The 110th Grey Cup is giving off real “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object” vibes.
Let’s start with the chalk in Sunday’s game: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Western Final winners have also won two of the last three Canadian Football League championships as well as eight of their last 10 games. They are consistently very good, which is why some sportsbooks still had them as eight-and-a-half point favourites Friday morning.
And yet Winnipeg is rolling into Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Sunday to face a team that is more or less as hot as them: the Montreal Alouettes. The Eastern Final winners have emerged victorious in seven games in a row, including a stunning 38-17 playoff upset of the Toronto Argonauts (owners of a 16-2 regular-season record) last week at BMO Field.
It’s the rock of the CFL in Winnipeg versus a runaway freight train of a team in Montreal. Football gods willing, Sunday’s game should be a good one.
Furthermore, the CFL’s embrace of legal sports betting and the growth of wagering on the three-down football league mean some bookmakers are dangling a bit more than your average gambling fare for the Canadian version of the Big Game.
Covers spent some time this week hanging around the Grey Cup festivities, listening to players and coaches talk about the task before them. In case of interest, then, here are five more things bettors may want to know about before plunking down some cash on the CFL’s season-ending matchup.
How do you stop the sack attack?
Montreal quarterback Cody Fajardo was sacked seven times by Toronto last week. He now faces a Winnipeg pass rush that forced 53 sacks of their own during the regular season, including six in their two games against the Alouettes. Finding a way to slow down the likes of Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat could be crucial for Montreal on Sunday.
“We’ve got to make sure that we have a great game plan to take care of the guys up front,” Montreal offensive coordinator (and CFL passing legend) Anthony Calvillo said during the Grey Cup media day on Wednesday. “And we feel very confident about that, and we're going to practice this week, make sure everything looks good, and make our adjustments as we go along. But that's always the first thing that we look for, is how are we going to stop the guys up front.”
A balanced lifestyle
The Blue Bomber offence presents another conundrum for Montreal, as Winnipeg has proven they have multiple ways to attack defences. That was underscored by the fact Winnipeg averaged a league-best 139.1 rushing yards per game and a league-second-best 292.4 yards passing.
Blue Bomber running back Brady Oliveira, who rushed for a league-leading 1,534 yards this season and claimed the league's Most Outstanding Canadian award, broke down the Winnipeg offensive threat in simple terms for reporters this week.
“Stack the box, we'll throw it over the top,” Oliveira said during media day. “You’re light in the box, we're gonna gash you.”
And here’s Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea talking about the Bomber run game as a scissor lift reverses offscreen. pic.twitter.com/5FxzoYMPdV— Geoff Zochodne (@GeoffZochodne) November 15, 2023
Banged up Bombers
Winnipeg may be the favourites on the field, but they have gotten some bad breaks injury-wise recently, giving Montreal an edge in terms of player health this week on paper.
Among those missing practice for the Blue Bombers were 1,000-yard receiver Dalton Schoen and linebackers Adam Bighill and Kyrie Wilson. Slotback Nic Demski was also reported as a DNP on Wednesday and Thursday, although he was a game-time decision last week, too, and ultimately played. Covers saw him catch a few footballs on the field during practice.
Montreal, meanwhile, is looking remarkably healthy, reporting just a few limited practices for defensive end Shawn Lemon and offensive tackle Nick Callender. Even receiver Kaion Julien-Grant, who missed the Eastern Final and racked up 129 receiving yards against Winnipeg during their Week 4 matchup, was listed as a full-go this week.
The new-look Als?
Lemon, interestingly, was not a member of the Alouettes to start the year. The veteran pass rusher didn’t even have a CFL roster spot until the season was well underway, joining Montreal in late July. That, however, didn't stop Lemon from finishing the year with nine sacks, eighth-best among defenders.
The Alouettes added another influential piece on defence later in the season in linebacker Darnell Sankey, who did not play in either of the team’s games versus Winnipeg this year. Sankey didn't step on the field for Montreal until September, and, since then, Montreal has won seven of their last eight games.
Alouette defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe agreed earlier this week that the defence Montreal rolls out Sunday against Winnipeg will be improved compared to the last game played between the two teams in August.
“Yeah, I think there’s no question about that,” Thorpe said during media day. “As we go back and we're looking at the game film … these guys look and they say, ‘Geez we look different.’”
Ironing out the wrinkles
Winnipeg head coach Mike O'Shea likewise agreed that Montreal is a better football team now than earlier in the year, but suggested the Blue Bombers could have a few new things of their own come Sunday.
“I guess there's always wrinkles in every game, but we don't change our prep,” O’Shea said. “Our three coordinators do a great job of making sure they put a plan together that the players can execute, and we stick to a very simple process that we follow week in and week out. So that doesn't change. A week like this changes … the draw on players’ time, but we do our best to fix that.”