Travis Lulay was named Grey Cup MVP for his efforts in leading the BC Lions to a 34-23 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 99th Grey Cup in Vancouver.
The Canadian Football League should be very happy right now. They like it when the home team has a chance to play in the big game at home, they salivate when they're the favourite, and they giggle with delight when they win.
Anyone who watched the coverage of Grey Cup weekend in Canada would have noticed that the league, and their media partner TSN, clearly wanted the Lions to win. The BC storyline was just too damn good to pass up: a rookie QB who is seen as the future of football in the CFL; a beautifully renovated BC Place stadium; a sold out crowd rooting for the home team that happened to start the season 0-5 and would become the first CFL team ever to come back from such a deficit. It was the stuff of sports movies! Or at least a mini-series.
Winnipeg had a good story, to be fair - the last season spent playing in their fabled Canad Inns stadium before it is retired; the death of assistant Head Coach Richard Harris early in the season; coming from the worst record in the league in 2010 to playing in the Grey Cup in 2011 - but in the end their narrative wasn't strong enough.
They would never make a movie about a team that overcomes diversity and remains...good, but not great. Which is a good description of the Bomber season as a whole.
The Grey Cup game ended at least twice before the final whistle blew. It was over before the fourth quarter even began when BC held a commanding lead over the Bomber 34-9, and despite a last ditch effort by Winnipeg QB Buck Pierce and the Bomber offence, the Lions would hold on to victory 34-23 at home in Vancouver, British Columbia.
BC becomes just the fourth team in 99 years that the league has awarded the Grey Cup to win the title at home. The last team to have that opportunity was Montreal at home against Calgary in 2008, but the Allouettes couldn't get anything going in a snooze of a game against the Stampeders.
Neither QB seemed to be on the same page as his receivers throughout most of the first half. Lulay, normally cool as a cucumber regardless of the circumstances, showed his rookie jitters for the first time in the biggest game of his professional career, throwing high on multiple occasions to wide open wide receivers. He did manage to connect with Winnipeg-native Andrew Harris for an early touchdown and a few Paul McCallum field goals to put up some early points.
Pierce was no better; he was unable to get the Bomber offence moving, putting up only six first half points on two Justin Palardy field goals.
The Lions took a 14-6 lead into the locker room at half time, and over an unusually long intermission that gave Vancouver band Nickelback the chance to play a few songs from their new album, the Lions found their groove.
The Lions would dodge a bullet half way through the third when Winnipeg DE Odell Willis bobbled a clear interception on the BC 10 yard line; had he held on, he had a clear path to the end zone, and a 15 point BC lead would have been cut to 8 with over 15 minutes left to play. Lulay recovered from the close call to lead the Lions the full length of the field to add another seven points courtesy of WR Arland Bruce III.
Winnipeg never recovered from the missed opportunity. Although Pierce was able to connect with WR Greg Carr and SB Terrence Edwards for impressive touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the game ended a second time when, down by 8 points late in the fourth quarter, Winnipeg Head Coach Paul LaPolice gambled. Rather than have K Justin Palardy boot the ball long and hope his league-leading defence come force a quick two and out, he opted for Palardy to attempt a onside kick. And when Palardy was unable to move the ball a full ten yards on the attempt after the Edwards touchdown, BC would take the ball back on the Bomber 42 yard line after the ensuing penalty. A late field goal from McCallum would follow, and put the two-score game officially out of reach.
Pierce would complete 19 of 37 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns and a - somewhat questionable - interception, while Lulay would complete 21 of 37 passes for 320 yards and no interceptions. Both QBs put in predictable performances: Pierce would have flashes of brilliance but remain largely unable to move the ball with consistency and have difficulty avoiding turnovers, while Lulay would go over 300 yards passing and play a clean game of football, taking what the defence gave him in terms of long routes and short passes.
Lulay was named MVP for his efforts in leading the Lions to their sixth Grey Cup, their second since 2006. Andrew Harris, that same Winnipeg native who grew up watching the Bombers, would take the Most Valuable Canadian prize for his efforts in defeating his childhood team.
There were no surprises on the field tonight, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a satisfying game of football. The past five Grey Cups have fluctuated from nail-biting finales to fans checking their watches, wondering whether to grab that early train back to their hotel rooms. This game won't go down in history as one of the league's greatest, but fans weren't disappointed. A defensive battle it was not, which is good for the fans, and ultimately the league.
And now - the off season. And the bittersweet realization that football won't be back in Canada until June, 2012 begins to set in. It's a long winter ahead.