They leaned over railings, hung from windows and bellowed from seats near the top of the stadium. Winds of economic necessity had spread fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders across the country, but every single one of them stood unified in rapture as the Grey Cup brushed past general manager Eric Tillman.
“There’s no place like home,” Tillman said, sweaty and smiling. “I’m thrilled beyond words for our fans, the best fans in the league. They’ve been starved for success for so long. They’ve been behind this franchise through thick and thin, they bleed green and they deserve this.”
Saskatchewan ended the Canadian Football League’s longest championship drought in front of a wildly partisan crowd Sunday night, squeaking out a 23-19 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 95th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre. The Roughriders had not won a title since 1989, and had lost in 13 of their 15 all-time appearances.
An interception by defensive back James Johnson with 54 seconds left in the fourth quarter cemented the outcome. It also earned Johnson a place in CFL history – because he became the first player to intercept three passes in a Grey Cup game, and also because he was named the game’s MVP.
Roughriders’ receiver Andy Fantuz of Chatham, Ont., was named most outstanding Canadian. The 23-year-old caught four passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.
The Roughriders had entered the week as 11-point favorites because of an injury they had no role in causing. Blue Bombers quarterback Kevin Glenn, the only player to throw for 5,000 yards during the regular season, broke his left arm in the East Division final and gave way to backup Ryan Dinwiddie.
No quarterback had ever made his first start at a Grey Cup or Super Bowl until Dinwiddie trotted on to the field last night.
Winnipeg built a 7-0 lead on the strength of its defense in the first quarter. An interception led to a 16-yard field goal from kicker Troy Westwood, while a two-and-out and a three-and-out forced the Roughriders to concede a pair of safeties.
“I could see him looking at what he wanted to do,” Johnson said. “Stegall was his go-to guy, his blanket, so I was jumping it every time I had a chance.”
Dinwiddie rebounded in the third quarter when he hit Derick Armstrong on a 50-yard touchdown pass to give the underdogs a 14-13 lead. Saskatchewan’s offence stalled, and relied instead on Luca Congi, who kicked three three-field goals.
Saskatchewan quarterback Kerry Joseph also seemed lost at times. The 34-year-old, who was named the CFL’s outstanding player last week after throwing three times as many touchdowns 24 as interceptions eight during the regular season, often reverted to running the ball by himself.
His first breakthrough only arrived with help from a pass interference call in the fourth quarter, setting up a short dump to Fantuz. The Canadian shed a pair of would-be tacklers to get into the end zone, 29 yards away.
Joseph completed 13 of 34 passes for 181 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He finished as the game’s leading rusher, though, with 101 yards on 10 carries.
“We had a strong game, but it’s the Grey Cup, and it wasn’t strong enough,”
In defeat, the Blue Bombers inherit the CFL’s longest active streak of futility, having not won the Grey Cup since 1990. Winnipeg also sent Stegall through another year without a title, likely sending him into retirement as the greatest player never to have won a Grey Cup.
It is the kind of hardship the Roughriders had known all too well. “We have a saying in Saskatchewan,” said Roughriders offensive lineman Gene Makowsky. “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”
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