Willie was right: Bombers bring more heat than Riders can handle (& 15 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 23-8 in the Labour Day Classic on Sunday at Mosaic Stadium to improve to 4-1. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Willie was right

Willie Jefferson took a shot at the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday, suggesting “they ain’t played nobody special.” The assessment from the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player may have been brash, but it also wasn’t wrong.

The Lions were a gong show when they visited Regina in Week 1 with rookie Nathan Rourke making a surprise start over an injured Michael Reilly. Hamilton was missing seven starters due to injury in Week 2 and Ottawa has yet to pose much of a challenge for anyone this year.

Jefferson’s comments aged well considering how consistently Winnipeg was able to pressure Fajardo. They only got home for three sacks, but Fajardo spent a good portion of the game fleeing pressure and rushing through his reads. He never looked comfortable in the pocket and it showed on the stat sheet as he threw for 213 yards, zero touchdowns, and three interceptions.

Fajardo took a lot of punishment against Winnipeg and momentarily went down in the second quarter with what appeared to be a shoulder/neck injury. He ended up returning, but it’s reasonable to assume that the pain affected his performance.

Jefferson knows Winnipeg’s defence will have to make some changes to keep things fresh for next week’s rematch, but he knows the crowd noise at IG Field will make life even harder for Fajardo and the rest of Saskatchewan’s offence.

“It’s gonna be a mixture of both. You never want to go into a game against a good opponent doing the same thing that you did the week before, so I’m pretty sure that we’re gonna make some tweaks, add a couple of things, change a couple of things around to try to make it hard for Cody and their offensive line and their receivers coming into our house,” said Jefferson.

“We have the loudest fans, the best fans in the league. The atmosphere is going to be amazing and their offence isn’t going to be able to hear. The stadium’s going to be shaking and it’s going to be hard for them. All we have to do as a defence is come out and play our game, be assignment-sound and play tough, Winnipeg football.”

There was some speculation that Jefferson’s strong words had provided Saskatchewan with bulletin board material, but the reality is he gave an opinion and was proven right. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say this week.

No lead is safe

Mike O’Shea spoke to the media after the game and admitted that he didn’t feel secure with Winnipeg’s lead at 23-8 with 4:32 remaining in the game. As someone who has been around the Canadian game for over 30 years, the veteran head coach understands and appreciates that no lead is safe.

“Four minutes to go — we’re up by fifteen — it still doesn’t feel safe. It never does in the CFL. There’s so many bloody plays inside of three minutes. It’s wonderful. Whatever the outcome, that’s a fantastic game,” said O’Shea.

Andrew H-air-is

Andrew Harris didn’t show any signs of fatigue coming off his big performance in Week 4 against the Calgary Stampeders. He found running lanes, embraced contact to fight for extra yardage, and hurdled about 90 percent of the way over defensive back Mike Edem.

The 34-year-old running back finished the game with 18 carries for 95 yards and two receptions for 27 yards. If anything, I would have liked to see him get more attention in the passing game. He has quickly reestablished himself as the focal point of Winnipeg’s offence.

Rave reviews

Tom Vallesi’s officiating crew had a really, really rough patch to end the second quarter.

It started when Zach Collaros had a defender’s hand contact his facemask while delivering a pass on second down. It wasn’t egregious, but the CFL has consistently penalized defenders for making contact with the head or helmet of opposing quarterbacks. Mike O’Shea called for a review, but the booth elected not to call roughing the passer. Odd.

Makana Henry was flagged for roughing the kicker on the following play, which was among the worst calls I’ve seen in a professional football game. Typically, roughing the kicker occurs when a defender dives to block a kick, misses the ball, and their momentum sends them careening into the kicker when they’re still in a vulnerable position.

On the play in question, Liegghio kicked the ball, caught his balance, and took two steps before making contact with Henry. I’m not an expert on the nuances of special teams penalties, but this didn’t resemble any penalty I’ve witnessed before. The command centre clearly agreed, overturning the call following a challenge by Craig Dickenson.

Having two lengthy delays while the plays were reviewed killed the momentum late in the half. The first play wasn’t overturned but should have been and the second was.

Not a banner moment for the officials.

Safety dance

Hot take: Brandon Alexander is the best safety in the CFL right now. He excels in coverage, provides physicality in run support, has a seemingly endless motor, and now has two interceptions on the season. He’s become one of my favourite defensive players to watch in the entire league.

Going old school

I say this every year and I’ll say it again: the Riders should switch to their vintage uniforms full-time. They can’t be beat.

