1. Mike O’Shea’s Blue Bombers earned their first win of the 2016 regular season on Thursday night, beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by a final score of 28-24. The game started off poorly for O’Shea whose failure to call a timeout ahead of a first quarter field goal attempt contributed to a 51-yard Justin Medlock miss. To make matters worse, O’Shea’s field goal cover unit was burned on the ensuing return that saw Brandon Banks put the Ticats up 7-3 with a 120-yard touchdown return. Still, O’Shea has to be thrilled with the win. For the first time this season, nobody around the CFL is going to be wondering aloud about his future as the head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this week. That chatter will return if the Bombers get flattened by Edmonton at home next week, of course, but silencing those critics must be nice, even if it is just for seven days.
2. O’Shea has been widely criticized for coddling his players too much in Winnipeg, a frequent complaint being his failure to hold players accountable in public settings. Richie Hall, whose defence gave up 512 yards a week ago, pulled no punches in the media this past week, saying his unit “laid an egg” in Calgary and that they “sucked [at] … stopping the run.” The Bomber defence responded by forcing five turnovers and recording four sacks versus the Ticats on Thursday. Nobody asked me, but I’d like to see O’Shea take a leaf out of Hall’s book in future weeks when players and/or units under-perform.
3. The Bombers had fourteen first downs in the first half of Thursday evening’s game, more than double their season-best of six. Winnipeg finished the game with 26 first downs and 33 minutes and 25 seconds in time of possession, two numbers that will have Bomber fans smiling all week long.
4. Justin Medlock went 4-for-6 on field goals on Thursday night, which tells you two things: 1) Medlock needs to be better, and 2) the Bombers need to find a way to avoid settling for field goals. I liked the game Paul LaPolice called between the 25-yard lines, but I didn’t much care for his calls in the red zone.
5. Speaking of LaPolice, the club’s offensive coordinator was back in the booth for the first time since rejoining the Bombers this past off-season. Willy prefers his O.C.s to call the game from the sideline, a preference LaPolice honoured in weeks one and two. In week three, LaPolice was up in the box with quarterbacks coach Buck Pierce manning the sidelines. Did the swap have an impact on the game? I’m not sure. Either way, it’ll be an interesting story line to follow as the season progresses.
6. Yes, folks, Ryan Smith caught his first touchdown pass as a Blue Bomber without looking at the ball. Unaware that Drew Willy had delivered the ball his way, Smith was running a quick slant when the ball made contact with his side. Smith’s arm met the ball with the upward motion of his stride, at which point the first-year Bomber, realizing he was suddenly in possession of the football, crossed the goal line for a touchdown. It’s a play unlike anything I’ve ever seen and, judging by the reaction on social media, may be a first in all of professional football.
7. As great as Smith’s touchdown play looked on television — it quickly went viral throughout Canada and the United States — one has to wonder why he wasn’t ready to receive the pass. The Ticats were sending pressure and Smith was the third receiver to the boundary — he should have been anticipating the ball coming his way. That play (and Thursday night’s entire game, possibly) would have looked a heck of a lot different had that pass bounced off an unsuspecting Smith and landed on the turf.
8. I never cease to marvel at the way in which defenders seem to bounce off Andrew Harris. When a guy like Jerome Messam blows up defenders it makes sense — Messam is a massive tailback 6’3, 260 pounds. Harris, on the other hand, is only 5’10, 210. Still, Harris has consistently made many of the CFL’s best defenders look silly over the course of his CFL career. I’m just happy he’s now doing it in blue and gold.
9. The Bomber offensive line gave up two sacks against the Ticats, one of which came on a bad snap from Matthias Goossen. Considering Hamilton’s reputation for getting after the quarterback, I’d say that’s a pretty fine performance.
10. Speaking of the offensive line, Patrick Neufeld appeared to take three swings at Hamilton defensive back Emanuel Davis at the end of the game with the Bombers in victory formation. Though I didn’t see what Davis did — the scrum was chaotic, to say the least — it’s clear he did or said something to Drew Willy that Neufeld didn’t care for. That’s the type of attitude I want to see from my starting right tackle — protecting the franchise quarterback before, during, and after the play.
11. Speaking of Willy, it was a third straight ultra-conservative game for the Bomber starter. Willy spread the ball around effectively, completing 32 of 42 passes to seven different receivers. Still, Willy connected on just one pass that traveled more than 20 yards through the air — a 40-yard bomb to Darvin Adams that was considerably under-thrown. Willy has already demonstrated tremendous improvement in his ability to get rid of the ball quickly this season, but he’ll need to show an increased willingness to go deep if the Bombers are going to be successful on offence. His overthrow to Ryan Smith in the first quarter was just the latest touchdown taken off the board due to Willy’s long distance inaccuracy.
12. After a wild first half that featured a ton of discussion-worthy plays, TSN chose to spend the first portion of its halftime coverage showing Chris Jones making cornbread in his native Tennessee. Thank goodness for Winnipeg’s local radio coverage on CJOB and TSN1290.
13. Macho Harris made a great special teams play for the second straight week. Last week’s blocked field goal was spectacular. This week’s recovered kick-off was a cerebral play that saw him pounce on a kick-off Brandon Banks figured was headed for the sideline. These are the types of plays that endear a player to his coaching staff tremendously.
14. Travis Hawkins, in at field-side halfback for the injured Bruce Johnson, looked shaky in his Blue Bomber debut. Julian Posey continues to improve at boundary halfback, but I’d say both halfback spots are far from settled at this point in time.
15. I was tremendously impressed with the play of Tiger-Cat defensive tackle Drake Nevis on Thursday night. A former third-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts, Nevis was by far the Ticats’ most impactful defensive lineman against both the run and pass. Sure, playing beside all-star nose tackle Ted Laurent gets him a lot of favorable match-ups, but still — the 27-year-old is impressing.
16. I was ready to bury Adrian Hubbard for attempting to pick-up a loose ball in the fourth quarter that he simply should have jumped on. Instead, I have to praise him for sealing the victory with his last-minute strip sack of Jeremiah Masoli. Hubbard lost the starting defensive end battle to Shayon Green out of training camp, but I can’t see the club moving him back to the practice roster after a such a solid debut. The fact that Green has been largely ineffective doesn’t help his cause to maintain the starting role opposite Jamaal Westerman.
17. The CFL introduced a new initiative this season that added an official to the booth to serve as a game spotter. This official can communicate with the game’s head referee and has the ability to call and/or overturn penalties that were missed and/or mistakenly made by on-field officials. How the off-side call was missed on Chad Owens’ touchdown is beyond me.
18. The Bombers return to Investors Group Field this week for back-to-back Thursday night home games against Edmonton (July 14th) and Calgary (21st). Two straight victories would have the Bombers right in the thick of the West Division. Two straight losses could result in a riot at Portage and Main. Needless to say, it will be an interesting couple of weeks in Bomberland. Stay tuned.