The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by a score of 19-6 in front of 29,376 fully-vaccinated fans at IG Field on Thursday night.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
A banner night
I already wrote an entire article about what the return of the CFL means to me, so this column will focus heavily on Thursday’s gameplay.
With that said, I would be remiss if I didn’t address how it felt to be back at IG Field. After 18 months spent in various states of isolation, it felt incredible to be with 30,000 people safely celebrating the return of the CFL and the progress we’ve made thus far in ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m not an expert on mental health, but I think it’s fair to say that gathering with thousands of people to celebrate something special helps alleviate fear and anxiety. As a society, we need to focus on healing ourselves and each other coming out of this awful pandemic and sports are one of the avenues through which we can do that.
It was a night I’ll never forget and one I desperately needed. Bravo.
Zach to the Future
Zach Collaros turned the clock back to 2015 on Thursday night, completing 18-of-28 pass attempts for 217 yards and two touchdowns.
The soon-to-be 33-year-old quarterback was generally well-protected in the pocket, though he did an excellent job of escaping from pressure when needed. He kept his eyes down the field, improvised, and avoided taking big hits.
Collaros is now 5-0 as the starting quarterback of the Blue Bombers dating back to 2019, which is pretty sensational. Winnipeg is a run-heavy team that leans heavily on defence and special teams, but having a passer who can buy time with his legs and protect the football is huge.
Matt Nichols excelled at the former and Chris Streveler excelled at the latter. Collaros can do both.
The Blue Bombers applied consistent pressure on Jeremiah Masoli following Hamilton’s game-opening 89-yard touchdown drive, spoiling the former East Division Most Outstanding Player’s return from a torn ACL.
It was fun to see how Richie Hall mixed and matched his personnel along the line of scrimmage. Newcomer Casey Sayles — who drew rave reviews in the XFL — rotated in heavily, while defensive end Willie Jefferson took reps along the interior and defensive tackle Steven Richardson took reps off the edge.
Applying pressure to the quarterback is the best thing a team can do to help a young secondary (more on that in a moment). If strong-side linebacker Josh Johnson misses time — he left early and did not return — having an elite pass-rush will alleviate the pressure on Winnipeg’s inexperienced backend.
Extending the Olive-ira branch
What a remarkable turn of events for running back Brady Oliveira.
The Winnipeg native made his IG Field debut in Week 3 of the 2019 season when the Blue Bombers hosted to the Edmonton Elks. He suffered a broken ankle relatively early in the game on special teams and missed the rest of his rookie season after undergoing surgery.
On Thursday, Oliveira started in place of an injured Andrew Harris in an extremely emotional night in his hometown. He recorded 22 carries for 126 yards and one reception for 21 yards, growing stronger as the game progressed.
The sign of a great running game is having success on the ground even when the defence is anticipating the run. Winnipeg’s offensive line was sensational, allowing Oliveira to gain ten yards or more on four consecutive carries in the fourth quarter.
Oliveira told the media after the game that running out of the tunnel “a childhood dream” of his. He also said he felt “pissed off” after missing almost the entire 2019 season due to injury and was anxious to show the league what he could do.
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) August 6, 2021
Tiger-Cats’ defensive end Ja’Gared Davis had high praise for the young running back after the game.
“He had a great game,” said the veteran pass-rusher. “I gave him mad kudos sticking around after the game. I told him, ‘Keep pushing, you can be a real star in this league.'”
Oliveira is a big-bodied back at five-foot-ten and 225 pounds and uses that size to his advantage. He’s not a one-dimension runner — he can still make quick cuts and accelerate in open space — but he doesn’t hesitate to run through opposing tacklers.
“I’m a physical running back,” said Oliveira this past week via videoconference. “If anything, I like to deliver the blow on people.”
No disrespect to Harris, but I don’t think the Bombers will skip a beat with Oliveira and Johnny Augustine coming out of the backfield. They’re a starting-calibre duo.
I fought the Law-ler
Second-year receiver Kenny Lawler had a big game against the Ticats, making four receptions for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
When you talk to people around the league, the six-foot-three, 200-pound target draws a lot of praise. The Bombers are a better team when Darvin Adams is on the field, sure, but Lawler is the club’s best receiver.
Buck Pierce put Lawler out at field-side wideout in the third quarter to test Frankie Williams with a go route. Williams won the matchup and knocked the ball away, but it was very close to being Lawler’s third touchdown of the night.
I’m looking forward to watching more of him as the season progresses.
CFL rookies DeAundre Alford and Deatrick Nichols (pronounced ‘Dee-trick’) started at boundary cornerback and boundary halfback, respectively, in place of departed 2019 all-stars Winston Rose and Marcus Sayles.
Alford, a virtual unknown from Tusculum University who didn’t start playing football until his final year of high school, worked primarily against Jaelon Acklin. He got beaten for a 37-yard touchdown on Hamilton’s opening drive but his coverage on the play was actually quite good, coming an inch or two away from knocking the ball down.
— Justin Dunk (@JDunk12) August 6, 2021
Alford was beaten by Acklin again for a 31-yard gain in the second quarter, then calmed down as Winnipeg’s front-seven took over in the second half.
Nichols was two-time All-ACC First Team at South Florida who recently led the XFL in interceptions with the Houston Roughnecks. He worked primarily against Marcus Tucker and almost held him off the stat sheet.
Rose and Sayles left big shoes to fill in Winnipeg’s secondary, but I’d say Alford and Nichols did a good job filling them in Week 1.
We’re always quick to criticize when the officiating is bad, so it’s only fair to offer praise when it’s good.
After a cancelled 2020 season and no preseason games, I was worried that we’d see a ton of penalties disrupt the flow of Thursday’s game. We didn’t.
