In a game where six Regina players each caught multiple passes, it's only fitting that a receiver way down on their depth chart scored the winning touchdown.
Keyed by a 95-yard, nine-play comeback drive and capped off by a Marc Mueller-Connor Haas connection in the fading seconds, the 4-1 Regina Rams racked up more than 500 yards of offence while beating the 3-2 Manitoba Bisons 30-27 in Friday night's matchup of top-10 teams.
For the longest time Friday night, it seemed like the winner would be whoever lost more slowly. Most of the first three quarters were sluggish and sloppy, and the game ended up having eight turnovers and 213 yards in penalties. Both teams opened it up in the fourth, though, scoring 27 between them after the score was just 11-10 Regina at the half.
Mueller, who of course missed all of last year to injury, looked to be hurt at the beginning of his team's eventual winning drive. He stayed in the game and, along with his team and a few pass interference calls (some legit, some not, going both ways), drove from his own 15 all the way to the house to take the lead back for good. Haas had caught only four passes prior to this game, and picked up just two more last night, but couldn't have timed the second one any better. (He is seventh on the team in catches and yards, but now second in receiving touchdowns, with two.)
Regina had to come through with their comeback when down 27-23 late in the fourth, but it was made possible in part by some early Manitoba mistakes that could get overlooked in all the second-half activity. In particular, the Rams' largest lead came right after Manitoba's star returner Nic Demski made a key but subtle mistake.
Midway through the third, Regina stalled out in Manitoba's end, but were able to punt the ball close to their opponents' end zone. Instead of letting it roll and taking the single point, Demski picked it up on the 2 and brought it only to the 6. Typically teams will end up conceding a safety when starting that close to their goalposts, so there was a very real chance that Demski cost his team at least one direct point immediately. When you add it all up, though, this poor decision combined with some others may have cost Manitoba the game nearly as much as the Rams' last-minute drive.
Suppose that punt turned into a single point. Following the rouge, the Bisons would have had the ball on their 35-yard line, possession at which is worth about 0.6 points on average to them based on expected points by field position. In other words, the value of starting from their 35 partially offsets the single point they would concede, giving them a net loss of 0.4 points.
So for a conceded safety to be the right decision, they would need to pin the Rams so deep on the kickoff that the two points they spot them are offset to the tune of 1.6 points of field position. Doing so is basically impossible: a more likely starting point for Regina is their own 40, which is worth a point or so to the Rams — and now we're at three points total.
This means the Demski misplay, caused just by not letting the ball bounce six or seven more feet, cost his team about 2.5 points on its own.
In hindsight, it looks even worse, of course: with that next possession, Regina scored a touchdown to go ahead 20-13, their first (but not last) lead of the game.
It wasn't the only such Manitoba miscue. Early in the first, they chose to attempt a field goal on 3rd and 7 from the 14, which may not seem like a big deal but in general that takes nearly a point off the scoreboard compared to going for it. Why? Simply put, you lose the chance to maintain possession. And even if Manitoba failed, they would keep the Rams deeper in their end zone than where they start after a field goal.
Right after call that they were flagged for a 15-yard penalty, which costs teams another point on average. This happens now and then in games but it was so close to the previous mistake that it seems worth mentioning. We're now at a total of 4.5 points, easily more than the final margin of victory for the Rams.
Later in the second, they also punted on 3rd and 2 in their own end, which I'll be nice about for now and call a borderline decision, but it really didn't work out when Jamir Walker returned that punt 63 yards. A field goal on the ensuing short drive tied the game and Manitoba would have to scratch back just to have the lead again. Again that's with hindsight, but now I'll stop being nice and say even before the return it was the wrong call. 3rd and 2 is simple to convert in Canadian football.
Why does all this matter? They lost because Mueller threw for 400 yards and their defence let him march the length of the field, right? Yes and no. In any game, but particularly a close one, you never want to leave points on the field. The Bisons cost themselves two or three points in the first half alone, and then at least two more on that one punt "return" in the third quarter. With some more discipline and less conservative play-calling, this could very well have been a close win for Manitoba rather than a stomach-punch loss.
All those small mistakes were nearly made irrelevant because, in the fourth, the Bisons did retake the lead, if not permanently. After the teams traded field goals, Manitoba scored two majors: Cam Clark's TD pass to Anthony Coombs after two pass interference calls that so enraged the Regina-friendly broadcasters cut their deficit to 23-20, and then on their very next drive Clark found Brendon Bowman for a 55-yard score and the 27-23 lead.
With two minutes left, these Manitoba scores would set up the dramatic ending described above — which was made all the more interesting by the fact that Regina arguably scored the winning touchdown twice. A few plays before Haas scored, Mueller threw to Jared Janotta in the corner of the end zone for what looked like the game-deciding reception. However, it was waved off on offensive pass interference that I never saw — though, with only one camera on the webcast, there's a lot I didn't see.
Overall, it really wasn't a good game for the Bisons. There's the obvious — Clark went 9/28 for 236 yards and threw four interceptions — and aside from the mistakes already mentioned, Walker's big punt return and the blocked field goal showed the need for improvement on special teams as well. Walker told the sideline reporter that after he faked one way, all he could see was green and then was off to the races, and Tyler Perkins, the defensive lineman who got his hand on the field goal, shrugged it off as being "not too hard." Neither of these remarks inspires confidence in Manitoba's punt coverage or field-goal teams.
The Rams were not immune to criticism either, though I think when compared to Manitoba they are generally a more talented team who can overcome their mistakes. The second half had barely started and Regina already had two fumbles, a very poor punt (22 yards out of bounds), and a turnover on downs. You can call those unavoidable or fluky, but effectively having four turnovers on the first 11 drives of the game kept them from pulling as far ahead as they probably should have.
It was, unsurprisingly, impressive to watch Mueller work. The single-camera nature of the broadcast meant lots of wide shots of the field, and that allowed for a greater appreciation of his needle-threading abilities. It doesn't hurt either that basically all the Rams did was throw: Mueller finished with 55 pass attempts for 35 completions and 397 yards, and Regina only tried 22 running plays, even with the lead in the second half.
This Regina side knows too well from last year how much losing an important player can hurt, so any injury is perhaps considered more seriously than usual. Shortly after the third quarter began, the Rams lost one a receiver in a serious injury, and near the end they seemed to lose yet another. The first one was Jason Price, who went down on a tackle on a short-yardage reception, and lay on the Mosaic turf for several minutes. It was an awkward fall, as he was nearly jumping/diving backwards with a defender coming down on top of him, and was taken off in an ambulance after a very long delay. And then Kolten Solomon left the game during the last two minutes, depleting the receiving corps even further. This all comes after Mark McConkey, the Rams' second-leading receiver and a conference all-star a year ago, "suffered a torn medial collateral ligament" in practicing for the second game earlier this month. He has yet to appear in a game since. Mueller is, in theory, good enough to work with backup options, and has several other teammates left to work with, notably Janotta, but as mentioned this sort of thing cannot be taken too seriously.
It's hard to look at this game and think either team can succeed against Calgary without a lot of luck. It was close but not well-played. And they have already lost to the Dinos by scores of 37-21 (Regina) and 33-12 (Manitoba). The Rams and Bisons will likely play each other again in the playoffs, in the 2 vs. 3 semifinal, but based on what I saw tonight, their chances seem slim in that following week against what may very well be a 9-0 Calgary team.
Both these teams are actually quite good, and on their better days could certainly play up to the best in the country. A likely result, however, is that the team that has owned this conference for a while will keep on doing that.