Bombers blank Lions, clinch West Division (& 16 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions by a score of 45-0 on Saturday evening in front of 23,750 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Collaros is killer

Zach Collaros has been the front-runner for Most Outstanding Player for virtually the entire season and showed why against the Lions, completing 16-of-20 pass attempts for 267 yards and three touchdowns.

The veteran quarterback threw a pair of red zone interceptions in back-to-back games against Edmonton but protected the ball well on Saturday. His touchdown-to-interception ratio now stands at 18-to-6 on the season, which is pretty darn good.

Collaros clearly loves to play B.C., having thrown for 684 yards and five touchdowns in two meetings this season. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t appear as though the Lions are in serious contention to play in the West Final.

With first-place in the West Division all locked up — more on than in a moment — I expect we’ll see Collaros get some rest before the season is over. Nobody asked me, but if I was Mike O’Shea I’d let him play a half in each of the next two games before giving Sean McGuire the entire last contest of the season against Calgary.

Dominant defence

Winnipeg’s defence was dominant on Saturday night, even by their standard. They manhandled the Lions at the point of attack, pressured Michael Reilly consistently, and delivered a number of bone-rattling hits to B.C.’s ball-carriers.

The best play of the night came late in the third quarter when Brandon Alexander timed his safety blitz perfectly, forcing Reilly into a quick throw to the outlet man. Willie Jefferson used his ultra-long wingspan to intercept the ball and return it for a touchdown, though not before stopping to high-five Alexander at the ten-yard line.

I can’t remember ever seeing a player stop mid-play to high-five a teammate. The best part of the play was Alexander’s confused reaction. Willie Jefferson is many things, including a first-rate entertainer.

Adams bounces back

Last week I wrote about Darvin Adams’ lack of production and received a number of responses from fans in support of the veteran target.

I appreciate that more goes into playing receiver than catching the football — blocking downfield, drawing coverage, and providing leadership are also important — but at the end of the day you need to produce when targeted. He caught just two of ten targets in back-to-back games against Edmonton, one of which should have been ruled an incompletion.

Adams had a strong bounce-back game against B.C., making four catches for 93 yards. Though listed as the boundary wide receiver, Adams spent a lot of the game at slotback and it appeared the waggle helped him find open areas downfield.

Kenny Lawler played a lot of boundary wide receiver and had an excellent game, making two touchdown catches.

Winter is coming

Saturday was Winnipeg’s first (somewhat) cold-weather game of the season with a temperature of five degrees Celsius at kickoff.

I took a look at how chilly it could be for the West Final and according to Weatherspark, the average historic high in Winnipeg on Dec. 5 is minus-eight degrees Celsius. The website also indicated that the probability of the temperature remaining below freezing on Dec. 5 is approximately 97 percent.

“You just have to have a mindset about it,” said Collaros, who grew up playing some cold-weather games in Ohio. “I’m not worried about that group in the locker room. We’ll be ready to go no matter what the temperature is.”

Defensive back Brandon Alexander was asked if he had any advice for teammates who have never had to play in cold-weather football and his response was golden.

“Suck it up,” said the Floridian with a chuckle. “We got no choice but to go out there and play.”

Protection

Winnipeg’s offensive line had a better game than it did a week ago against Edmonton, particularly at right tackle with Patrick Neufeld replacing an injured Jermarcus Hardrick.

The Blue Bombers gave up one sack on Saturday when five-time all-star Stanley Bryant was beaten by Obum Gwacham at the end of the first half. The rookie defensive end should take great pride in that sack as Bryant gets beaten for one about once per season.

Taken for Grant-ed

Janarion Grant scored a 63-yard punt return touchdown at the end of the fourth quarter, his first of the season. Winnipeg has not returned the ball well all season long, so it was a step in the right direction for the club’s special teams units.

The Blue Bombers have only really had two weaknesses all year: the kicking game and the return game. If they’ve figured out both — and it appears they have — it’s hard to imagine this team losing again this season.

New career-high

Winnipeg native Nic Demski caught five passes for 66 yards against B.C., setting a new career-high in yardage.

Demski spoke to the media last week and indicated that the game has slowed down for him this year, which has led to increased production. He also attributed his success to having more experience in the offence, having good chemistry with Zach, and training extra hard during the 2020 extended off-season.

When asked, Demski indicated that he wants to finish this season as the top Canadian receiver in the league despite not being “that big of a stat guy.”

Almost 50 years

The Blue Bombers have clinched first-place in the West Division for the first time since 1972. Here are some things that happened in 1972: Shaquille O’Neal was born, Garney Henley was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player, Canada defeated the USSR in the Summit Series, the Watergate scandal, and the release of The Godfather.

Mike O’Shea was asked this week if clinching the West Division should serve as an extra source of motivation for his players. It’s clear the veteran bench boss doesn’t want his team playing for money, stats or personnel accolades — only each other.

