Cody Fajardo looked like No. 23 in his 23rd regular-season start for the Saskatchewan Roughriders .
A la Ron Lancaster , Fajardo has a knack for guiding the Green and White to fourth-quarter comeback victories — the latest example being Friday’s 31-24 conquest of the B.C. Lions in Vancouver.
It did not look promising for the visiting side when Fajardo was intercepted on an ill-advised bomb with 3:01 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But then Riders middle linebacker Deon Lacey made a huge tackle on Lions quarterback Michael Reilly , who was stopped on a second-and-eight scramble two yards shy of the first-down marker.
“I think the game’s over if we don’t get him down there,” Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson said. “That was a huge stop by Lacey.”
Cue Stefan Flintoft, who left the Roughriders and their fans exclaiming “shank you very much!” with a bungled punt that veered right and dribbled out of bounds at the Lions’ 54-yard line with 1:42 remaining.
Six plays later, Fajardo — appropriately enough — surged into the end zone from one yard away with two seconds remaining. Brett Lauther’s convert snapped a 24-24 tie.
Enough time remained for a kickoff by Lauther. The ball was retrieved and fumbled by an unlucky Lucky Whitehead. Damon Webb scooped up the ball and sprinted 44 yards for an insurance major.
Just like that, the Roughriders had a 5-2 record and sole possession of second place in the West Division, having bumped B.C. (4-3) to third spot while sweeping the two-game season series with the Lions.
The lion’s share of the credit or blame, depending on the outcome, is generally directed to the quarterback. That is invariably an oversimplification in a team sport, especially on a night like Friday when players such as Lacey, Lauther, receivers Ricardo Louis and Brayden Lenius , defensive tackle Micah Johnson and linebacker Micah Teitz made key plays.
But there is a reason why elite quarterbacks such as Fajardo command top dollar.
With the game on the line, they are invaluable. They have an uncanny ability to enliven the offence when the cause seems lost, while shaking off interceptions such as the one that was thrown to the Lions on Friday night.
“I was down in the dumps after the pick,” Fajardo said in a post-game Zoom call with reporters, “but a lot of guys came to me on the sideline and picked me up.”
And he soon reciprocated.
Where, I inquired after Friday’s game, does he get that from?
“I wish I could tell you,” the 29-year-old franchise pivot said from Vancouver. “I really don’t know.
“What does help is when you have the experience of a couple of (fourth-quarter) drives for touchdowns, you do have that confidence. But it also helps when you have the vote of confidence from your teammates, your coaches, a lot of defensive guys coming to me after I threw the pick and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to get the ball back and you’re going to drive down and score.’
“I was in the dumps and I was struggling and Coach (Jason) Maas said, ‘Why are you hanging your head? We’re going to get the ball and we’re going to go down and score.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, we are.’ That’s the kind of stuff, the positivity, that I like because it really helps you calm everything around you and you see it a little bit clearer.”
There was one clear parallel to one of the rare games in which Fajardo couldn’t quite rescue the Roughriders in the waning seconds.
Rewind to Nov. 17, 2019, when the Roughriders played host to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West Division final.
On Saskatchewan penultimate possession of that game, Fajardo — who was playing despite an assortment of injuries, including two torn oblique muscles — was stuffed on a quarterback sneak on third-and-one.
Then, as on Friday, Fajardo and the Roughriders’ offence had one more chance.
In the final minute, they moved the ball to the opposition’s five-yard line, where they had a first down.
On the next play, on both occasions, Fajardo was trapped behind the line of scrimmage for a loss.
Against Winnipeg, his final two passes were incomplete — the dagger being a third-down toss that hit Mosaic Stadium’s north-end crossbar. Make the final: Winnipeg 20, Saskatchewan 13.
On Friday night, however, Fajardo was able to shake off the first-down sack. He proceeded to connect with Kyran Moore — the target on the infamous “crossbar” play — for an eight-yard gain, setting up Saskatchewan on the one-yard line.
Fajardo then crept across the goal line to set up Lauther for the tie-breaker.
So, I asked Fajardo on Friday night, did the football gods even things out?
“Sprinkle of Jesus there, for sure,” he responded, “and I did draw back to the 2019 game.
“Honestly, that drove a lot of my off-season workouts — getting stopped on the short-yardage (play). That was something that kept me in this league for as long as I was — the fact that I was a good short-yardage guy.
“I just tried to draw back in that situation and draw back to those times when I have moved the chains and I’ve had a good percentage.
“I trust those big guys up front. (Veteran centre) Dan Clark was playing through an injury and he did a great job of moving up front. I’m just proud of those guys.
“It was a really fun game — probably one of the most fun games you can have that comes down to the last play of the game.”
The dramatic ending was somewhat reminiscent of Aug. 1, 2019, when Fajardo scored on a run on third-and-goal from the five-yard line with 24 seconds left to propel Saskatchewan to a 24-19 home-field victory over the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Such was the climax of Saskatchewan’s seventh game of the 2019 season.
There was more Game 7 magic from the Roughriders’ No. 7 on Friday night, when the visitors won by seven.
The Lions may have had Lucky Whitehead, who scored the first two touchdowns of the game, but the lucky seven belonged to the Roughriders.
The news seems to be flying at us faster all the time. From COVID-19 updates to politics and crime and everything in between, it can be hard to keep up. With that in mind, the Regina Leader-Post has created an Afternoon Headlines newsletter that can be delivered daily to your inbox to help make sure you are up to date with the most vital news of the day. Click here to subscribe.