Bombers’ defence bails out rookie kicker to beat Elks (& ten other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Elks on Saturday night by a score of 37-22 in front of 23,310 fans at Commonwealth Stadium. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Defensive scores

Winnipeg’s defence didn’t have a perfect night, but scoring two touchdowns in the third quarter more than compensated for any big plays they allowed.

DeAundre Alford recorded a pick-six off rookie quarterback Taylor Cornelius at the midway point of the third quarter, then Adam Bighill returned a fumble three yards for a score seven minutes later. Both touchdowns came after Ali Mourtada missed a long field goal, bailing out the rookie placekicker who cost his team eight points on the night.

It was a relatively quiet night for Winnipeg’s front-seven — Willie Jefferson recorded the team’s only sack — but the unit stepped up when it mattered most.

Here’s a statistic for you: the Blue Bombers have allowed six points in the fourth quarter this year. That’s an average of 0.86 points per game in the final quarter of each game. Remarkable.

Harris makes history

Andrew Harris became the CFL’s sixth all-time leading rusher on Saturday, surpassing Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee Kelvin Anderson who retired following the 2003 season with 9,340 yards.

The 34-year-old recorded 19 carries for 97 yards against the Elks, including a season-long 24-yarder late in the fourth quarter. He has rushed for at least 80 yards in all four of his starts this season and now sits at 9,391 yards on his career.

It’s highly unlikely that Harris will catch Charles Roberts (10,285 yards) for fifth all-time considering he has just seven more games this season, but reaching the 10,000-yard mark isn’t out of the question. If he averages 87 yards per game down the stretch, Harris will reach the milestone this year.

Awesome Alford

Winnipeg entered training camp with relatively few holes on its roster. The team needed to find two new defensive backs to replace Winston Rose and Marcus Sayles on the boundary-side of the secondary and a kicker to replace Justin Medlock. That was about it.

The team has still yet to find an answer at kicker — more on that in a moment — but they hit a home run with their defensive backs.

Saturday’s game really cemented DeAundre Alford’s role at boundary cornerback. He forced Derel Walker to fumble in the second quarter, then recorded a pick-six off Taylor Cornelius midway through the third quarter. Walker is one of the CFL’s best receivers, yet he made just two catches on nine targets while working primarily against Alford.

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but it feels like teams rarely test the boundary-side of Winnipeg’s defence. Alford and Deatrick Nichols — who recorded his third pick of the year late in the fourth quarter — are doing a great job holding things down on the weak-side of the defence.

Hakuna Mourtada

New Blue Bombers’ placekicker Ali Mourtada had a miserable CFL debut, missing all three of his field goal attempts. His try from 28 yards out was a narrow miss, but his attempts from 51 and 44 yards sailed pretty wide to the right.

The native of Sierra Leone has worked as a personal trainer in recent years to support himself while kicking for a number of indoor teams. He’s quite the underdog, considering he didn’t attended a major college, has never signed an NFL contract, and is already 31 years old.

Mourtada had a great quote this week regarding his love for what he does, saying, “I absolutely love it. If was the last person on earth, I’d still be kicking.”

It’s hard not to like a guy who approaches the game with so much passion, but the Blue Bombers need a placekicker who can connect on field goals.

Tyler Crapigna started the year three-for-five, then Marc Liegghio went five-for-eight before giving way to Mourtada. Winnipeg kickers are now just 50 percent on the season, which is bound to catch up with them unless they find a solution.

Demski rumbles

I’ve watched Nic Demski’s 21-yard touchdown run about a dozen times and still can’t decide what’s wilder: his determination to reach the end zone or the futility of Edmonton’s tackling on the play.

Speaking of Demski, he’s one of the two best Canadian receivers in the CFL right now. The other is rookie Kian Schaffer-Baker.

Injury report nonsense

The Elks announced on Thursday that Trevor Harris had been added to the six-game injured list due to a neck problem. The press release indicated that Harris had removed himself from practice the previous day due to discomfort and would be out for an undetermined period of time.

The team’s injury report on Thursday reflected this timeline accurately — Harris was a full participant on Tuesday, a limited participant on Wednesday, and a non-participant on Thursday.

The problem is that the Edmonton’s injury report from Wednesday didn’t indicate that Harris was a limited participant. He wasn’t listed at all, which means he should have participated fully in practice.

Teams are required to provide accurate injury reports to give opponents, fans, media, and bettors the information they need. Omitting key information regarding the health of a starting quarterback for 24 hours is completely unacceptable and the CFL should take action.

Injury reporting is new this year and the league office needs to show that it won’t tolerate teams failing to disclose key information.

Last men standing

Speaking of Harris missing Saturday’s game, the quarterback who has shown the most durability through the 2021 season is Zach Collaros.

Michael Reilly, Bo Levi Mitchell, Jeremiah Masoli, Dane Evans, Nick Arbuckle, and Harris have all missed starts due to injury this season, while Cody Fajardo missed the second half of the Banjo Bowl due to a mild concussion.

Collaros is one of only two quarterbacks to take every meaningful snap for his team this season alongside Vernon Adams Jr. The difference is that Collaros has started and finished seven games, while Adams has only played five.

I’m not sure how many people would have bet on Collaros being the league’s most durable pivot in 2021 given his recent injury history, but here we are.

The point of no return

Winnipeg’s return game has been anemic since Janarion Grant hit the six-game injured list in Week 2 and that didn’t change on Saturday.

The worst return of the night came early in the second quarter when Charles Nelson flipped the ball to Johnny Augustine on a reverse that the Elks saw coming a mile away, resulting in a gain of just five yards.

To make matter worse, reserve linebacker Kevin Brown II was penalized for an illegal block, which pushed the ball back to Winnipeg six-yard line for a net return of minus-one yard. Yikes.

No. 15

No offence to Taylor Cornelius, but I don’t think Edmonton should allow him to wear No. 15. That number belongs to Ricky Ray.

The Elks don’t officially retire numbers, but they have three digits that are no longer circulated — Warren Moon’s No. 1, Don Warrington’s No. 21, and Rollie Miles’ No. 98.

Ray holds virtually all of Edmonton’s passing records, including passing yards (40,531) and passing touchdowns (210). He won two Grey Cups as a starting quarterback. It wasn’t his fault that Eric Tillman shipped him to Toronto for a box of tape.

Nobody asked my opinion, but I don’t think Ray’s number should be circulated in Edmonton.

Place your bets

If you’re looking to make money betting on the CFL, speed can be essential.

Winnipeg opened as four-point favourites for Saturday’s game but the line was pulled moments following the announcement that Trevor Harris had been placed on the six-game injured list. It reopened at Winnipeg minus-seven, which was a pretty big swing.

If you were fast, there was about a five-minute window during which you could still bet on the Blue Bombers minus-four. It didn’t end up mattering as Winnipeg won the game by two scores, but you never know in the CFL. Saturday’s game was a lot closer than the score indicated.

Bye, bye, bye

The Blue Bombers (6-1) have officially reached the midway point of their season with a two-game lead atop the West Division.

They’re on a bye in Week 8 but should have their eyes glued to the television on Friday night when the Saskatchewan Roughriders (4-2) visit the B.C. Lions (4-2) in a battle for sole possession of second-place.

Winnipeg will travel to Vancouver for their next game on Friday, Oct. 1 in what could be a matchup with plenty of playoff implications. The Blue Bombers have won the season series against Saskatchewan and have a lead on Calgary and Edmonton, but the club has yet to play against the Lions.

Week 9 will be their first of two meetings this season with B.C.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.