“Their motivation is sitting right there beside them in the locker room,” he said. “That’s all the motivation they need.”

I did a deep dive this past week regarding teams who clinched first-place in their division with three or more games remaining in the regular season since 2000. There will be an entire article on it later this week — keep your eyes out for it —  but Winnipeg has unofficially become the twelfth team to join this group.

Harris still hurting

Andrew Harris was added to the six-game injured list this week due to a knee injury. This does not mean that his season is done as the CFL allows teams to remove players from the six-game injured list at any time.

Mike O’Shea never addresses injuries in detail, so don’t expect a detailed formal update on Harris’ status anytime soon. When will he be back? I don’t know. With that said, there’s clearly no reason to rush him back before the end of the regular season.

O’Shea reiterated this week that the team has full confidence in Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine despite the signing of American running back Shaq Cooper, which he classified as a depth move. He called the former Lion “electric” while referencing his versatility as a ball carrier, receiver out of the backfield, and return specialist.

Rose returns

The Blue Bombers made a huge splash this past week, trading for kicker Sergio Castillo (more on him in a moment) and signing defensive back Winston Rose. Both players are expected to join the team following their upcoming bye week.

This is pure speculation, but I believe Winnipeg will start Rose at field-side cornerback. He’s fully capable of playing the boundary — he did so in 2019 at an all-star level — but I don’t think the Blue Bombers will want to disrupt the chemistry DeAundre Alford and Deatrick Nichols have developed.

Hakuna Mourtada

Embattled placekicker Ali Mourtada made all six of his convert attempts, though he did not attempt any field goals.

Mourtada missed a lot of kicks this year, but I’ll say this: the CFL rookie has been a class act since arriving in Winnipeg. It would have been easy for a struggling first-year player to hide in the bowels of IG Field after a tough game, but he routinely answered questions from the media with honesty and grace.

If he is released this week due to the acquisition of Castillo, I wish him all the best in the future.

Johnny B. Goode

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Johnny Augustine fan club since he pancaked 230-pound linebackers Jordan and Justin Herdman-Reed at the 2017 CFL Combine. It was disappointing to watch him go undrafted but he’s made the most of his career since.

Augustine got his second carry of the season on Saturday and exploded for 55 yards. The Guelph finished as the game’s leading rusher with 73 yards on four carries and also chipped in two special teams tackles.

Point differential

The Blue Bombers have outscored their opponents 304-126 this season, scoring over twice as many points as they’ve allowed. According to CJOB’s Bob Irving, the last CFL team to accomplish that over the course of a full season was the 1996 Toronto Argonauts, who went on to win the Grey Cup following a 15-3 in the regular season.

What do those two teams have in common? Mike O’Shea. Now the head coach of the Blue Bombers, O’Shea became Toronto’s starting middle linebacker partway through the 1996 season following a stint with the Detroit Lions.

Rolling with Reilly?

Michael Reilly had a lacklustre night for the Lions, completing 15-of-31 pass attempts for 131 yards and an interception. He was pulled in favour of Nathan Rourke but was brought back into the game late after the rookie Canadian suffered an injury.

Reilly has built a remarkable resume over his eleven-year CFL career, earning two Grey Cups, a Grey Cup MVP, three passing titles, two all-star nods, and eclipsing 30,000 yards passing. He is respected across the league and should get elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame following his retirement.

With that said, it’s likely that the veteran quarterback will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season. He remains under contract for 2022 as the CFL’s highest-paid player but is set to turn 37 in January. Should the Lions bring him back if there are younger, cheaper options available? I’m not convinced they should.

Triple-headers

I’ve loved the CFL since I was five years old, but I don’t care for these triple-headers. I also love ice cream, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat it for three meals in a row. You can have too much of a good thing.

Happy Birthday, Bluto!

Three-time Grey Cup champion and two-time CFL Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Chris Walby turns 65 today. Happy birthday, Bluto! Walby’s a beauty — if you ever get the chance to enjoy a beverage with No. 63, do yourself a favour and make it happen.

Today also happens to be Doug Flutie’s birthday with the six-time Most Outstanding Player turning 59. I don’t think you could find a better pair of CFL legends who share the same birthday.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (10-1) are entering a bye week after which they will play back-to-back games against the Montreal Alouettes (6-4). Matthew Shiltz has looked decent since taking over at quarterback from an injured Vernon Adams Jr., though it’s possible the Als could look to Trevor Harris to take over under centre.

Harris looked terrible against Winnipeg in Week 10, completing 9-of-22 pass attempts for 87 yards in what ended up being his last game as a member of the Elks. I can’t imagine he’d be excited to face the Blue Bombers again, though it’s possible he’ll rediscover his old form with a new supporting cast in Montreal.

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