The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions on Thursday night by a score of 32-16 in front of 24,914 fans at IG Field.
Below are my thoughts on the game.
Harris makes history
Andrew Harris became the CFL’s all-time leader in yards from scrimmage among national players on Thursday night, surpassing Ben Cahoon’s career total of 13,368 yards.
Harris broke the record on a 73-yard rushing performance in which he carried the football 14 times. It was fitting that Harris set a new standard against B.C., the team with whom he spent the first six years of his career.
The accomplishment is merely the latest in a long line of achievements that will one day put Harris into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. The 32-year-old is playing his best football at a time when most running backs are well past their prime.
Harris was robbed of last year’s Most Outstanding Canadian award. If he continues to produce at such a torrid pace the veteran should win more than just M.O.C. come November.
Other notable names on the all-time national yardage list include: receiver Ray Elgaard, 13,304; receiver Jim Young, 10,098; and running back Normie Kwong, 9,925.
Running back Jon Cornish, who was inducted to the hall of fame last week, retired with 8,200 yards from scrimmage.
The Bombers entered Thursday’s game with 17 sacks on the season, a respectable number approaching the midway point of the schedule.
That number has increased dramatically following a seven-sack performance against Mike Reilly and the Lions. Jake Thomas led the way with two quarterback take-downs, while Craig Roh, Thiadric Hansen, Adam Bighill, Jeff Hecht, and Willie Jefferson each added one.
Watching the Lions on offence reminds me of the Bombers’ squad from 2015. There’s talent along the offensive line and the unit isn’t poorly coached.
But Mike Reilly holds onto the ball for too long. And the team struggles in blitz pick-up. And the club doesn’t run the ball consistently enough. And they don’t run enough screen passes. And they keep Reilly in the pocket too much.
These are issues that can’t be fixed overnight, which makes me nervous for Mike Reilly’s health as the season progresses. The irony is that he might be the only healthy starting quarterback left in a nine-team league.
Nichols goes down
Matt Nichols had a solid outing on Thursday night, completing 10-of-12 pass attempts for 179 yards and one touchdown. The veteran was also charged with an interception, though the pick was initially bobbled by Drew Wolitarsky.
Nichols left the game late after suffering what appeared to be a shoulder injury to his throwing arm. Considering the importance of Winnipeg’s next three games — more on that in a moment — Nichols’ health has become a major concern moving forward.
Willie good player
Bomber fans had sky-high expectations for Willie Jefferson when he became the club’s marquee free agent signing back in February.
Jefferson has played well — he entered Thursday’s game with four sacks — but had yet to have a breakout performance.
Jefferson intercepted Mike Reilly in the third quarter and returned the ball deep into B.C. territory. It was a game-changing play that came with the Bombers leading by just two points, setting up a five-play, 29-yard touchdown drive.
Marcus Sayles — who was also spectacular — scooped and scored on a blocked punt four plays later, which ultimately sealed the victory.
Jefferson iced his performance with a sack, beating Justin Renfrow to the quarterback.
Welcome to the show
Drew Desjarlais made his first career start at left guard on Thursday night in place of an injured Cody Speller.
The Windsor product played well, helping Winnipeg’s offensive line control the trenches for long stretches of the game. He also showed the mean streak he developed at the USports level, taking an unnecessary roughness penalty after finishing a block late.
Desjarlais is the sixth player from the 2019 draft class to start a game this season. Others who have started contests include: offensive lineman Shane Richards, Toronto; receiver Justin McInnis, Saskatchewan; offensive lineman Kyle Saxelid, Edmonton; running back Maleek Irons, Hamilton; and defensive back Matthew Boateng, Toronto.
Janarion Grant followed up last week’s remarkable debut with a 56-yard kickoff return early in the third quarter.
There are a lot of one-hit wonders — Chumbawamba, A-ha, Survivor, and Rick Astley. Clearly, Grant’s not one of them.
The Lions did everything they could to keep the ball out of Grant’s hands, conceding a safety in the second quarter and booting a short kickoff to start the game. It didn’t matter — Grant still produced a big play.
After struggling to find a returner for most of last season, the Bombers suddenly have an embarrassment of riches between Grant, Lucky Whitehead, and Charles Nelson.
The grass is always Green-er
S.J. Green caused a stir on Tuesday night when he posted an Instagram photo from IG Field in Winnipeg.
It’s easy to see why fans thought Green had been traded to the Bombers. Winnipeg had interest in acquiring the veteran receiver at the trade deadline last season and Toronto was said to be shopping him.
It wouldn’t shock me to see Green wearing blue and gold in October, but there’s been no discussion regarding a trade thus far.
