Hilltops hang on 28-21 semifinal win over Winnipeg
The Saskatoon Hilltops have advanced to the Prairie Football Conference final with a 28-21 win in Sunday’s semifinal at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, but the Winnipeg Rifles caused some tense moments in the late going with a comeback that fell one touchdown short.
The Hilltops jumped out to a 7-0 win on Josh Ewanchyna’s 87-yard return of the game’s opening kick-off for a touchdown. However, the Hilltops were unable to seize that early momentum.
A 35-yard field goal from James Vause extended that lead to 10-0 in the final minute of the first quarter but the Rifles got on the scoreboard midway through the second. A roughing the passer penalty following a pass completion gave Winnipeg a first and goal at the five-yard line, where quarterback Jonathan Remple would find Cole Chowen deep in the end zone for a major to reduce Saskatoon’s lead to three points.
The Toppers regained the 10-point advantage in the final minute of the half as quarterback Jordan Walls finished off a drive with a 13-yard touchdown strike to Sam Mike, one of his nine catches on the day. The veteran receiver from Holy Cross became an almost exclusive target for Walls as fellow veteran pass-catchers Ryan Turple and Jason Price were unable to play because of injuries suffered during last weekend’s win over the Huskies in Edmonton.
Adam Machart got the game-winning touchdown on a 3rd-and-goal surge from the one-yard line around eight minutes into the third quarter. Machart replaced Logan Fischer in the backfield late in the second quarter as Fischer tweaked a lower-body injury. Machart gained 105 yards on 19 carries while Fischer had piled up 108 yards on 13-carries.
Vause closed out the third quarter nailing his second field goal of the game from 37-yards out to give the Hilltops a 27-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
A single point on a missed field goal from 41 yards away extended the lead to 21-points less than three minutes into the final quarter, but the Rifles wouldn’t go away.
The Saskatoon defence limited Winnipeg’s running game so Remple went to the air and it paid off with a scoring strike to Griffin Shillingford with 2:56 remaining.
The Toppers were unable to move the ball after an unsuccessful on-side kick allowing the Rifles another possession and they would take full advantage. Remple found Alexander Tachinski for an 18-yard touchdown connection with 47-seconds left on the clock.
Ricardo Mathias-Bueno would sail a second onside kick attempt into the Winnipeg sidelines giving the Toppers the ball and Walls would run for a first down allowing the home side to kill the clock and seal with adversity laden victory.
Saskatoon would uncharacteristically turn the ball over twice on fumbles and the offence seemed unable to find a rhythm. Walls completed 13-of-24 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown, while defensive back Logan Kelsey-Stern had an outstanding game with six tackles and an interception.
The Hilltops will host Regina in the PFC final next Sunday as the Thunder knocked off the Huskies 24-21 in Edmonton, coming back from an 11-1 deficit late in the second quarter.
The Toppers and Thunder split the season series with Saskatoon winning 37-20 on opening night at Mosaic Stadium in Regina and the Thunder staged a big second-half comeback to post a 29-26 win Sept. 9, at SMF Field.
The three-time defending PFC and Canadian Bowl champion Hilltops will be playing in their 11th straight league final. The game can be heard on 92.9 THE BULL.