The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Ottawa Redblacks on Friday night by a score of 19-17 in front of 26,002 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.
What a finish
Zach Collaros took the field with 1:46 remaining and his team trailing by two points when he scrambled up the middle for a ten-yard gain. He dove headfirst for the first down, taking a high hit from a Redblacks defender and remained motionless on the turf for a brief period of time.
Winnipeg’s trainers did not take the field and Collaros got up slowly. The league’s concussion spotter made the decision to pull the veteran quarterback from the game, which they are required to do if they believe a player may have suffered a head injury.
Dru Brown took the field with Collaros on the bench and delivered three quick strikes for 51 yards, moving Winnipeg into field goal range with just under a minute remaining in the game. The second-year quarterback played well in the preseason and was able to recreate that success when it mattered most.
Collaros was briefly looked over on the bench after being removed from the game, though he quickly returned to the sideline with his helmet on. He did not reenter the game after sitting out the required minimum of three plays.
When asked about Collaros being removed from the game, head coach Mike O’Shea indicated that he understood the decision.
“I think it’s the first time it’s been used since I was coaching in Winnipeg,” O’Shea told CJOB after the game. “They removed him for three plays. Obviously, they believe [concussion protocol is] working, so there you go.”
O’Shea was highly complimentary of Brown’s play, saying he had complete confidence in the young quarterback to run the offence efficiently. His confidence was obviously rewarded with strong play, as Brown drove the field quickly to put his team in a position to win a game the club arguably should have lost.
‘The Dark Side’
Winnipeg’s defence calls itself ‘The Dark Side’ because of how they try to black out their opponents. Unfortunately, that name is also applicable to things that get burned.
Jeremiah Masoli did a number on the Bombers in his Redblacks debut, completing 23-of-33 passes for 344 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Winston Rose was beaten for gains of 54 and 51 yards by Marco Dubois and Jaelon Acklin, respectively, and would have given up another deep shot in the first quarter had Acklin not dropped it.
Tyquwan Glass, Winnipeg’s other starting cornerback, allowed a 20-yard touchdown to Shaq Johnson and took a pass interference penalty late in the second quarter when he was caught out of position.
None of this is to say that Winnipeg’s defence was poor. The unit has a number of all-stars and is coming off a remarkable season during which they led the league in most key statistical categories. They allowed only 17 points against Ottawa, which should always be good enough to win in the CFL.
The defence also came up big when it mattered most. They stuffed Caleb Evans on third-and-short to force a turnover on downs early in the fourth quarter and held the Redblacks to a two-and-out when they took possession with fewer than three minutes remaining.
Zach is back
Zach Collaros was the CFL’s only starting quarterback who didn’t take any reps in the preseason and it’s clear that he didn’t need them. He looked sharp right out of the gate, completing his first five passes for 53 yards and a touchdown.
The league’s reigning Most Outstanding Player finished the night by completing 18-of-26 pass attempts for 188 yards and one touchdown. It was a more conservative performance than we typically saw from Collaros last season, though he generally looked comfortable with his new receiving corps.
Line of scrimmage
Winnipeg’s offensive line is widely viewed as the best in the league but the unit struggled to control the line of scrimmage against Ottawa. Zach Collaros was generally well-protected but running backs Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine weren’t provided with the type of running lanes we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
Oliveira finished the night with ten carries for 17 yards, while Augustine had three carries for 10 yards. In 2021, the club’s ball carriers averaged 5.3 yards per carry. On Friday, they averaged 2.6 yards per carry.
The offensive line has been Winnipeg’s heartbeat ever since the franchise climbed its way out of the West Division’s basement in 2016. The unit will need to be better next week if the club is going to have more balance in their offensive attack.
Eleven players made their Winnipeg debuts on Friday, including CFL veterans Dakota Prukop, Greg Ellingson, Cameron Lawson, Malik Clements, Tyquwan Glass, and Malcolm Thompson, as well as rookies Dalton Schoen, Cedric Wilcots II, L.B. Mack III, Donald Rutledge Jr., and Tyrell Ford.
The three most notable newcomers were Schoen, Mack, and Rutledge as all three rookies cracked the starting lineup. Mack and Rutledge started in place of injured veterans Jackson Jeffcoat and Mercy Maston, respectively, while Schoen started at the slotback position many expected to be filled by Jalen Saunders prior to his release.
I did my best to pay close attention to all three as the game progressed, though I’d have to rewatch to give a more in-depth assessment.
Rutledge may have been out of position when Nate Behar broke a route over the middle for 38 yards but it’s impossible to know for sure. The strong-side linebacker made a nice play midway through the third quarter when he fought through a block from Devonte Williams to sack Jeremiah Masoli.
Mack registered only one tackle, though he and newcomer Cedric Wilcots II generated a decent pass-rush opposite Willie Jefferson. The absence of Jackson Jeffcoat was noticeable, though it would be unreasonable to expect either rookie to match Jeffcoat’s level of production.
