Nichols cements starting role in Edmonton (& 18 other thoughts)

1. The story of Thursday night’s 30-23 Winnipeg Blue Bomber victory over the Edmonton Eskimos starts and ends with quarterback Matt Nichols. Nichols led the Bombers to a victory in his first start of the season, recording 26 completions off 33 attempts (.788), 304 passing yards, and one touchdown. Nichols’ performance came against the same Eskimo defence that intercepted Drew Willy twice at Investors Group Field just two weeks ago, a 20-16 Eskimo victory. While the win is huge for the Bombers — with the club now 2-4, Mike O’Shea’s job is likely safe through the club’s nearing bye week — it is especially significant for Nichols, the career back-up who was unceremoniously traded away last September by the Eskimos after six seasons in Edmonton. The Bombers gave up a conditional seventh round draft pick for Nichols — a return so meager he may as well have been cut — and forced him to watch Drew Willy struggle at the controls of Paul LaPolice’s offence for almost five full games this season. Since then, in just seventy minutes of game action, Nichols has proven that he is the best pivot on the Bomber roster. Though no player would admit it publicly, the renewed sense of energy shown by the rest of the Bomber roster on Thursday night spoke volumes. The players on this Winnipeg team had clearly lost their faith in Drew Willy. At least for the time being, they believe in Matt Nichols. Let’s see if they can keep the ball rolling next week versus Hamilton.

2. It’s easy to forget that Nichols is actually the less experienced of the Bombers’ two top quarterbacks. Willy started his professional football career one year earlier than Nichols, is five months older than Nichols, and has started nine more CFL games (29) than Nichols (20). If the Bombers want to develop their starting quarterback of the future, that quarterback (for right now, at least) is Matt Nichols.

3. Though the majority of the credit for Thursday night’s win belongs to Nichols, the Bomber defence also deserves a lot of recognition. With four regular starters out with injury (all in the secondary), Mike Reilly was held under 300 yards passing and without a touchdown until the game was out of reach. Adarius Bowman was held to just three receptions for 43 yards, while the Bombers were stellar against the run, allowing just twenty yards on seven carries. Considering how vaunted the Eskimo attack has been this season — Reilly, who now has eight consecutive 300-yard games dating back to last season, was on pace for 7,000 yards as of week four — that’s a stellar defensive performance.

4. It’s clear Richie Hall is trying to free up Jamaal Westerman by consistently rushing five on second and long. While most defensive coordinators send extra pressure off the edges, Hall had middle linebacker Khalil Bass bull rushing Eskimo centre Simeon Rottier constantly on passing downs. This ensured that, unless Jason Maas kept in an extra man to block, Westerman would get one-on-one protection from Tony Washington. Hall’s strategy paid off with Westerman consistently generating pressure, drawing two illegal procedure penalties, and getting home for one sack.

5. Thursday evening marked the first time the Bombers have cracked thirty points since week one of last season, a 30-26 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The last time the Bombers scored more than thirty points? 2014’s week three win in Montreal (34-33).

6. The first thing I did after the Bombers announced the signing of Weston Dressler this past January was fantasize about seeing the speedster run his patented corner route in blue and gold. Dressler ran the corner better than any receiver in the CFL for the better part of a decade with Saskatchewan, often utilizing it to burn opposing halfbacks for six-point scores. Drew Willy was unable to hit Dressler on the corner in five starts this season. For Matt Nichols, it took just five plays. The 39-yard pass from Nichols to Dressler set-up Andrew Harris’ first career touchdown as a Bomber (how about that 120-yard rushing performance, by the way?) and set the tone for the rest of the game.

7. Credit to Kirk Penton of the Winnipeg Sun for digging up this stat: coming into Thursday night’s game, the Bombers had a record of 2-25-1 (.070) in the province of Alberta since 2003. With one of those victories coming in a meaningless game against Calgary in week twenty of the 2014 season, that means Manitoba seventh graders have had just two meaningful Bomber wins take place in Alberta in their lifetimes: Thursday evening’s win and this one.

8. Speaking to the above ineptitude, it’s amazing to me how the psyche of Bomber fans has been affected by so many consecutive seasons of failure. The jubilation that was shared on social media after the Bombers opened an early 11-0 lead was similar to the response you may see from Montreal or B.C. fans after a playoff victory. I don’t blame Bomber fans for celebrating the positive moments — they’ve been desperately few and far between for so many years now — but it’s important to maintain a proper perspective on things. Thursday evening’s win means little if the Bombers get stomped at home by Hamilton next Wednesday.

