Bombers dominate Lions to remain best in West (& seven other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions on Saturday evening by a score of 43-22 at BC Place Stadium. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Vanilla becomes thrilla

B.C. Lions’ defensive back Marcus Sayles called Winnipeg’s offence “vanilla” this week, which seemed like a pretty fair assessment. The unit got off to a mediocre start to the season, struggling to generate yardage along the ground and relying mostly on short timing routes to move the ball through the air.

Rookie receiver Dalton Schoen told CJOB after the game that Sayles’ comments added to Winnipeg’s motivation “for sure,” saying the comments “hurt.” The Blue Bombers played in Vancouver only five days after beating the Toronto Argonauts on the road, so being able to rally around some bulletin board material may have reenergized an otherwise tired squad.

Zach Collaros had his best game of the season, delivering the ball accurately and using his legs to move the pocket. He was anything but vanilla, making a sensational diving throw to Schoen to convert a key second down midway through the third quarter. He was also effective in the red zone, coming away with a touchdown each time he led Winnipeg’s offence inside of B.C.’s 25-yard line.

Nathan Rourke has been the early favourite to win Most Outstanding Player this year but the reigning M.O.P. outdueled him in Vancouver, completing 76.7 percent of his passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. It wasn’t Collaros’ best single-game performance based on passing yardage — he threw for 302 yards against Hamilton — but it was his most complete effort of the season.

Winnipeg’s running game finally came alive against the Lions as Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine rushed 19 times for a season-high 96 yards. The club entered Saturday’s game averaging a league-worst 3.9 yards per rush but were able to gain 4.9 yards per carry against the Lions. That’s still not a sensational number but it’s a step in the right direction.

When asked if Winnipeg would celebrate the win with some vanilla ice cream, star defensive end Willie Jefferson indicated that he’d rather have something else.

“We don’t do vanilla,” said Jefferson. “We want chocolate sundaes.”

Taken for Grant-ed

Janarion Grant returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, which was the perfect time for the once-dominant return man to rediscover his game. It’s essential to start well when playing on a short week — especially on the road — and Grant’s return set the tone for Winnipeg to earn a fifth consecutive win.

The blocking was solid across the board but Redha Kramdi, Mike Miller, and Shayne Gauthier made particularly impressive blocks to help spring Grant to the wide side of the field. The speedster followed his blocks brilliantly and found his way to the end zone completely untouched.

“We’ve been waiting on that,” Willie Jefferson told CJOB. “We know that Janarion has the ability to break big plays like that.”

Grant returned another kickoff for a touchdown late in the second quarter but it was called back due to a holding penalty on Malik Clements. The call was legitimate, though it took place relatively far from where Grant was returning the ball near the sideline.

B.C. starting squibbing their kickoffs after Grant’s second big return, which allowed Winnipeg to start a couple of drives close to midfield. Choosing not to kick deep is one of the best compliments a team can give an opposing return specialist, though it would have been nice to see Grant get a chance to continue his hot streak.

Mane attraction

In case there was still any doubt, Nathan Rourke is clearly a legitimate starting-calibre CFL quarterback.

The 24-year-old faced three-man pressure from Winnipeg’s defence when he hit Josh Pearson for a 66-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter. Winston Rose was a step behind the rookie receiver and Rourke took full advantage, placing the ball perfectly over his shoulder for the score.

Winnipeg’s defensive coordinator Richie Hall dialled up a blitz on B.C.’s next drive, sending seven rushers after the young passer. Rourke reacted well, quickly launching a 36-yard pass that Dominique Rhymes brought down for a touchdown against Nick Taylor.

Hall has been in the CFL for over 30 years as a player and assistant coach and was unable to make life miserable for the young passer. The defence still fooled Rourke at times — defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat made a slick interception after dropping back into zone coverage — but Rourke held his own against a strong unit.

Rourke finished the game completing 64 percent of his passes for 278 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Winnipeg’s defence also deserves credit for keeping Rourke in the pocket as the dual-threat passer didn’t register a single rushing attempt.

Enjoy the Schoen

It seems like a foregone conclusion that Nathan Rourke will win Most Outstanding Canadian this year but how about Dalton Schoen winning Most Outstanding Rookie? The Kansas State product made eight catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns against B.C. and often appeared to be a primary read in the red zone.

The six-foot-one, 218-pound target now has 21 receptions for 333 yards and three touchdowns through five career CFL games. He ranks fifth in receiving yards league-wide and is tied for second in touchdown receptions.

Schoen has been targeted consistently all season but may now be Zach Collaros’ favourite receiver, especially since Nic Demski went down due to injury.

“He’s certainly a pro beyond his years,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “He doesn’t seem like a kid, he seems like a seasoned vet.”

I’ve dressed Schoen in fantasy each week, which is a big part of the reason I’m ranked 21st in our 3DownNation league. He only ever costs $2,500 against the salary cap — the minimum amount — though that may change following his breakout game in Vancouver.

Lucky who?

Demerio Houston recently won the starting job at boundary cornerback and had an excellent game opposite Lucky Whitehead. The star receiver finished the game with just two catches for 14 yards on four targets, all of which were new season-lows.

Whitehead has made many of the league’s best defensive backs look foolish over the past two seasons but was a non-factor on Saturday, finishing the game as B.C.’s fifth-leading receiver.

Houston also recovered Jevon Cottoy’s fourth quarter fumble and intercepted a late pass by Michael O’Connor that was tipped. The young defensive back just keeps getting better.

Let’s kick it

Marc Liegghio’s perfect start to the season came to an end when he hit the upright on a 43-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter. He missed again a few moments later when he pushed a 33-yard kick wide left, though the game was already well in hand.

The Western product made his first 13 field goals to start the season, including kicks from distances of 45 and 46 yards in Vancouver. He’s now 13-of-15 on the season for a solid average of 86.7 percent.

In an odd way, the late misses might help Liegghio moving forward. He can now return to IG Field without being burdened by the pressure of an ongoing streak, while fans will be quick to forget Saturday’s late misses considering how well the team performed as a whole.

Smoke and mirrors?

The Lions entered Saturday’s game as the favourites following an impressive 3-0 start to the season but will now face serious scrutiny after getting outplayed at home. It’s worth noting that B.C.’s three wins came against modest competition — Edmonton, Toronto, and Ottawa have a combined record of 2-10 — but I still think they are a good football team.

Rourke is the real deal and his receiving corps is electric (do yourself a favour and watch Dominique Rhymes’ two touchdown catches — they were as good as you’ll see anywhere). There’s work to do on special teams and the offensive and defensive lines need to be tweaked but this club is right there with the rest of the top teams in the West Division.

Up next

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (5-0) return home next week following a two-game road trip to host the undefeated Calgary Stampeders (4-0). The Stamps are coming off a dominant 49-6 victory over the Edmonton Elks and have played well all season, even if their schedule has been relatively light thus far.

It should be a great game featuring the two top clubs in the CFL right now. The West Division is as competitive as ever with the Saskatchewan Roughriders (4-1) and B.C. Lions (3-1) narrowly trailing both teams, so there’s no room for complacency by either club.