Schoen caught five passes for 69 yards, including a clutch 16-yarder on Winnipeg’s final drive. The knock on his performance came late in the third quarter when he fumbled after taking a big hit from safety Justin Howell.
Maston is gone for the season after suffering a torn Achilles, so the strong-side linebacker position appears to be firmly in the hands of Rutledge. Jeffcoat is on the one-game injured list due to an ankle injury, so there’s a chance he will return next week.
A banner night
In August 2021, Winnipeg unveiled a new banner in the north end zone at IG Field emblazoned with the words ’11-Time Grey Cup Champions.’ It was only displayed for ten months, though I’m sure the club was more than happy to replace it after winning a second consecutive title in December.
The new banner reads ‘2021 Grey Cups Champions: Back-To-Back’ and lists each of the 12 years in which Winnipeg has won the CFL’s title game. It’s big, it’s gaudy, and it’s great.
Mike O’Shea isn’t known for his prose, but I loved what he said this week when asked why the club needs to focus on the present instead of getting hung up on being back-to-back Grey Cup champions.
“It’s football,” he said. “If you’re looking behind you, you’re going to get smacked in the mouth.”
Well said, coach.
Attendance at IG Field was 26,002, which seemed surprisingly low. You’d never know it from the amount of noise the crowd generated, though, as IG Field was as loud as ever.
Winnipeg has averaged a crowd of 27,354 over their past five home-openers (2016-2019, 2021) with a peak of 30,165 in 2017. Strong ticket sales in B.C. prompted me on Thursday to ask the Blue Bombers how tickets had sold for the home-opener and I was told the team does not provide such updates.
Red zone pivot
It was interesting to see third-string quarterback Dakota Prukop come into the game in the first and fourth quarters when Winnipeg was deep in the red zone. He scored on a one-yard sneak late in the game and was replaced by Collaros after Brady Oliveira got stuffed for a two-yard loss in the first quarter.
Prukop is the best runner out of Winnipeg’s three quarterbacks and it’ll be interesting to see how many red-zone snaps he takes this season. His ability to move the football with his legs will certainly help open the playbook when Winnipeg is near the goal line.
There were 17 seconds left in the second quarter when Jeremiah Masoli completed a 23-yard pass to Jaelon Acklin, who fought for extra yards after the catch. The clock expired when Acklin was ruled down and the first half had expired.
It’s the first week of the season but there’s still no excuse for leaving points on the board like that — especially in hostile territory on the road. The error was obviously costly given that Ottawa lost the game by less than a field goal.
On (and off) the Marc
Marc Liegghio won all three kicking jobs in training camp with Ali Mourtada being moved to the practice roster. He went two-for-two on field goals and one-for-two on converts, missing one wide right.
I’ve received tweets from fans expressing concern regarding Liegghio’s role and he didn’t do himself any favours be missing a key convert against Ottawa. Even so, I wouldn’t be fast to dismiss the young kicker.
Liegghio ranks first all-time in U Sports history in field goals (92) and second all-time in points scored (442). He deserves a legitimate shot at performing all three kicking duties at the CFL level and Winnipeg is wise to give it to him after investing a year into his development.
The Blue Bombers cut Rene Paredes twice before he went on to become a five-time West Division all-star with the Calgary Stampeders. Plenty of kickers have overcome rough rookie seasons to become excellent players.
It also should also be noted that Liegghio punted the ball very well, averaging 40 net yards per punt. Richie Leone, a four-time CFL all-star, averaged 38.5 net yards for Ottawa.
Paul LaPolice returned to IG Field for the first time since departing Winnipeg to become the head coach of the Ottawa Redblacks in December 2019.
LaPolice is well-liked from his many coaching stints in Winnipeg — his wife is also from Selkirk, which helps — but he and his team were still booed relentlessly when they took the field. He was shown on IG Field’s video screens a little over five minutes into the game and was given a nice round of applause from the crowd, which he acknowledged politely.
Darvin Adams also made his return to IG Field after signing with Ottawa as a free agent in February. He made seven catches for 71 yards, showing no signs of age heading into his ninth CFL season.
Bob Irving, the legendary voice of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who retired following the 2021 season, was in the press box for Friday’s game. He indicated that he plans to attend every home game this season and I don’t think anyone can stop him considering the media centre bears his name.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (1-0) are slated to visit the Ottawa Redblacks (0-1) on Friday, June 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET at TD Place Stadium.
My wife and I are getting possession of our new home that same day, so I will not be producing a post-game column. My brother and former Blue Bomber Talk podcast co-host Tim Hodge has agreed to produce a column in my absence, so there will still be post-game content on 3DownNation for you to enjoy.
My usual post-game content will be back the following week when the Blue Bombers host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (0-0) at IG Field on Friday, June 24.