Winnipeg’s Sean McGuire has rough debut in loss to Alouettes (& 15 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Montreal Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium by a score of 28-14. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Debut to forget

Sean McGuire made his first career CFL start on Saturday and it was ugly. The rain was surely a factor, but McGuire completed just 11-of-27 pass attempts for 149 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions.

McGuire’s first pick came to the wide-side of the field, which is a rite of passage for young CFL quarterbacks. You can’t throw late to the field-side in Canada — the field is simply too large, which means defensive backs will always have an opportunity to jump the pass and intercept it.

The second interception came late when McGuire was improvising after escaping pressure, while the third occurred after he failed to see linebacker Chris Ackie in zone coverage. They were both bad decisions, but I’d cut McGuire some slack considering he needed to push the ball downfield to try to overcome the late deficit.

Outside of two nice passes to start the fourth quarter, the second-year quarterback was frequently off target with many of his throws falling short of their intended targets. He did not push the ball downfield through the first three quarters of the game with just two attempts traveling over ten yards through the air.

McGuire was working behind a number of backups along the offensive line — more on that in a moment — but he had Winnipeg’s starting receiving corps throughout the game. First starts are rarely games to remember, but this one was surely one to forget.

Head coach Mike O’Shea indicated after the game that Saturday’s loss will not impact any roster decisions for next week, which I take as a strong indication that McGuire will start in Calgary next week.

Streaks snapped

The Blue Bombers entered Saturday’s game having not allowed a touchdown during the fourth quarter this season, outscoring their opponents 116-6 during that span. The streak came to an end when Trevor Harris completed an eight-yard pass to Reggie White Jr. with 12:08 left in the game.

Defensive end Jonathan Kongbo acknowledged after the game that it was disappointing the streak was snapped, but indicated that it’s not something he or the defence is overly focused on, saying “it is what it is.”

Winnipeg’s defence played well overall, limiting Trevor Harris to 144 yards passing and William Stanback to just 3.6 yards per carry. Considering they were on the field for over 39 minutes, it’s pretty remarkable that Montreal was held to just 273 yards of offence.

The Blue Bombers were also on a nine-game winning streak heading into Montreal, which was also snapped. The game didn’t mean anything in the standings, but I’m sure the Blue Bombers would have loved to carry their momentum through the regular season and into the playoffs.

I hope you brought your depth chart

Zach Collaros wasn’t the only starter who didn’t play in Saturday’s game as Winnipeg also held out offensive linemen Stanley Bryant and Patrick Neufeld, defensive linemen Jackson Jeffcoat and Steven Richardson, defensive backs Nick Taylor, Deatrick Nichols, and Brandon Alexander, and return specialist Janarion Grant.

One of the things I was most disappointed about following the cancellation of the preseason was that we weren’t going to see a lot of the team’s newcomers in action. I love watching rookies get the chance to go out and play in the preseason because you never know what they’ll do.

I can remember Casey Printers visiting Winnipeg in the preseason back in 2004 and tearing it up despite being virtually unknown. It was obvious that he was destined for greatness and five months later he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. Two other standout preseason performances I can remember are Duke Williams from 2017 and Chris Streveler from 2018.

I wouldn’t say any of Winnipeg’s newcomers jumped off the page like Printers or Williams, but I liked what I saw from Ricky Walker and Demerio Houston.

O-line shuffle

Drew Richmond left the game early due to a suspected knee injury with Winnipeg native Geoff Gray taking over at left tackle. Right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick did not return for the second half, which O’Shea indicated was a playtime decision and not due to an injury. Tui Eli shifted to take over at right tackle, while Chris Kolankowski replaced him at right guard.

Losing two offensive linemen in the same game was tough because Winnipeg could no longer play a big-bodied blocker at the tight end position. Mike Miller has played tight end in the past, but it’s not fair to ask him to run block as well as an offensive lineman. This is speculation, but I’d imagine the injury to Richmond was part of the reason the Blue Bombers ran the ball so little in the second half even when the game was well within reach.

It’s also worth noting that Gray was primarily a guard at the University of Manitoba, while Eli was primarily a centre at the University of Hawaii. This means that Winnipeg essentially had five Canadian interior blockers along the offensive line throughout the second half and I’d suggest they did well considering the circumstances.

Shaq takes flak

Running back Shaq Cooper made his debut in Winnipeg after being released by the B.C. Lions last month. He fielded the ball twelve times as a returner and mishandled the ball numerous times, losing a fumble on an early fourth quarter punt return.

I’ve been a big fan of Cooper since his days in Edmonton, but it was a poor debut from a player who is now with his third team in as many seasons. It would appear that Janarion Grant’s job won’t be in jeopardy anytime soon.

Hallett’s got it

Nick Hallett made his first career start in place of Brandon Alexander at safety and you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who has further exceeded expectations coming out of the draft.

The 27-year-old played for the University of Toronto, a program that hasn’t posted a winning record since the turn of the century. Very few members of the Varsity Blues go on to play in the CFL, which may have been why Hallett didn’t receive an invitation to the league’s national combine despite performing quite well in the Ontario regional event.

Hallett made Winnipeg’s roster outright as a seventh-round pick in the 2019 CFL Draft and made an impact as a rookie, recording 13 special teams tackles and one forced fumble in 18 games. He’s improved this year, recording 16 special teams tackles.

He recorded three tackles and a fumble recovery against Montreal and also had a nice pressure late in the game that stopped a Montreal drive deep in Winnipeg territory. Hallett also wasn’t victimized for any long gains down the middle of the field, which is a win for any safety.

Every Rose has its thorn

Winston Rose got beaten for a pair of first half touchdown working against Eugene Lewis at boundary cornerback.

It’s possible that DeAundre Alford would have also given up a pair of scores to the league’s leading receiver, but it’s worth asking which cornerback should be playing along the boundary. Alford was excellent there before Rose rejoined the team last month.

King Kong(bo)

Jonathan Kongbo had an excellent contest, beating Nick Callender for two sacks in the first half. He appeared to jump slightly offside on the second one, though he was not penalized on the play.

The native of Surrey, B.C. has continued to improve throughout his second CFL season and would be more than capable of starting on a number of CFL teams.

Iron man

Stanley Bryant made 102 consecutive starts at left tackle for the Blue Bombers before being scratched for Saturday’s game, ending his iron man streak. It’s shame his run had to end, but what better way to do it than a rest before the playoffs?

A note regarding awards season: Bryant is one of ten players to be named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman twice alongside Scott Flory, Rob Murphy, Gene Makowsky, Mike Kiselak, Chris Walby, Jim Mills, Roger Aldag, Rudy Phillips, and Mike Wilson. No player has even won the award three times or more, which I suspect will change on awards night.

Friendly foes

Adarius Pickett fumbled the opening kickoff on Saturday, which was subsequently recovered and fumbled by Hallett. Two of the players in pursuit of the football were Montreal defensive back Marc-Antoine Dequoy and Winnipeg defensive back Redha Kramdi, who knocked it out of bounds to secure possession for the Blue Bombers.

Dequoy and Kramdi are two of the best defensive players in the recent history of the Université de Montréal Carabins and often played beside each other with Dequoy at field-side halfback and Kramdi at strong-side linebacker. Both have bright futures in the CFL and it was neat to see them in the mix on the game’s opening play.

Place your bets

The Blue Bombers were eight-point favourites to win this game before the team announced that Sean McGuire would be starting at quarterback. I figured money would come pouring in on the Alouettes, but by the evening the line had shifted by a mere half-point.

The Alouettes were four-point underdogs by Saturday morning and bettors made bank on a big Montreal victory. It’s not easy to bet against a team that’s won nine games in a row, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet if you want to place bets successfully.

Awards season

I don’t get to vote for player awards, but here’s how I would fill out my ballot if I did.

Most Outstanding Player — QB Zach Collaros

Most Outstanding Defensive Player — DE Jackson Jeffcoat

Most Outstanding Canadian — SB Nic Demski

Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman — LT Stanley Bryant

Most Outstanding Special Teams Player — FB Mike Miller

Most Outstanding Rookie — CB DeAundre Alford

The most competitive category is probably Most Outstanding Defensive Player, at which Jeffcoat, Willie Jefferson, and Adam Bighill should receive serious consideration.

I think all of the players above have a chance to win at the division or league level, particularly Collaros, Jeffcoat, Demski, and Bryant. Mike O’Shea should also win the Annis Stukus Trophy as the CFL’s Coach of the Year, becoming the first Blue Bombers’ bench boss to capture the award since Dave Ritchie in 2001.

On guard

If there’s one player who I wish received more recognition at the national level it’s left guard Drew Desjarlais. The former first-round pick is only 24 years old and has already developed into one of the league’s best interior offensive linemen. Here’s his highlight tape from the season — he’s dominant.

The native of Belle River, Ont. will be a huge commodity in free agency this off-season if he doesn’t return to Winnipeg — and that’s if he doesn’t get a shot at the NFL.

Good-bye, Bob

It was formally announced this past week that Bob Irving will be retiring following the 2021 CFL season and I’d like to echo the sentiments that I shared on this week’s 3DownNation Podcast.

Irving was the narrator of my childhood. His voice was the only one that mattered while travelling to and from Bomber games growing up and we listened to his play-by-play whenever games weren’t televised. My parents are both still season ticket holders and listen to Bob on their handheld radios from the stands.

When people learn that I cover the CFL and the Blue Bombers, the first person they usually ask about isn’t Andrew Harris or Mike O’Shea or Zach Collaros. It’s Bob Irving.

“You’ve met Bob Irving!?” they say excitedly. “What’s he really like? I bet he’s nice!”

It speaks volumes about Irving’s profile in Winnipeg that he’s the one to whom fans feel most drawn. And for those wondering, yes, he’s a genuinely nice guy and after 47 years on the job, Bob still seems blissfully unaware that he is a world-class broadcaster. He is the furthest thing from an egotist. He is unassuming, patient, and kind.

A number of players congratulated Bob on his retirement during their media availabilities this week unprompted. It’s clear they revere him just as much as the team’s fans.

We’re going to miss you, Bob. Thank-you for everything.

Have you Herd?

If you’re looking for some quality entertainment on Saturday afternoon, check out the University of Manitoba Bisons hosting the University of Alberta Golden Bears in the Canada West Semi-Final for a shot at the Hardy Trophy. The Bisons have had a great season and could go far in the postseason.

If you can’t find the game on television, click here to stream the game for a small fee.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (11-2) visit the Calgary Stampeders (7-6) to close out the regular season next week at McMahon Stadium. The clubs met in Week 4 when Jake Maier led the Stamps to an 18-16 loss in which Rene Paredes missed a last-second field goal to potentially secure the win.

Calgary still has a shot at second place in the West Division as of this article’s publication, though Saskatchewan can change that by beating the lowly Edmonton Elks at Mosaic Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.