HAMILTON — With the game on the line, Cody Fajardo and Tyson Philpot delivered the Montreal Alouettes a most unlikely Grey Cup title.
Fajardo's 19-yard TD pass to Philpot with 15 seconds remaining rallied Montreal to a thrilling 28-24 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday. It earned the Alouettes their first CFL title since 2010 and followed an uncertain off-season that saw the franchise taken over by the league in February, then sold a month later to businessman Pierre Karl Peladeau.
Fajardo's toss capped a stellar seven-play, 83-yard march. It included a clutch 31-yard completion to Cole Spieker on third-and-five before a Tim Hortons Field sellout of 28,808 as Montreal ended its season with eight straight wins.
"When you grow up as a kid, you always want the ball in your hands with the game on the line on the biggest stage," Fajardo said. "I remember taking the field, I was so calm.
"I know once Cole went up and made that play, I said, 'It's all happening for a reason.'"
Winnipeg had a final chance to pull out a comeback win. Zach Collaros completed a pass to punter Jamieson Sheahan, who tried to boot the ball into the endzone but it fell short and was recovered by Montreal.
"He (Fajardo) channelled his inner Ricky Ray," said Montreal defensive lineman Shawn Lemon, who won a Grey Cup with Ray in Toronto in 2017. "Maybe it was the moustache but we did it.
Fajardo also earned his first victory in 10 career head-to-head matchups versus Collaros.
Philpot, 23, of Delta, B.C., was the top Canadian with six catches for 63 yards. He said there was a quiet confidence in Montreal's huddle on the game-winning drive.
"Cool, calm and collected," he said. "We knew all game they weren't stopping us, it was us stopping ourselves.
"So we had to do our jobs, take it little by little and march it down the field. That's what we did."
Winnipeg, in the Grey Cup for a fourth straight year, suffered a second consecutive loss after beating Hamilton in 2019 and '21. The Toronto Argonauts edged the Bombers 24-23 last year.
"You look at the entire game and we’re a few plays short," said Winnipeg head coach Mike O'Shea. "That's about it.
"And they made some plays. They generated some plays in good, timely positions."
Fajardo finished 21-of-26 passing for 290 yards with three TDs and an interception to claim MVP honours. He won his first Grey Cup as a starter after earning a ring with Toronto in 2017 as a backup.
Heady stuff, considering little was expected this season from Montreal, which lost quarterback Trevor Harris and receiver Eugene Lewis in free agency. But GM Danny Maciocia hired head coach Jason Maas and signed Fajardo when Saskatchewan moved on from both _ Maas was the Roughriders' offensive co-ordinator _ after dropping their final seven regular-season games to miss the CFL playoffs.
Fajardo seriously contemplated retirement before signing with Montreal. This week, Fajardo called the Alouettes "a band of misfit toys."
"Danny offered me a two-year deal when most teams were offering me a one-year deal and that's what solidified it for us," he said. "My wife (Laura) said, 'You're not done yet, you're not going to go out the way we did losing seven straight and basically getting booted out of (Saskatchewan).
"I owe everything to her, I owe this night to her."
Maas earned his fourth Grey Cup but first as a head coach. His first two came as a quarterback with Edmonton (2003, '05) before winning in 2012 as Toronto's quarterback coach.
But Maas was happy to see his quarterback come through with a clutch performance.
"It looks good on him because the guy pours his heart and soul into everything he does," Maas said. "He's given everything he's had to this team.
"It's nice to see the offence there at the end score when it really needed to. He's the leader of that."
The loss tarnished a stellar effort by Winnipeg running back Brady Oliveira. The CFL's outstanding Canadian ran for 119 yards and a TD, his third 100-yard rushing performance in as many games this year versus Montreal.
Dakota Prukop's four-yard run at 9:32 of the fourth put Winnipeg ahead 24-21. Fajardo had staked Montreal to a 21-17 lead _ its first of the game _ with a 13-yard TD pass at 3:48 to Austin Mack, who had six catches for 103 yards.
The 28-yard scoring drive was set up by Philpot's 30-yard punt return.
Collaros, the first CFL quarterback to start four straight Grey Cups, finished 19-of-23 passing for 236 yards with an interception.
Linebacker Adam Bighill (right calf) and receiver Dalton Schoen (ankle) both played for Winnipeg despite neither practising this week. Bighill was injured in last week's West Division final while Schoen, the club's top receiver, hadn't played since Oct. 6.
Both saw action but each was substituted throughout the contest. Schoen had three catches for 36 yards while Bighill recorded a tackle.
Montreal, which entered the game an eight-point underdog, earned its eighth Grey Cup in 19 appearances.
Winnipeg's Sergio Castillo booted three converts and a field goal.
William Stanback and Spieker scored Montreal's other touchdowns. David Cote added four converts.
Fajardo's 23-yard TD strike to Spieker _ with Bighill trying to defend _ pulled Montreal to within 17-14 at 1:43 of the third. Winnipeg threatened, driving to the Als' nine-yard line before Kabion Ento intercepted Collaros in the endzone.
A stout defensive stand earned Winnipeg its 17-7 half-time advantage. Middle linebacker Shayne Gauthier _ playing where Bighill would normally be _ stopped Montreal quarterback Caleb Evans on third-and-one with eight seconds remaining.
That could've been a turning point in the game. Instead, it galvanized the Alouettes.
"It probably gave them a lot of momentum but it didn't kill us," Maas said. "Just go out and play another 30 minutes as hard as we can, leave it all on the line and play for each other."
Added linebacker Darnell Sankey, who joined the Alouettes in September: "We just got together and said, 'We believe. We're not going to lose. We are not going to lose.' That's exactly what we came out here and did. We brought it to them."
Prukop's one-yard run at 12:08 of the second staked Winnipeg to a 17-7 advantage. It was set up by Mike Miller's recovery of James Letcher Jr.'s punt-return fumble at Montreal's 29-yard line.
Stanback's 32-yard TD run at 14:55 of the first cut Winnipeg's lead to 10-7. The four-play, 77-yard march was an impressive answer to Oliveira's five-yard TD run at 12 minutes that capped the Bombers' eight-play, 66-yard possession that was aided by a questionable unnecessary roughness call on Montreal's Mustafa Johnson.
Castillo opened the scoring with a 25-yard field goal at 6:28 as Winnipeg had possession for 11 minutes, five seconds in the quarter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2023
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press