VANCOUVER — Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo felt like he'd scored the game-winning touchdown against the B.C. Lions Friday night, but a boisterous crowd left him momentarily confused.
There were just two seconds left on the game clock when Fajardo reached through traffic on the crowded goal line for a third-down quarterback sneak.
The sold-out crowd at B.C. Place in Vancouver erupted.
“In away games, I usually rely on the crowd to hear what kind of happens with the play. And there was a huge uproar so I was like, ‘Oh, maybe they called a stop,'" Fajardo said.
When the QB saw the referee raise his hands to signal the touchdown, he realized there was simply a plethora of Saskatchewan fans in the stands and they were celebrating a play that saw the Riders pull ahead in the final minutes of a dramatic game.
"Our Rider fans are incredible and they travel really well," Fajardo said.
The play clinched the win, but moments later, Damon Webb poured salt in the Lions’ wounds, recovering a fumble by B.C. wide receiver Lucky Whitehead and darting into the end zone for another major as time expired to cap the score at 31-24.
Saskatchewan coach Craig Dickenson said the game was one of the most thrilling he's experienced in the CFL.
“It wasn’t the highest scoring game but, man, I thought it was exciting," he said. "Our guys stayed together. Even though there was times it looked like we were starting to lose our composure, I thought we rallied. Every group struggled and every group made plays. I’m just really proud of them.”
The Riders faced adversity several times Friday and will learn from it, the coach added.
"We’ve got a lot of heart and I think it showed," he said.
Fajardo threw for 279 yards, one touchdown and one interception on the night, completing 24-of-31 attempts. Kicker Brett Lauther had four field goals for Saskatchewan, including a 49-yard bomb in the first quarter.
Lions quarterback Michael Reilly had 259 passing yards, and made good on 23-of-34 attempts, including a pair of touchdown passes to Whitehead.
The win gives Saskatchewan (5-2) sole possession of second place in the West Division and snapped a three-game win streak for the Lions (4-3).
“I like our fight, I like our spirit. This is a tough one. This one hurts," said Rick Campbell, B.C.'s head coach. "I think we can play with anyone in this league. There’s a list of plays you can think of in your mind that if any one of them go our way, we’re going to win this thing."
The Riders were first on the scoreboard when Lauther made a 38-yard field goal 5:52 into the game.
B.C. was quick to respond. Reilly connected with wide receiver Bryan Burnham on a 28-yard pass on the next play, then followed it with a short toss to Whitehead.
The speedy Florida Atlantic product evaded several Saskatchewan defenders and streaked 47 yards down the sideline for his first touchdown of the night.
Whitehead leads the CFL in receiving this season with 665 yards in seven games.
A solid Lions defence kept the Riders frustrated and pinned in their own territory for much of the first half.
Lauther kept Saskatchewan within striking distance, booting a 49-yard field goal to close out the first quarter and a 28-yard kick early in the second.
Reilly struggled at times to connect with his receivers in the first half.
But with less than a minute to go in the second frame, the veteran QB narrowly avoided a sack, then got a running pass off to Jevon Cottoy for a 26-yard gain. He then sent an 11-yard dish to Whitehead to set up a first-and-goal, then once again found Whitehead in the end zone for B.C.'s second major of the night.
Jimmy Camacho made the converts on both plays and the Lions took a 14-9 lead into halftime.
A 21-yard pass from Fajardo to Kyran Moore put the Riders in good position early in the third, but B.C.'s Jalon Edwards-Cooper spoiled the ensuing touchdown attempt, knocking down a pass before it reached the hands of Mitchell Picton as he waited in the end zone.
Saskatchewan settled for yet another Lauther field goal, this time from 30-yards out.
B.C. responded with a field goal of its own, a 32-yard kick by Camacho.
Saskatchewan caught a big break in the final minutes of the third when Whitehead fumbled a punt return, giving the Riders the ball at the Lions 48-yard line.
Minutes later, Fajardo blasted a 23-yard pass to Ricardo Louis in the end zone, giving the Riders their first touchdown of the night 13:16 into the quarter. Saskatchewan was stymied on the two-point conversion attempt, though, keeping the score 18-17.
The strike was Louis' first not only in the CFL, but in his pro-football career. The 27-year-old wide receiver is playing his first season in the league after spending three years with the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
“It was a great feeling, an amazing feeling. Those are the feelings that we chase as players, the chance to score and help our team to win," Louis said, adding that he and Fajardo talked about the play right before the game and reviewed some film.
"It happened just the way we seen it on film and we executed the play.”
Down a point heading into the final frame, the Lions refused to relent.
About four minutes into the quarter, Reilly made an 11-yard run to give his side a first down at Saskatchewan's 31-yard line. Ed Gainey tripped Burnham in the end zone on the next play and the pass interference created a first-and-goal opportunity for the Lions.
Reilly handed the ball off to Shaq Cooper and the running back snuck across the goal line for the touchdown. B.C. went up 24-18 after Camacho made the convert.
Camacho later missed a 43-yard field goal attempt.
Edwards-Cooper came up big once again with three minutes left in the game, intercepting a long pass from Fajardo along the sidelines, but the Lions couldn't stop the Riders' final push.
The Lions will face a tough test on Oct. 1 when they host the league-leading Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Saskatchewan will visit the Calgary Stampeders the following night.
NOTES: Saskatchewan defensive back Ed Gainey returned to the lineup after missing two games with an injured toe. … The Lions gave out 10,000 orange shirts with a reimagined logo by Kwakwaka’wakw/Tlingit artist Corrine Hunt to mark the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press