Bombers beat Riders in Banjo Brawl (& 13 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 17th annual Banjo Bowl on Saturday by a score of 33-9 in front of a sold-out crowd of 33,234 at IG Field.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

The Banjo Brawl

A massive brawl broke out in the south end zone after Winnipeg’s second quarter touchdown. Six players were penalized for rough play — three for each club — though Saskatchewan was the only team to lose players to ejection with defensive tackle Garrett Marino and defensive back A.J. Hendy getting the boot.

Head coach Mike O’Shea wasn’t happy to see the brawl take place, suggesting that a team shouldn’t need to rely on fisticuffs for motivation. He told the media that he consistently reminds his players to maintain their composure and make good decisions for their teammates.

“I sensed penalties coming,” said O’Shea. “Hopefully that’s not what we need to get going. We got a tough opponent. That should be good enough.”

The officials’ decision not to eject Andrew Harris was controversial as the veteran running back ripped off the helmet of defensive back Christian Campbell while pulling him to the ground. It was a dangerous, violent act that obviously fell well outside the rules of play.

I believe Harris deserved to be ejected for what he did, but I’m not sure the CFL’s rules reflect that. Players receive an automatic ejection for throwing a punch or abusing an official. Ripping off a helmet? I’m not sure.

Harris is a savvy, ten-year CFL veteran who knows the rules of the game inside and out. This is speculation, but I’d bet that he knows exactly what will and what won’t draw a rough play disqualification in the event that a brawl occurs.

Sky of blue, sea of blue

The Blue Bombers reportedly sold far fewer tickets to fans in Saskatchewan this year than they have for Banjo Bowls in the past, which makes sense given the status of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As someone who’s attended all 17 Banjo Bowls, I’d estimate that a typical crowd is ten to fifteen percent green. This year’s crowd was maybe five percent green, which provided the home side with an added boost.

IG Field is always loud, but the Banjo Bowl is different. The building is full and Bomber fans bring their loudest noisemakers and strongest voices. That’s what a good rivalry is all about — bringing out the best of both sides of the competition.

“They wanted smoke, we gave them smoke. They wanted action, we gave them action,” said Willie Jefferson after the game, who thanked the fans for the energy and support they provided on Saturday.

Break out the brooms

This marks just the third time that Winnipeg has swept the Labour Day home-and-home with Saskatchewan since the inaugural Banjo Bowl in 2004. The years they’ve completed the sweep are 2004, 2016, and 2021.

The Banjo Bowl

Retired CFL defensive lineman and current Riders’ radio man Luc Mullinder tweeted that the Banjo Bowl moniker is “lame” as it suggests the Riders and Bombers are “have-nots” instead of two of the CFL’s flagship franchises.

With respect to Mullinder, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s getting harder and harder to convince people to attend live sporting events. Local blackouts are a thing of the past and everyone has a flatscreen TV at home along with a number of other creature comforts.

Games need to be marketed creatively in order to capture the imaginations of fans. If people feel like they’re participating in something special — a spectacle or an exclusive event — they’ll show up. The Banjo Bowl does that. It’s become one of the season’s most iconic games and serves as a perfect response to the preceding week’s Labour Day Classic.

I don’t care what the games are called or how they are themed. The CFL needs more Banjo Bowl-like events across the country to engage fans and boost attendance.

Say what?

Speaking of turning games into “events,” I learned this week that Winnipeg’s next home game on Oct. 8 is ’90s themed. I’m all for jean jackets and scrunchies, but I find it funny that the Bombers are celebrating a decade during which the team struggled and the CFL almost folded.

Award season

Zach Collaros had arguably his best game of the season, completing 18-of-22 pass attempts for 278 yards and two touchdowns. He made quick decisions, threw accurately on the run, and didn’t put the ball in harm’s way.

Willie Jefferson also had what was definitely his best game of the 2021 season on Saturday, recording three tackles, two sacks, and one forced fumble. It was a dominant performance that was reminiscent of the 2019 Grey Cup.

As the midway point of the season approaches, it’s reasonable to think Collaros and Jefferson are the front-runners to be named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player (MOP) and Most Outstanding Defensive Player (MODP), respectively.

The Blue Bombers have had the CFL’s MODP in each of the last two seasons (Adam Bighill in 2018 and Jefferson in 2019) though they’ve not had a player win MOP since Milt Stegall in 2002.

Pick-ture perfect

Adam Bighill has made plenty of great plays during his career, but this diving interception has to be one of the best. A lot of receivers can’t make this catch, but the 33-year-old middle linebacker did so no problem.

It’s a shame the play was blown dead after Bighill made the catch — for a defensive player, he’s elusive in the open field.

Fajardo leaves the game

Cody Fajardo had a solid game despite the interception to Bighill, completing 11-of-17 pass attempts for 169 yards and rushing three times for 37 yards. He was forced to leave in the third quarter after a sack from Willie Jefferson caused his head to collide with the turf, forcing him to enter concussion protocol.

“The ground is undefeated,” said Jefferson in reference to the injury, which came after he and Jake Thomas landed on the quarterback.

Here’s hoping Fajardo isn’t out for long as the CFL is a better, more entertaining league when he’s on the field.

Not-so-short yardage

I was shocked to see Collaros head for the bench when Winnipeg reached Saskatchewan’s three-yard line in the first quarter. Backup quarterback Sean McGuire only handles short-yardage situations and most teams don’t consider second-and-goal from the three-yard line a short-yardage situation.

Evidently, offensive coordinator Buck Pierce does. Winnipeg got two yards on McGuire’s first quarterback dive, then broke the plane for a touchdown on his second.

It was a gutsy call and it paid off, resulting in six points. It also proves just how highly Pierce thinks of his offensive line, trusting them to get a strong, leveraged push along the line of scrimmage for two consecutive plays.

Shake-and-Baker

I don’t think enough was made of Canadian rookie Kian Schaffer-Baker starting the Banjo Bowl at boundary wide receiver for Saskatchewan.

Boundary wide receiver is arguably the most important spot in the receiving corps and it is dominated league-wide by big-name Americans like Derel Walker, DaVaris Daniels, and Eugene Lewis. Starting there as a Canadian is impressive enough, but a Canadian rookie straight out of U Sports? That’s unheard of.

Schaffer-Baker made seven receptions for 73 yards, leading his team in both categories. He was also productive with his legs, recording 21 yards after the catch.

I also enjoyed watching Canadian defensive back Godfrey Onyeka make the start for Saskatchewan at strong-side linebacker, which is another traditionally American spot. He led the Riders with seven tackles, showing strong support in the run game.

Canadian talent is the best it’s ever been. There’s no reason why homegrown players can’t play and excel at these key positions.

Not enough ‘Liegg’

After making all four of his field goal attempts in his placekicking debut against Calgary, rookie kicker Marc Liegghio has gone just one-for-four over the past two weeks. His 48-yard attempt fell short in the second quarter — albeit into the wind — and he missed two one-point converts.

The rookie was met with a chorus of boos from the home crowd after missing his second convert attempt, which came with the Bombers leading by only three points.

“I should be better with him,” head coach Mike O’Shea told CJOB after the game. “You don’t want to trot him out there and hurt him.”

O’Shea didn’t send Tyler Crapigna out for long field goals early in the season, but he’s had Liegghio kick attempts from 45, 47, 48, 50, and 56 yards out over the past three weeks. That’s a lot of pressure for a rookie to deal with, particularly when he’s also handling punts and kickoffs.

Winnipeg recently added 31-year-old placekicker Ali Mourtada and he’ll be eligible for his first full week of practice this week. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a crack at the kicking duties come Saturday’s game in Edmonton.

Sanity prevails

The Blue Bombers sat Harris for their final drive of the game, allowing Brady Oliveira to get some carries. Considering all the factors at play — the chippy nature of the game, his age, his importance to the offence — resting Harris late in the game was the correct decision.

Winnipeg would have been smart to rest Collaros late as well. He had an excellent game, but there’s no harm in Sean McGuire getting some reps in garbage time if it saves Collaros a hit or two.

Friendly fire

The Bombers still have almost no return game to speak of, which is hurting their ability to generate field position. Possibly the worst return of the game came at the end of the third quarter when Charles Nelson found a seam only to collide violently with teammate Thiadric Hansen.

Best in the West

Winnipeg’s fifteen-point win in the Labour Day Classic set them up well to capture the season series against Saskatchewan, which is exactly what they did with a win in the Banjo Bowl. After improving to 5-1, the Blue Bombers now have a clear route to clinching the No. 1 spot in the West Division.

Three of Winnipeg’s next four games are against the Edmonton Elks, who are currently tied for third in the standings with a 2-2 record. We’ve yet to reach the midway point of the season, but I think Winnipeg will finish atop the division if they can win at least two of their three games against Edmonton.

Saskatchewan is a good team, but they’ve got three games against Calgary and two against Edmonton remaining on the schedule. Assuming these other teams in the West Division split a bunch of these games — B.C. included — Winnipeg has a clear route to securing the No. 1 sport in the West Division.

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