If Cody Fajardo didn’t have the confidence of his teammates before, he does now.
Fajardo guided the Saskatchewan Roughriders to a 24-19 come-from-behind victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Thursday night, scoring the winning touchdown on a five-yard run with 44 seconds remaining.
Even more improbable than the victory itself was Fajardo played most of the second half on an injured right ankle after being sacked by Dylan Wynn early in the third quarter.
Fajardo pounded the turf after the tackle before jumping to his feet and running awkwardly to the bench. He got his ankle taped, jogged a bit on the sideline and returned to the game without missing an offensive play.
He admitted he was surprised to finish the contest.
“I was a little worried in the third quarter, I got rolled up on and my ankle was hurting. I got a sprinkle of Jesus and somehow I was able to finish the game,” said Fajardo.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a game come down to the last play like that. Our defence and special teams kept us in the game. I told our offence, ‘Guys, it’s a one possession game. We can go down, score and finish with the ball in our hands.’ They really responded even though some things weren’t going well.”
The winning touchdown came on a naked bootleg around the left end with Fajardo beating two Hamilton defenders to the end zone. Fajardo dove at the last second, reaching the pylon with the ball before sliding out of bounds.
“I made a business decision diving for the pylon on that run. I have a play in practice where I dive for the pylon and the coaches tell me not to do that. But this time it worked out,” said Fajardo.
Riders head coach Craig Dickenson felt that Fajardo delivered a statement performance given he ascended to the full-time starting job after Zach Collaros was dealt to the Toronto Argonauts on Wednesday.
“You can say a lot but when you back it up with that sort of performance, that performance being hobbled up a little bit, guys rally around guys that they know are tough and will put the team before themselves,” said Dickenson, who presented Fajardo with a game ball.
Fajardo completed 25-of-31 passes for 313 yards, and had 56 more on the ground to lead the Roughriders (4-3) to their third win in a row.
His top target on the night was receiver Shaq Evans, who finished with seven catches for 160 yards. William Powell also ran in a TD while Gabriel Ferraro booted three field goals.
Dane Evans made his first start for Hamilton (5-2) at quarterback in place of the injured Jeremiah Masoli. He went 19 for 29 for 196 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
Hamilton announced this week that Masoli will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury suffered against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last week.
Saskatchewan has won four of five games since beginning the CFL season 0-2, including a Week 1 loss in Hamilton against the Ticats.
The Riders controlled the first half, totalling 280 yards of total offence while taking a 13-6 lead into the break.
Evans struggled to find a rhythm in the first half. The Ticats generated only 90 yards of total offence with Evans going 8 for 11 passing for 81 yards and one interception.
The game’s momentum changed in the second half as Evans, making just his second CFL start, went 13-of-18 passing for 115 yards and one touchdown. A 29-yard field goal by Lirim Hajrullahu, his fourth of the game, gave Hamilton a 19-13 lead with 7:38 remaining.
Luke Tasker was Hamilton’s top receiver, catching five passes for 97 yards. Anthony Coombs had Hamilton’s lone touchdown, scoring on a 13-yard reception in the first quarter.
With one victory over Toronto and two wins over B.C., many felt the Riders had yet to beat a quality opponent. That changed Thursday night and Dickenson felt his club deserved the victory.
“It was a gut check win for sure,” said Dickenson. “We wanted to be physical, we knew it would be a physical game. We had some guys fall out (with injuries). I didn’t say a whole lot after the game. I just congratulated them on the win, told them it was a three-phase win and I thought they did a great job.”