The runs

Winnipeg had by far the CFL’s best run defence in 2019, a trend that continued into Week 1 when Sean Thomas-Erlington recorded nine carries for just 29 yards (3.2 yards per carry).

Opposing running backs had a field day in the three weeks that followed, combining for 328 yards on 50 carries (6.6 yards per carry). The team has been without five-foot-eleven, 304-pound defensive tackle Steven Richardson during that stretch due to injury, which is has probably played a significant role in Winnipeg’s difficulty stopping the run.

William Powell averaged a solid 5.5 yards per carry, but was handed the ball just eight times on Sunday. Saskatchewan’s offensive coordinator Jason Maas would be wise to incorporate the run game more in the Banjo Bowl, particularly as the Riders look to quiet down Winnipeg’s raucous crowd.

Cheers and jeers

Rider Nation spent over a decade tormenting Winnipeg fans with calls of “1990!” to reference the team’s long Grey Cup drought. I used to wonder what Saskatchewan fans would choose as their new jeer if the Blue Bombers ever managed to win another championship.

After the Blue Bombers ended their long Grey Cup drought in November 2019, it appears Saskatchewan’s new gag is to reference Andrew Harris’ positive drug test that forced him to miss the 2019 Labour Day Classic due to a suspension.

He’s played well thus far this season, but it seems inevitable that Harris will retire relatively soon given that he’s 34. I wonder what Rider Nation will use as their next jeer. They’re a creative bunch — I’m sure they’ll come up with something clever.

I asked prairie football fans to send me their best rivalry jokes, gags, and memes on Twitter before the game. These are my three favourites.

No return policy

Charles Nelson hasn’t been able to do anything in the return game since Janarion Grant left Week 1 with an ankle injury. He averaged just 5.6 yards per return on Sunday and hasn’t provided the team with any type of spark through four weeks on the job.

American running back Devonte Williams did some returning at Southeastern Louisiana. If Grant’s not going to be back soon — he remains on the six-game injured list — could we see a change sometime soon?

Mosaic magic

Winnipeg had beaten Saskatchewan at Mosaic Stadium in the preseason, regular season, and postseason since it opened in 2017, however Sunday was the team’s first win in the Labour Day Classic.

For those keeping score at home, the Blue Bombers are now 4-4 all-time at Saskatchewan’s new stadium in meaningful games.

Place your bets

I placed three bets before Sunday’s game: Winnipeg +5 (-110); Zach Collaros over 0.5 interceptions (+110); and Nic Demski under 5.5 receptions (-110). All three hit, so make sure you’re following me on Twitter if you want some betting tips.

I lost big last week, but enjoyed a nice bounce-back on Sunday. If the Argos win tomorrow and the Stampeders cover -5.5, I’ll be able to retire.*

*take my wife out to dinner if we skip wine, appetizers, and dessert

Zach loves Labour Day

Everybody loves long weekends, but nobody loves Labour Day as much as Zach Collaros. The veteran quarterback is now 5-0 as a starter on the holiday weekend, having most recently won it in 2018 as a member of the Riders.

Louie Louie

Former fourth-round NFL draft pick Ricardo Louis made his first career CFL start on Sunday, which was his first game in almost four years. He missed the 2018 and 2019 NFL seasons due to injury, then sat out in 2020 as an unsigned free agent.

Professional sports can be cruel. Louis finished his CFL debut with six targets, two receptions, one drop, and an offside penalty.

Ba-doink-a-doink

I recently went back and watched Cody Fajardo’s fateful throw from the last play of the 2019 West Final that hit the crossbar, causing the play to be ruled dead.

At the time I was convinced that the ball would have been knocked down by Nick Taylor (No. 25) had it cleared the crossbar. Now I’m not so sure. Fajardo had some serious heat on the ball.

Fajardo hit the crossbar again on Sunday and ironically was again targeting slotback Kyran Moore.

Picky, picky

I always see tweets this time of year from people who insist that Winnipeg and Saskatchewan’s game shouldn’t be considered a ‘Labour Day Classic’ because it’s played on Sunday.

Do these people refuse to attend Christmas parties unless they take place on December 25th? C’mon, man.

The Banjo Bowl

Sunday was fun, but I’m excited to do it all over again next weekend at IG Field. The Riders (3-1) suffered their first loss of the season and will have a full week of practice to figure out how they’re going to protect Cody Fajardo after he faced a ton of pressure in Regina.

The Blue Bombers (4-1) currently lead the season series 1-0 with a plus-15 point differential. The West Division rivals only play twice this season, so a second consecutive victory would put Winnipeg in an excellent position to finish above the Riders in the standings come the month of November.

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