CFL in 2012 with the Toronto Argonauts. He has started most of Ottawa's games since 2016, but sat out its Grey Cup victory over Calgary when Henry Burris returned from injury.
"There have been some dark times," Harris said this week. One UFL team he signed with folded nine days into training camp, him and all of the players on another team were fired en route to their opening game. "It tests your perseverance.
"It is the beauty of football. It is a unique thing that challenges your mental courage, your emotional courage and your physical courage."
Harris threw for 5,116 yards during the regular season with fewer touchdowns (22) and interceptions (11) than Mitchell. The league's MVP threw for 5,124 yards and 35 touchdowns with 14 interceptions.
Durant was named the outstanding Canadian with four catches for 30 yards and a TD and a 22-yard run.
He was 1-2 in two previous Grey Cups, but his 366 passing yards per game were the second-most in CFL history.
"It is the hardest game to get to, but I prepare myself to be in it all the time," Mitchell said. "I pride myself on not shying away."
The Stampeders were 8-1 this season while leading after the first quarter, 10-1 when they led at halftime and were 11-0 when they held a lead at the end of the third.
The Redblacks were 3-5 when they trailed at the half and only 2-6 when behind entering the fourth quarter.
Calgary was 11-0 in games where they had fewer turnovers than their opponent, and 0-5 when they had more. Ottawa was 9-1 when they had fewer turnovers than its opponent, and 1-4 when it had more. That form held true in the most important game of the year: The Redblacks turned the ball over five times; twice on fumbles and three times on interceptions thrown by Harris, the last two late in the fourth quarter.
Ottawa Redblacks wide receiver Greg Ellingson watches the ball slip through his fingers after failing to complete a touchdown pass during the second half of the Grey Cup against the Calgary Stampeders in Edmonton on Sunday.
JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Governor-General Julie Payette, centre, flips a coin as Calgary's Bo Levi Mitchell and Ottawa's Trevor Harris keep their eyes on it before Sunday's Grey Cup in Edmonton.
NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS