REGINA - Zach Collaros was healthy and ready to lead Saskatchewan to a Grey Cup championship in 2018. But Roughriders head coach Chris Jones just couldn't risk his starting quarterback's health again.
Collaros did not dress in the CFL West Division semifinal against the Blue Bombers on Sunday, a game that Winnipeg won 23-18 to advance to the West final next weekend in Calgary. Jones made the decision less than 24 hours before kickoff on Sunday after Collaros told him something was off.
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Instead, Brandon Bridge started at quarterback for the Riders. He was tapped as the starter earlier in the week, as Collaros' status remained questionable.
The scenario reminded Jones of earlier in the season when Collaros missed four games after he suffered a concussion in Week 2 against the Redblacks.
Jones said Collaros returned from the Riders' bye week healthy after he absorbed a brutal helmet-to-helmet shot from Odell Willis in the team's final regular-season game on Oct. 27 versus the B.C. Lions.
"(Collaros) was cleared, so on paper he could go. I just did not (feel comfortable playing him),'' said Jones. "It was kind of a revisit from the Ottawa week, and I just was not going to risk it.''
On Sunday, Bridge completed 12-of-22 passes for 100 yards. He also carried the ball five times for team-high 86 yards. Though the Riders were unable to find the end zone until late in the fourth quarter. Nick Marshall scored on a one-yard run.
"I feel like we left some plays on the field and we just needed make them,'' said Riders receiver Naaman Roosevelt. "It comes down to execution. Things like blocking, catching the ball, running the right routes and making those plays is what it comes down to. Whoever is (at quarterback) just has to execute what is being called.''
Could a healthy Collaros have made a difference?
"That's hard to say,'' Jones said. "Brandon did a really nice job standing in for him. (Winnipeg) pressured a lot and who's to say that either guy would have been any better?''
Saskatchewan's Willie Jefferson said it was one play that separated the Blue Bombers and Riders on Sunday - a two-yard touchdown run from Andrew Harris with five minutes remaining in the game, a score that put the visitors ahead 23-12.
"It came down to who wanted it more,'' Jefferson said. "Their offence capitalized on a big play and got into the end zone. Our offence couldn't get into the end zone when they had the chances. We just came up short.''
The Riders' offence, instead, settled for four field goals from kicker Brett Lauther.
"We had our opportunities,'' Jones said. "If we just could have got one of those balls in for a touchdown it might be a little different.''
For the second consecutive game, a helmet-to-helmet hit on a Roughriders quarterback had CFL fans buzzing after the game's conclusion.
With the Riders trailing 23-18 in the final minute of play, Bridge was crushed by a hit from Winnipeg's Jackson Jeffcoat after a pass downfield. Bridge stayed motionless on the turf for a few minutes before he walked off under his own strength.
There was no penalty on the play.
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie Twitter after the game that the hit on Bridge was "a missed call.''
"Watching this occur and seeing via the ref cam that the on-field referee's view was blocked, my reaction is we need to look this off-season at allowing the Command Centre to make the call on plays such as this one, clear matters of player health and safety. We need to do more than admit an error. We need to search for a solution.''
(Canadian Press/Craig Slater)
POSTGAME COMMENTS FROM CHRIS JONES
- I coulda coached em better, number one. And we gotta get a stop there at the end to give us more time. There are a lot of things we could've done better. We can't take anything away from Winnipeg. They've got a great team and will be tough down the stretch here.
- We didn't tackle well. We had Harris close to the line of scrimmage but didn't tackle well in the second half.
- We knew early in the week that Zach wasn't ... he came back from the break and didn't have any problems, and he was cleared, and on paper he could go, but it was a revisit from the Ottawa week and I just wasn't going to risk it.
- I told them I love them. I appreciate all of them. I want to wring their neck one minute and hug them the next. We had 12 rookies out there at one point. We're not perfect and do a lot of things wrong, but they show up to work everyday. It makes it easy to work 18-19 hours a day with these guys.
- Zach said he didn't feel quite right. He didn't say it was a concussion but he didn't feel 100%. I didn't want to risk another situation like Ottawa. He said it was similar to that.
- They're still evaluating Brandon right now.
- We had our opportunities. We kicked some field goals. If we could've got just one in, it might've been different. At the end of the day it was a team effort, and it always will be.
- They got the turnover there and turned that into points. That really was the turning point in the game.
- We played hard. We played extremely aggressively defensively. We didn't tackle well and that's one thing we'll look at, and wish we did better. It was our left hand tonight. It didn't really work for us.
- Brandon did a nice job standing in there for him. They pressured a lot. Who's to say either guy could've done any better?
- I hate more challenges. I'm not an advocate of challenging everything. It'll never be perfect but when it's right at the point of attack, you'd think, with as many people looking at it, that they'd get a few of those right. That's how I look at it. Hindsight's 20/20.
- Eguavoen's a good football player and played good football all year long. He's come in and done everything we've asked him to do. He was nicked up all year long, and played well on special teams too.
- Streveler's tough to tackle. There's no doubt about it. You got him tackled and he leans forward and adds 3 or 4 more. He adds another dimension to their football team.
- Moncrief's injury forced us to move people around, but tackling was what hurt us tonight.
- Winnipeg's much better than what Ottawa was at this point last year. You can't compare one year to the other. If you don't win the Grey Cup, it doesn't make any difference when you lose. If you don't win the Grey Cup, it's all for not.
- Winnipeg's what we thought. They're a good team. They won the turnover battle and you win, and they won it today. You turn it over between two evenly-matched teams, that'll be the difference and that's what happened.
(RodPedersen.com Wire Services/Ryan McKenna)