Bombers complete miracle comeback over Alouettes (& 12 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 41-40 on Thursday night in front of 25,931 fans at Investors Group Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

1. How about that comeback? Simply put, that was the wildest finish I’ve ever seen live. Winnipeg was down 40-28 with 1:35 remaining as fans left Investors Group Field in droves. Many people — including the fool whose tweet I’ve embedded below (oops) — believed the game was over.

The Bombers then ran seventeen plays in the final minute and 35 seconds of the contest — nine completed passes, three rushes, two converts, an incompletion, a sack negated by penalty, and an onside kick. Five of the completions went to T.J. Thorpe — a player who was playing in just his second CFL game — while the touchdown pass went to Ryan Lankford, a depth receiver who was in for an injured Weston Dressler. The game’s final score, a remarkable run by Andrew Harris (more on that later), was a microcosm of the contest itself — seemingly doomed, bizarrely executed, and inexplicably successful.

People have already been debating whether or not Thursday night’s game marks the greatest comeback in recent team history. As far as I’m concerned, the comeback over Montreal game has two contenders — the Milt Stegall ‘Hail Mary’ game from 2006 (see below) and Steven Jyles’ 2010 Thanksgiving comeback extravaganza. The Stegall play is by far the most iconic moment from the three games — his 100-yard touchdown reception is played constantly in both the Bombers’ and the CFL’s promotional material (sorry, Eskimo fans). The Thanksgiving comeback, meanwhile, featured the widest point margin with Winnipeg erasing a 32-11 deficit in the fourth quarter.

It’s early, but if forced to choose which contest featured the best comeback, I’d have to go with Thursday’s game. The comeback in the 2010 Thanksgiving game was outstanding, but the Bombers were 3-10 heading into that contest — the season was over, win or lose. The Stegall game, meanwhile, took place in Edmonton — instead of a raucous home crowd enjoying a stunning come-from-behind win, the stadium simply went dead with the visitors spoiling the party. On Thursday night, Bomber fans were able to celebrate their team’s shocking victory at Investors Group Field, a stadium in which Bomber fans have experienced little but heartbreak since it opened in 2013. This is just my opinion, of course, but I think we just saw the greatest comeback in the recent history of the Winnipeg Football Club. Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments below.

2. Speaking of the 2010 Thanksgiving game, the Bombers’ head coach at the time was Paul LaPolice, who now serves as Winnipeg’s offensive coordinator. The Lions’ offensive coordinator at the time was Jacques Chapdelaine, who now serves as Montreal’s head coach. Crazy.

3. Speaking of Milt Stegall’s miracle reception, I remember reading my parent’s copy of the Winnipeg Free Press the morning after the game. The front page of the paper declared the Bombers the losers of the contest in Edmonton and, on the front page of the sports section, a short article bemoaned the fact that Stegall finished the game without a touchdown reception (Stegall was closing in on the league’s all-time touchdown record at the time). A later edition of the paper featured an updated story about the win (I believe I even bought one from a local corner store), but I deeply regret not keeping that early run of the Free Press on July 21, 2006. What a collectable that would’ve been.

4. Overshadowed by Thursday night’s late-game heroics is the fact that the Bombers had another terrible game on defence. Darian Durant lit Winnipeg’s secondary up for 348 passing yards (Richie Hall’s unit has allowed at least 330 yards through the air in all five games this year), while the club’s once-stingy rush defence self-destructed in the second half. Held to 51 yards rushing in the first half, Montreal exploded for carries of 22, 31, and 41 yards in the second half en route to a 183-yard rushing performance on the day. Allowing that type of rushing yardage is truly Etcheverryan — it’s up to Winnipeg’s defence to prove that it was a fluke and not the start of a trend.

5. Matt Nichols redeemed himself for a shaky first half with his stellar play on the game’s two final drives. Often given plenty of time to throw, Nichols appeared indecisive at times and erratic at others, one-hopping several balls to open receivers. Still, it’s tough to argue with a 358-yard performance that included two touchdowns and no interceptions. Nichols still has to become more consistent, but he’s silenced his critics — for now, anyway.

6. One of the feel-good stories of Thursday night’s game was the attendance of the Mortland family. Ed Tait wrote a wonderful story on the Mortlands back in April, a family that adopted the Bombers as their new team following the Chargers’ departure from San Diego. Scott and his son Gregory made the trip up from their home in California to catch Thursday’s game — the only home game of the season that worked with Gregory’s school schedule — after a few days of sight-seeing around Winnipeg. The fact that they got to see such a brilliant comeback is simply outstanding.

7. Players and coaches often deny it, but beating a former team, coach or player always feels good. Thursday’s contest marked the first time the Bombers have had a chance to face a club affiliated with former general manager Joe Mack, now an assistant general manager with Montreal. I’d imagine Kyle Walters, Mack’s former assistant GM, and Paul LaPolice, Mack’s former head coach, feel pretty good about besting him in their first head-to-head contest.

8. It’s official: Justin Medlock is struggling. His perfectly-placed onside kick may have saved the game, but the Bombers wouldn’t have needed an onside attempt had Medlock not missed field goals from 47 and 37 yards out earlier in the contest. No kicker is perfect, but Medlock’s considered the best in league history for a reason. Missing three of his last five attempts simply isn’t good enough.

9. The Bombers have struggled to uncover rookie international talent along the defensive line since Kyle Walters took over as the club’s general manager in 2013. Zach Anderson, Justin Cole, Shayon Green, and Adrian Hubbard each received ample opportunity to start in Winnipeg, all of whom failed to make a major impact. It was for this reason that Winnipeg invested so heavily in free agents Drake Nevis (Hamilton) and Tristan Okpalaugo (Arizona) this past off-season; ironically, this was also the off-season that saw the Bombers hit two home runs in the scouting department. Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson and Jackson Jeffcoat, both CFL rookies, have been spectacular this season. Johnson has pushed the pocket all year, recording two sacks and a number of pressures, while Jeffcoat had his coming-out party against the Alouettes, recording two sacks and an interception. Not much about Winnipeg’s defence is working right now, but the line (and its depth, in particular) has been very impressive.

10. How did Andrew Harris not go down on the final play of the game? What remarkable athleticism, balance, drive, and determination from the Bombers’ running back. His 4.1 yard-per-carry average isn’t great, but there’s no running back I’d rather have carrying the ball with the game on the line.

11. Speaking of Harris, the Winnipegger is now on pace for 133 receptions this season. This total would place him second all-time for most single-season receptions in league history (not receptions by a running back, but overall receptions) behind just Derrell Mitchell (160, 1998).

12. Weston Dressler left Thursday’s game after what appeared to be a routine reception in the second quarter. Dressler remained dressed to hold on field goals, which is hopefully an indication that he’ll be ready to go for next week’s game in Ottawa. Other than Dressler, I didn’t spot any noticeable injuries or absences as the game progressed. Help should be coming from the Bombers’ sick bay soon with Moe Leggett potentially back next week and veteran halfback Bruce Johnson almost done his stint on the six-game injured list.

13. The Blue Bombers will face the Ottawa Redblacks at TD Place Stadium next Friday. Ottawa will be coming off a ten-day rest period after a tremendously busy to start the season (six games in five weeks), an advantage for a club that is far better than its poor record (1-4-1) indicates. Expect a high-scoring affair (Trevor Harris has thrown for a whopping 1,939 yards in just six games) from two teams desperate for a win. Ottawa needs to stop its slide down the East Division standings, while Winnipeg can’t afford losses outside of the West Division — even at 3-2, it’s likely the Bombers will be two points out of third place in the West by Saturday night.