Bombers’ winning streak reaches five games (& 11 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday night in front of 18,564 fans at Percival Molson Stadium. Here are my thoughts on the game.

1. Matt Nichols completed Thursday’s game with 227 yards through the air, three touchdown passes, and 32 rushing yards. The stat sheet will also show that the veteran pivot threw an interception, though this gets an asterisk — the pick (Nichols’ first in five games) came on a Hail Mary toss to end the first half. Winnipeg’s starting pivot is now on pace for 5,282 yards, 34 touchdowns, and ten interceptions on the season, a campaign that would be among the best in club history. Andrew Harris is having a heck of a season (more on him in a moment), but Matt Nichols is my mid-season pick for the club’s Most Outstanding Player.

2. Congratulations to Nik Lewis on becoming the CFL’s all-time receptions leader. The future hall of fame receiver had a season-high ten receptions for 88 yards, leading Thursday night’s game in both categories. The post-game presentation for Lewis was classy, but the circumstances were unfortunate — Molson Stadium was almost empty by the time Lewis was recognized, the fans undoubtedly feeling deflated after the loss. Montreal plays at McMahon Stadium in six weeks, so here’s hoping Lewis gets a second ceremony where he spent eleven seasons with the Stamps.

3. Speaking of Lewis, it was frustrating to see the Bombers stick with soft zone looks late in the fourth quarter. Lewis caught back-to-back passes — one on second down, the other on third — on his patented dig route, both of which the Bombers should have seen coming from a mile away. If you’re committed to going with zone protection, that’s fine — but sacrifice one defender to cover Lewis in man.

4. The Alouettes did everything in their power to shutdown Andrew Harris after his stellar performance against Edmonton, yet he still came away with 75 yards on the ground and 31 through the air. Harris is now on pace for 1,140 rushing yards and 980 receiving yards — both of which would be career-highs. At the midway point of the season, Harris has to be the front-runner to be named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian.

5. The Bombers scratched Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson on Thursday night, a move that was influenced by the return of Tristan Okpalaugo from the six-game injured list (more on him in a moment). Johnson has two sacks and nine quarterback pressures this season, while Drake Nevis has just one sack and zero quarterback pressures. Scheme plays a key role in interior defensive line play, of course, but I would have rather seen Nevis scratched against Montreal. Johnson has simply made more plays this season.

6. I hated seeing Mike O’Shea win his illegal contact challenge early in the fourth quarter. Greg Henderson had a hand on Clarence Denmark in the end zone, but Matt Nichols had already started his throwing motion to an open T.J. Thorpe. It was the right call on paper, but why should a player be penalized for illegal contact when the quarterback has already committed to throwing to another receiver? I don’t blame O’Shea for challenging — coaches need to do everything in their power to win — but it’s just another example of why illegal contact shouldn’t be a challengeable penalty.

7. It appears the Bombers could get a boost to their receiving corps next week with the likely return of Weston Dressler. Ryan Lankford, who’s started in Dressler’s place over the past four games, has just five receptions over that span. He’s a talented returner and a decent deep threat — he had a 79-yard touchdown catch in Ottawa — but he’s no Weston Dressler. Dressler had 124 receiving yards and two touchdowns the last time he played in Saskatchewan, so you know he’s looking forward to next week’s Labour Day Classic.

8. Speaking of injuries, the Bombers have had good luck this season as far as player health is concerned. Andrew Harris, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Brandon Alexander all left Thursday’s game momentarily due to injury, but each returned to action by the end of the game. When Dressler comes off the six-game, only Ian Wild will remain on the long-term sick bay.

9. He may need some conditioning fresh-off the six-game injured list, but Tristan Okpalaugo didn’t jump off the page on Thursday night. Considering Jackson Jeffcoat has the defensive end spot opposite Jamaal Westerman locked up, Okpalaugo has become a very expensive back-up pass rusher. He needs to produce — and soon.

10. Taylor Loffler didn’t practice this past week due to an injury concern. Nine times out of ten, players — even veterans — don’t play unless they’ve practiced at least once in a given week. Loffler responded by recording a game-leading nine tackles in Montreal — not bad for a guy in just his second year as a pro.

11. Kent Austin stepped down today as the head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. This means the longest-tenured head coach in the CFL is now Mike O’Shea, who became the Bombers’ head coach on December 4, 2013 — two days before the Ottawa Redblacks hired Rick Campbell.

12. The Bombers now sit at 7-2, good for second place in the West Division (momentarily, at least). Edmonton (7-1) and Calgary (6-1-1) are favored to win this week against Saskatchewan and Toronto, respectively, but the two clubs will meet in back-to-back games starting next week. If the Eskimos and Stampeders split their two-game series, Winnipeg would reach first place in the West Division with a sweep of the Riders in the Labour Day Classic and Banjo Bowl. A pair of wins would also improve the Bombers’ record to 9-2, a mark that would be the club’s best start to a season since 2001.