The were only eleven flags thrown on Thursday night, which is reasonable. No big plays were wiped out due to questionable holding calls or pass interference penalties. The game flowed smoothly, which is key considering the league is looking to make a good first impression after so much time away.
Was the officiating perfect? No. Given the circumstances, however, I think it was solid.
Enjoy them while they’re here
Here’s a strange thought: this could be the final season for six-time all-star Andrew Harris and reigning CFL MOP Brandon Banks. Harris turned 34 in April, while Banks will turn 34 in December.
Enjoy them while they’re here, folks. They’ve been two of the CFL’s biggest stars over the past five years and they’re two of the best ever to play in our league.
Speaking of Harris, I would be very surprised if he played next week against the Toronto Argonauts. I expect we’ll see a lot more of Oliveira out of the backfield.
Josh Johnson took over at strong-side linebacker for Mercy Maston, who suffered a torn Achilles early in training camp. The five-year veteran left Thursday’s game early and was replaced by veteran Brandon Alexander.
McMaster product Noah Hallett filled Alexander’s spot at safety and did a nice job considering it was his first professional game.
The Ticats tried to test Hallett on his first defensive series, sending Acklin on a post route on a key second down. The McMaster product recognized it, met Acklin across the middle, and forced Masoli to pull the ball down and run.
Hallett was beaten late on a long throw to Marcus Tucker, but fortunately for him it was dropped by the second-year receiver.
Offensive linemen are people, too
Offensive linemen never get enough credit, particularly at guard and centre. Derek Dennis recently called Hamilton’s left guard Brandon Revenberg the best offensive lineman in the CFL, which is awfully high praise.
He’s still young, but Winnipeg’s left guard Drew Desjarlais is soon going to give Revenberg a run for his money. The Blue Bombers have the best offensive line in the CFL and the second-year blocker out of Windsor stands out among them for his ability to cover stunts and push the pile. He’s really, really good.
Place your bets
The Blue Bombers opened as 3.5-point underdogs and +160 on moneyline for Thursday’s game. It’s clear that a pile of money came in on Winnipeg as they were 1-point underdogs and -105 on moneyline by kickoff.
If you’re interested in betting on CFL games this year, give me a follow on Twitter. I might help you win some money.*
After confirmation this morning that Addison, Van Zeyl, Laurent & Adeleke are out, I'd put some money on the #Bombers here.
— John Hodge (@JohnDHodge) August 4, 2021
*Full disclosure: I might also help you lose money.
What just happened?
Let the record show that Brandon Banks (five-foot-seven, 150 pounds) tackled Willie Jefferson (six-foot-seven, 250 pounds) on Thursday night.
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) August 6, 2021
I was prepared to see some weird stuff in the CFL’s first game in 620 days, but I didn’t anticipate seeing something that weird.
Winnipeg could have attempted a 51-yard field goal to end the first half but elected to run an offensive play instead. The wind was not a factor — if anything, Winnipeg had a slight breeze at their backs — which is a pretty clear indication that Tyler Crapigna doesn’t have the range to hit from that far.
It would be completely unfair to expect the recently-signed placekicker to be the next Justin Medlock, but there’s little doubt Winnipeg would have tried (and likely converted) a field goal if Medlock was still on the roster. The Blue Bombers had a 14-6 lead at the time, so adding three points would have made it a two-score game.
Mike O’Shea also opted to punt midway through the third quarter instead of having Crapigna try a 45-yard field goal. 51 yards is one thing, but 45? Any professional kicker should be capable of making a 45-yard field goal.
O’Shea told the media after the game that he didn’t want to give Brandon Banks an opportunity to return a long attempt if the kick was missed. He said he thought it was best to trust the defence to stop Hamilton’s offence and get the ball back, which is exactly what transpired through the final three quarters of the game.
The veteran head coach also complimented the punting of rookie Marc Liegghio after the game, saying he has a “very live leg” and suggesting his directional punting is fast improving.
As an aside, I chatted with a fan in the parking lot before the game who was proudly wearing a Medlock jersey. He suggested that the kicker belongs in the Hall of Fame, which was something I’d never really considered.
There are only four players in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame who were exclusively placekickers and/or punters. Medlock only played nine seasons in the CFL — which isn’t long for a kicker — but it’s tough to argue against putting him in the Hall of Fame.
A perfect example of how statistics never tell the full story: Jeremiah Masoli was sacked once on Thursday, while Zach Collaros was sacked three times.
Anyone who watched the game knows that Collaros had a lot more time to throw the ball than Masoli.
Bring the boom
If you’re a special teams fan like me, go back and watch Nikola Kalinic’s block on Les Maruo on Hamilton’s kickoff return late in the first quarter. The former second-round pick out of York is a monster on specials.
R-Nation is everywhere
I walked around IG Field before Thursday’s game and noticed that someone had placed a Redblacks mask on the statue of Cal Murphy. I joked that it might be the highlight of Ottawa’s season. Too harsh?
— John Hodge (@JohnDHodge) August 5, 2021
Quote of the night
The quote of the night goes to CJOB’s Bob Irving who interviewed CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie as part of Thursday’s pregame show.
“The last thing I want to see on my deathbed outside of maybe my family and a beer is CFL football,” said Irving.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (1-0) host the Toronto Argonauts on Friday, Aug. 13 for their second game of the season. Toronto won’t play their opening game of the regular season until Saturday when they visit the Calgary Stampeders with McLeod Bethel-Thompson under centre.
The Argos have a ton of fresh faces that they acquired through free agency and from the NFL. It’ll be an exciting game — don’t forget to buy your tickets or tune in.