Cody Fajardo’s one-yard touchdown run with 23 seconds left in regulation time lifted the Toronto Argonauts to a 25-21 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday in the CFL’s East Division final.
Toronto advances to the Grey Cup game, Nov. 26 at Ottawa’s TD Place. The Argos will face the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL’s title game.
Saskatchewan was the 10th team to cross over from the West Division to the East Division playoffs since the format was instituted in 1996. After Sunday’s outcome, all 10 of those West squads have come up short in their bid to make the Grey Cup game. The Roughriders became the fourth of those teams to lose in the East final.
“I thought that we were going to be the one to make history,” fullback Spencer Moore said after Saskatchewan’s season ended. “I told the guys, ‘It’s history in the making today. We’re going to get to the Cup.’
“I don’t think (the history of crossover teams) played too much into it. We fought right to the end.”
The Roughriders trailed Sunday’s game 18-3 early in the third quarter before mounting a furious comeback.
Christion Jones’ 79-yard punt return for a touchdown and Naaman Roosevelt’s two-point convert gave Saskatchewan its first lead of the game, 21-18, with 2:44 left in regulation time.
The Roughriders’ defence had been stout throughout the game, but it couldn’t hold off the Argos in the game’s dying moments.
“We huddled up on the sideline (after the punt return) and we said, ‘We’re going to need another drive,’ ” Roughriders quarterback Brandon Bridge said. “We knew that Ricky Ray was possibly going to go down (the field).
“Obviously we didn’t want him to get a touchdown, but we had a feeling that, if anything, they’d get a field goal and we’d have to go down and score. With Ricky Ray back there, anything is possible.”
The final drive featured a 23-yard pass from Ray to James Wilder Jr., on a third-and-five play from the Roughriders’ 40-yard line.
Four plays later, Fajardo scored the deciding TD.
“When you lose a ball game of this magnitude but on top of that when you’ve played good defence all day and right there when you need it you can’t hardly get a stop and get off the field, it’s tough,” said Roughriders head coach-GM Chris Jones.
The Argos accepted the opening kickoff and got into Roughriders territory on their first offensive play, a 32-yard pass from Ray to Anthony Coombs.
But Saskatchewan held over the next three plays, including a stop of Wilder on a third-down gamble at the Roughriders’ 29-yard line.
Saskatchewan then drove 73 yards in eight plays before its march stopped at the Toronto eight-yard line. Tyler Crapigna then kicked a 16-yard field goal and the Roughriders led 3-0 at 6:21 of the first quarter.
The Argos got on the board at 9:56 of the first quarter when Terrance Plummer intercepted a Kevin Glennpass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. Jones threw his challenge flag on the play seeking a roughing-the-passer call on Victor Butler, but the challenge was denied.
Hajrullahu added the convert and Toronto led 7-3.
The defences then took over, as the teams combined for seven punts and two interceptions over their next nine possessions.
But the Argos turned Glenn’s second interception of the game into a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ray to DeVier Posey at 13:47 of the second quarter. Hajrullahu booted the convert to make it 14-3.
Glenn’s next pass was intercepted as well — this time at the Saskatchewan 34-yard line — but the defence held and forced Hajrullahu to attempt a 35-yard field goal. The kick was good at 14:31 of the second quarter and the Argos took that 17-3 lead into halftime.
Glenn was at the controls of the offence for seven of the Roughriders’ 10 first-half possessions. He completed six of 13 pass attempts for 87 yards with three interceptions. Bridge was 0-for-3 on his three possessions in the first half.
“That’s what happens in professional sports,” said Glenn, who didn’t play in the second half. “If you play professional sports, you understand that some days are just not your day and today wasn’t mine.”
A missed 42-yard field-goal try gave the Argos a single at 2:52 of the third quarter to make it 18-3 — and that was the only point of the frame.
Bridge got the offence going on one drive early in the fourth, completing three of four pass attempts for 46 yards and rushing once for 36 yards. His 11-yard TD pass to Duron Carter, followed by Crapigna’s convert, cut the lead to 18-10 at 5:57 of the fourth quarter.
It was the first touchdown pass by a Canadian quarterback in a CFL playoff game since the Ottawa Rough Riders’ Russ Jackson threw one in the 1969 Grey Cup game.
After the defence forced another Toronto punt, Bridge put together another scoring drive. Crapigna’s 28-yard field goal at 10:16 got the Roughriders within five at 18-13.
Christion Jones’ punt return and Roosevelt’s two-point convert gave Saskatchewan a 21-18 lead, but Fajardo’s QB sneak put the Argos ahead for good.
Because of Ray’s heroics, the Argos are going to their first Grey Cup game since 2012, when Chris Jones was their defensive co-ordinator. The Roughriders, meanwhile, are headed home just one win shy of reaching the CFL final.
“It’s tough,” Glenn said. “You work so hard to get to this point. Professional sports gives you so many highs and so many lows. It can change in a split-second. With that punt return and then to turn around and they march back down, your emotion goes from here (putting his hand up) to here (dropping his hand) just like that. No other profession does that to you.”
Ray was 28-for-39 passing for 266 yards with one TD and one interception. Bridge finished 11-for-21 for 141 yards and rushed twice for a team-high 43 yards.
Carter was the Roughriders’ leading receiver with six catches and 99 yards, while Roosevelt had five receptions for 71 yards. Coombs topped the Argos with nine catches and 77 yards.
The loss ended a season in which the Roughriders won 10 regular-season games — twice as many as they won in 2016 — and reached a division final.
“We showed what we’re capable of,” Moore said. “We proved a lot of people wrong even getting to this point in the playoffs. Obviously I’m proud of that and I’m proud of the effort the guys put out today. We fought right to the end, but it hurts. It always hurts.”
Calgary beat Edmonton 32-28 in the Western final and will take on the Argos in Sunday's Grey Cup game in Ottawa.