9. Liberty product Kevin Fogg continues to receive more and more praise for his play with each passing week. Fogg was listed at fifth on Justin Dunk’s rookie report for the month of July and received glowing commentary from TSN’s Glen Suitor, an eleven-year CFL defensive back throughout Thursday night’s game. He’s a keeper.

10. Speaking of keepers, Terrence Frederick had an outstanding CFL debut on Thursday night. The former New Orleans Saint notched three tackles and a fourth quarter interception that ultimately sealed the game. With Johnny Adams, Chris Randle, and Julian Posey set to return from injury in the next few weeks, the Bombers are going to have some tough decisions to make about how to manage playing time in the secondary.

11. My take on coaches challenges: I believe the speed at which plays are reviewed, not the number of challenges being used, is what’s hurting the CFL’s entertainment value. If you have to watch the same play forty times from nine different angles, it’s a safe bet that it shouldn’t be overturned. Instead, officials should watch the play once from the three best angles available — if it’s clear the call must be overturned (like Jabari Hunt’s low hit on Matt Nichols, for instance), then overturn it. If not, confirm the ruling on the field and get things moving as quickly as possible. Replay should be used to fix blatant officiating errors, not to examine the minutia of the game to its finest detail. It’s football, not forensic science.

12. Winnipeg lost three receivers to injury in Edmonton: Weston Dressler (lower body), Quincy McDuffie (unknown), and Darvin Adams (lower body). That’s a tough break considering the club lost three defensive backs and two offensive linemen last week versus Calgary. With the Bombers scheduled to play Hamilton in just five days, the status of Dressler, McDuffie, and Adams will be a big point of interest heading into week seven.

13. Justin Medlock connected on all five of his field goal attempts on Thursday night, improving his season total to 15 of 19 (.790). It’s not the type of production the Bombers expected from Medlock when they signed him this past February, but he’s slowly working his way back to the his career average (.868).

14. Blue Bomber right tackle Patrick Neufeld, currently at home in Winnipeg nursing a leg injury, tweeted some intriguing insight on Eskimo defensive end Marcus Howard’s first quarter sack on Matt Nichols. “Slide pro and the add on receiver went to the wrong side,” wrote Neufeld, indicating that Jermarcus Hardrick, who was moved from left guard to right tackle in place of Neufeld, was not responsible for blocking Howard on the play where he came free. It’s important to remember that sacks allowed is not an offensive line statistic — it’s a team statistic.

15. Speaking of sacks, I’d blame the offensive line for just one of the three allowed by the club on Thursday. Rookie Travis Bond — who was impressive in his CFL debut, particularly in the run game — was beaten on a twist by Marcus Howard in the third quarter. Other than that, Nichols’ protection was consistently sound.

16. Jermarcus Hardrick had an outstanding game versus Odell Willis on Thursday evening, controlling the former Bomber in such a way that was once considered virtually impossible. Is it fair to start asking if Willis, now 31, is still an elite CFL pass rusher?

17. The Bronx cheer Edmonton received after Sean Whyte’s late-second quarter field goal made me laugh. Granted the Eskimo faithful had just been subjected to a full game’s worth of terrible football (Edmonton had been outscored 48-7 dating back to halftime of last week’s game against Hamilton), but the green and gold are the reigning Grey Cup champions and a respectable 17-14 at Commonwealth Stadium dating back to 2013. The Bombers are 7-23 at home over that same time-span and have won just one playoff game in eight seasons.

18. On the topic of CFL stats, I tweeted during the game that Kenzel Doe might be the worst CFL kick returner I’d seen in twenty years. Several people got back to me with suggestions of returners who may be worse: Joe McKnight, Troy Stoudermire, Allen Boyko, Rod Smart, and Aaron Woods among others. Sadly, none of these players — not even the active ones — have return statistics available on the CFL website. None. How is that acceptable? It’s 2016, not 1962. Even Brandon Banks doesn’t have return numbers available. That’s frustrating.

19. Listeners of the Blue Bomber Talk Podcast will know that my co-host Tim and I decided not to record a show next week if the Bombers lost in Edmonton. I’m moving into a new house on Sunday and will have a massive amount of unpacking, cleaning, and painting to do during our regular recording time slot. Still, I’m excited to take time away from housework to record a show on Monday — we’ve had far too few wins to enjoy in Bomberland for far too long.