REGINA - The ground attack was a big reason for the Saskatchewan Roughriders' success this season and they executed it flawlessly in the biggest game of the year.
Kory Sheets earned MVP honours after running 20 times for a record 197 yards and two touchdowns to power Saskatchewan to a dominant 45-23 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Sunday's Grey Cup. The Riders became the third straight host team to win the CFL title with their first-ever championship at Mosaic Stadium, which will be replaced in 2017.
Sheets anchored an effective running game that racked up 268 total yards to net Saskatchewan its fourth Grey Cup title but first since '07. He delighted the raucous crowd of 44,710 by smashing the previous mark of 169 yards, set in 1956 by Edmonton's Johnny Bright.
Sheets finished second in CFL rushing this season with 1,598 yards while the Riders had the league's No. 2 ground game (128.8 yards per game).
Sheets was especially dominant in the first half Sunday, running for 128 yards and a TD in leading Saskatchewan to a commanding 31-6 halftime advantage. But the running back said the ground attack wasn't all that was clicking for the Riders.
"Everything," he said. "The pass, the run, protection was great, the defence was great, special teams was great. It was just our night."
Sheets said the Rider fans — who turned the stands into a sea of green — also gave the West Division champions a huge advantage.
"I said it before the game started, this is not a neutral crowd," he said. "The fans are going to be in here knocking and rocking and they proved it.
"I can't wait to hit the streets and party with the fans. It's going to be amazing."
And in Sheets' mind, his Grey Cup performance only solidifies his case as the CFL's best running back.
"You're looking at him," Sheets said.
But while Sheets grabbed most of the headlines this season, Riders GM Brendan Taman built his team to win a championship.
In January, he acquired veteran slotback Geroy Simon from B.C., then in free agency signed defensive ends John Chick and Canadian Ricky Foley as well as outspoken defensive back Dwight Anderson. All four were previous Grey Cup champions and proven veterans who were looked upon to provide leadership to an already solid existing core.
In October, Taman gambled by acquiring rush end Alex Hall from Winnipeg. Hall had a CFL-leading 15 sacks at the time but is scheduled to become a free agent in February and plans to pursue NFL opportunities.
Saskatchewan's defence established itself as the CFL's stingiest, allowing a league-low 22.1 points per game and finishing tied for the interceptions lead (24). And in Sunday's first half, the Roughriders held Hamilton to just three yards rushing and five first downs.
For years, Simon was the No. 1 pass catcher in B.C., but had assumed more of a supporting role in Saskatchewan. Although Simon became the CFL's all-time leading receiver this season, he was fourth on the Riders with 40 catches for 565 yards and three TDs. On Sunday, he had three receptions for 67 yards and his first two Grey Cup touchdowns.
"When I came here I said I was willing to do whatever it took for us to win," Simon said. "But I knew eventually the ball would come my way. (Riders quarterback Darian Durant) said early in the week that he was going to give me opportunities and we took advantage of those opportunities.
"I’ve won Grey Cups before. I’ve won a Grey Cup at home before but this is a little bit special, leaving the situation that I left in B.C. to come here and just to feel that it was the right decision. Nothing would have made it right but winning the Grey Cup."
Riders slotback Chris Getzlaf, a Regina native, was the game's top Canadian with three catches for 78 yards.
The aerial game was a key element of Hamilton's offensive gameplan. Led by CFL passing leader Henry Burris, the Ticats had the league's No. 2 passing attack, averaging 299.7 yards per game.
But Hamilton had just 127 yards passing and 130 total yards in the first half and Austin said his club simply fell too far behind.
"We didn't make enough plays, period," he said. "We played a better football team, they were just better than we were. They converted a lot of second downs, especially in the first half. We just dug too deep of a hole."
Burris, who rallied Hamilton from a 24-10 deficit to beat Toronto 36-24 in the East final, pulled Hamilton to within 31-16 on his 18-yard TD run early in the third quarter and a drive that Luca Congi capped with 33-yard field goal early in the fourth. But Sheets cemented the win with a five-yard touchdown with just over five minutes remaining.
Weather was a consideration but not because of the frigid temperatures that gripped the city for most of the week. At kickoff, it was 1 C and had only dropped to -2 C at the end of the game. On Saturday, the Grey Cup parade was held in frigid -35 C conditions. The biggest obstacle was the brisk northwest wind that gusted between 30 and 50 kilometres an hour. Saskatchewan was more opportunistic, outscoring Hamilton 37-10 with the wind.
Riders fans serenaded Burris — a former Saskatchewan starter who was the '08 Grey Cup MVP with Calgary — with chants of "Henry!" throughout the contest. But Rider Nation had plenty to cheer about as the home team won the championship after disappointing Grey Cup losses to Montreal in 2009 and '10. Durant started both losses to the Als but threw three TD passes to anchor his first CFL championship as Saskatchewan's No. 1 quarterback.
"You're the quarterback of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, you're going to get a lot of cricitsm and some of it's going to be undeserved," said Getzlaf. "No one deserves this win more than he does."
Durant was a workmanlike 17-of-24 passing for 245 yards and three TDs while adding 26 yards on seven carries. But he also had three first-half fumbles.
It was a disappointing end for Hamilton, which came in having won 11 of 15 games despite the challenge of having to play with a young roster in Guelph, Ont., this season while their new stadium is being built. As well, Burris, slotback Andy Fantuz and Austin were all former Riders returning here looking to earn Hamilton its first Grey Cup win since '99.
Burris finished 20-of-43 passing for 272 yards with an interception. He was also Hamilton's leading rusher with 34 yards, including an 18-yard run.
Austin suffered his first playoff loss after five straight wins as a CFL head coach. He led Saskatchewan to Grey Cup wins in '89 as the club's starter, then in '07 as head coach before leaving to become an assistant with his alma mater, Ole Miss.
Jock Sanders and Weston Dressler also scored for Saskatchewan. Chris Milo had the converts and a field goal.
C.J. Gable had Hamilton's other touchdown. Congi had two field goals and two converts.
The game had star appeal as actor Tom Hanks attended with comedian Martin Short, a Hamilton native. Early in the third, Hanks was shown replacing a Ticats toque with a Riders hat, drawing a loud roar from the crowd.
Pop group Hedley performed at halftime.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was also in the crowd.
"I would like to congratulate the Saskatchewan Roughriders on today's victory and their remarkable season," he said in a statement. "I would also like to applaud the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for their significant achievement of winning the Eastern finals."