Bombers earn biggest win in history of IGF (& 11 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Eskimos by a score of 33-26 in front of 30,554 fans at Investors Group Field on Thursday night. Here are my thoughts on the game.

1. Thursday’s contest was the Bombers’ most important home game since the 2011 Eastern Final. For a team that’s played poorly at home since the opening of Investors Group Field in 2013, hosting the 7-0 Eskimos gave the Bombers a golden opportunity to prove that they can not only win at home, but that they are also a legitimate contender to win the West Division. A loss to the Eskimos would have put the Bombers six points back of first place, disappointed the largest crowd of the season, and forced Winnipeg to win at Commonwealth Stadium next month for a shot to earn the tiebreaker with Edmonton.

But they won.

The Bombers beat the Eskimos by a touchdown on Thursday night, a margin that flattered the visitors. Winnipeg dominated in yards from scrimmage (560 to 444), first downs (38 to 21), and time of possession (36:12 to 23:48); the club didn’t need a handful of takeaways to win, either — the two teams were even in the turnover column with one apiece. People will point to Edmonton’s ever-growing injured list as a means to delegitimize Winnipeg’s win, but I’m not sure that’s fair. Winnipeg came into Thursday’s contest on a short week, having played in Hamilton just five days earlier; Edmonton, meanwhile, had a full week to prepare. Winnipeg is also without four starters in the line-up due to injury — that’s not as many as Edmonton, of course, but injuries are simply part of the game. All you can do is beat the team that’s in front of you — and that’s what Winnipeg did.

2. It appears nobody told Andrew Harris that running backs are supposed to slow down when they turn 30. Harris had his best game as a Blue Bomber on Thursday night, recording 105 rushing yards on eleven carries and 120 receiving yards on eight catches. It was the first double 100-yard contest of the Winnipeg native’s eight-year CFL career, a feat that many great running backs never achieve. Harris’ yard-per-carry average now sits at 5.5 yards this season — his best number since 2012 — and he sits atop the CFL in rushing, though he’ll likely be eclipsed by Jerome Messam and Jeremiah Johnson on Friday. It’s early, but the race for the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian award may already be down to two players — Messam and Harris.

3. Speaking of awards, I threw out a tweet at halftime of Thursday night’s game asking when Matt Nichols should start earning consideration for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award. The feedback was mixed, to say the least.

As incredulous as some responses were, I don’t think Nichols winning M.O.P. is out of the question. Mike Reilly is the current consensus Most Outstanding Player, while Bo Levi Mitchell — the league’s reigning M.O.P. — is bound to receive serious consideration as well. Looking at the records of all three teams (Edmonton, 7-1; Winnipeg, 6-2; Calgary 5-1-1) and the statistics below, how could anyone argue against Nichols being part of the conversation?

Games Played Passing Yards TDs INTs
Bo Levi Mitchell, CGY 7 2,081 13 3
Matt Nichols, WPG 8 2,414 14 4
Mike Reilly, EDM 8 2,685 15 5

4. I wrote a piece back in February voicing my concerns about the signing of Drake Nevis. Nevis, signed as a free agent from Hamilton, reminded me of a Winnipeg free agent addition from the previous year — Euclid Cummings. Both players played defensive tackle, both had played in blitz-happy defensive schemes, and both were coming off career years spent alongside a dominant nose tackle. Cummings never lived up to his billing a season ago (see below), but is off to a great start this year in Edmonton; Nevis, meanwhile, is struggling to make plays in his first season in Winnipeg. Clearly, there’s something about Richie Hall’s defence that stifles playmaking from the defensive tackle position.

Games Played Tackles Sacks Forced Fumbles
Euclid Cummings, Winnipeg (2016) 18 16 3 0
Euclid Cummings, Edmonton (2017) 8 12 4 2
Drake Nevis, Hamilton (2016) 14 29 5 0
Drake Nevis, Winnipeg (2017) 8 14 1 0

5. More than one person has told me since his signing in February that Matt Coates is the Bombers’ best Canadian wide receiver. After an early injury to starter Julian Feoli-Gudino, Coates caught three passes for 32 yards, twice reaching a first down on yards after the catch. That’s not a bad line for a guy looking for more playing time — if Feoli-Gudino misses next week’s game, look for Coates to start and former Lion Brett Blaszko or 2017 supplemental draft pick Drew Wolitarsky to be promoted from the practice roster.

6. The Eskimos deserve a lot of credit for shutting down the Bombers’ pass rush on Thursday night. After a punishing five-sack performance against Hamilton a week ago, Winnipeg failed to record a single sack against the Esks.

7. It was another rough night for rookie defensive back Roc Carmichael. Carmichael, who’d enjoyed a pair of decent games after his move from field-halfback to field-cornerback, was victimized on a long-bomb to Duke Williams and Kenny Stafford’s 40-yard touchdown reception. With Brandon Alexander still sidelined due to injury, Kevin Fogg might be the club’s best option at field-corner next week in Montreal.

8. The Eskimos took four — yes, four — too-many-men penalties on Thursday night. This is professional football — injuries or not, there’s no excuse for disorganization of that extent.

9. Winnipeg’s victory over Edmonton extended the club’s home winning-streak to three games, tying the club’s record for most consecutive victories at Investors Group Field. The Bombers are now 14-26 in regular season play at IGF — that’s an ugly number, but improving slowly after an abysmal 7-20 start at the venue.

10. Now 6-2, the Bombers are well-situated to make some noise the West Division — particularly when you consider their schedule down the stretch. Winnipeg has no remaining short weeks (which should help them stay healthy) and a nicely-situated week thirteen bye. As for tough match-ups, the club has just one remaining game against Edmonton — a win or loss by less than seven points would give Winnipeg the season series — and two against B.C., both of which are at Investors Group Field. The Bombers will travel to McMahon Stadium in week twenty, but it’s likely that one or both clubs will be resting starters that late in the season. Six of the Bombers’ remaining ten games will be played against sub-.500 teams — Saskatchewan and teams from the East Division.

11. I managed to scoop up one of the CFL’s cool new Diversity is Strength t-shirts at Thursday’s game. The shirts are reasonably priced at $19.99, but I balked at the $23.00 shipping fee I was quoted on the league’s website when I looked into ordering one earlier this week (though I imagine this shipping fee would fluctuate depending on where you live). If you’re hoping to buy a shirt, finding one at your local team store might be your best bet.

12. The Bombers will see their next game action on Thursday, August 24 at Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal. The Alouettes will be coming off a short week following Saturday’s game in Toronto and is the first of four consecutive highly-winnable games for a Blue Bomber team that — believe it or not — could soon find themselves in first place in the West Division.