The Winnipeg Football Club unveiled the new Walby Burger on Wednesday morning, a five-pound masterpiece of meat.
Introducing the Walby Burger!
– six burger patties
– six chicken tenders
– six hotdogs
– six pieces of bacon
– secret special sauce. pic.twitter.com/plDrpqf9EW
— WPG Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) August 14, 2019
The burger’s $45.00 price tag was enough to keep me away — well, that and a fear of dying — but I approve of the club’s deep-fried debauchery.
It’s a symphony of sodium. A gallery of gluttony. A cacophony of cholesterol.
It’s also a brilliant marketing maneuver.
The burger drew attention from a number of media outlets and was a hit on social media throughout Thursday’s game. The fact that it’s named after the greatest offensive lineman in CFL history doesn’t hurt, either.
Imports and exports
There’s been some speculation that the Lions’ offensive line struggled early in the season because the club played too many Canadians.
B.C. has obviously had protection issues (see above) but blaming the problems solely on the nationality of its players is unfair.
Take Brett Boyko, for example. The Canadian rookie struggled at tackle in five starts, but the 27-year-old is essentially an American player. Born in Saskatoon, Boyko played at UNLV in college and spent four seasons in the NFL with the Eagles and Chargers.
The player who replaced Boyko, Justin Renfrow, has a similar backstory. Renfrow is a Miami product who spent three years in the NFL before signing with Calgary in 2017. He’s a 29-year-old from Philadelphia who didn’t start playing along the offensive line until college.
How is it fair to suggest that Renfrow is better than Boyko simply because he was born in the United States? The players were both coached at large NCAA programs and spent similar lengths of time being developed in the NFL.
I’m not trying to make excuses for Boyko — he obviously struggled — but it’s lazy to suggest that he lacks talent because he’s Canadian. The guy spent the past eight years south of the border, which makes his nationality irrelevant.
If Renfrow is a better player it’s because he’s had three years to learn the Canadian game. Boyko should be afforded the same time to develop.
Experience is everything
Cal Murphy used to say that a team would lose one game for every rookie it started.
Six CFL rookies have started games for the Lions this season, including: receiver Jevon Cottoy; offensive lineman Brett Boyko; defensive tackle Mackendy Cheridor; defensive end Mat Boesen; defensive end Charles Wright; and linebacker Korey Toomer.
B.C. has a relatively inexperienced coaching staff and a young roster, which hasn’t been a winning combination. If Ed Hervey and DeVone Claybrooks could re-do the past eight months, I imagine they’d opt for a little more veteran presence both on and off the field.
For reference, the Bombers have started just two rookies this season in offensive lineman Drew Desjarlais (see above) and defensive tackle Steven Richardson. They have ten starts between them.
The Bombers are now 5-0 at home this season, securing the club’s third-straight winning season at IG Field.
Winnipeg’s remaining home games include match-ups with Saskatchewan (5-3), Hamilton (6-2), Montreal (3-4), and Calgary (5-3). The Bombers have never posted a record better than 6-3 in the history of IG Field.
A 2-2 record (or better) in the club’s remaining home games would improve on that mark.
Defensive end Craig Roh left the game late in the second quarter and did not return due to injury.
Roh lost his starting spot after the Bombers added Willie Jefferson in free agency, but that hasn’t stopped him from recording three sacks on the year. Roh’s role grew after Jackson Jeffcoat was hurt two weeks ago, landing on the six-game injured list.
Rookie national Jonathan Kongbo finished the game in Roh’s spot, recording three tackles.
Winnipeg doesn’t have a defensive end on the practice roster. Patrick Choudja had a spot to start the year, but was dealt to Calgary for the rights to Philadelphia Eagles’ receiver (and college quarterback) Greg Ward on Canada Day.
We keep a running list of CFL free agents for situations like this. Two names to keep an eye on are Tristan Okpalaugo and Gerald Rivers, both of whom played for the Bombers last season.
The Bombers (7-2) are approaching the toughest three-game stretch of their schedule, starting with a contest against the Eskimos (5-3) next Friday.
Winnipeg beat Edmonton by a score of 28-21 at IG Field back in June. The Eskimos dominated the game statistically, but 13 penalties and three turnovers on downs sunk the green and gold.
The Bombers can capture the season series with a win, tie or loss by less than seven points. Edmonton can capture the season series with a win by more than seven points.
Winnipeg then travels to Regina for the start of the annual two-game series between the Bombers and Riders. Saskatchewan has won 13 of the last 14 match-ups on Labour Day with Winnipeg’s lone victory coming in 2016. The Bombers have won three of the last four Banjo Bowls, though the Riders won last year’s game 32-27.