Missed kicks loom large as Blue Bombers suffer shocking loss to Alouettes (& nine other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday night by a score of 20-17 in front of 31,053 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Shanksgiving

Kicking was a concern for the Blue Bombers heading into the season but Marc Liegghio silenced his critics early, making 19-of-21 of his field goal attempts. Those critics have not only returned following Thursday’s game but local law enforcement might need to confiscate their torches and pitchforks.

The second-year kicker shanked his last-second field goal attempt from only 32 yards out, missing it wide to the left. The kick travelled only ten yards into the end zone, allowing Tyson Philpot to return it to the six-yard line to avoid giving up a game-winning single point.

O’Shea indicated after the game that he did not consider having Liegghio punt the ball through the end zone for a game-winning rouge.

Liegghio wasn’t much better in overtime, bouncing his 37-yard field goal attempt off the upright to seal the final score.

Kickers need to be automatic within 40 yards at the professional level, barring bad snaps or extreme weather. Neither appears to have been a factor in Liegghio’s costly misses, though he still has the full confidence of his head coach.

“He’s still a 90-percent kicker,” O’Shea told CJOB. “I’ll just tell him to keep working.”

Liegghio’s misses weren’t the only reason Winnipeg’s perfect start came to an end against the Als, but they were certainly a factor.

Always use protection

Zach Collaros faced far more pressure against Montreal than he’s seen in any game so far this year. He was sacked a season-high five times and narrowly avoided yet another sack by throwing the ball away as he was pulled to the ground.

People tend to blame the offensive line whenever sacks occur, which is unfair. Play-calling, the quarterback’s decision-making, the execution of other blockers, and the play of check-down receivers all play into protection just as much as the offensive line.

With that said, Winnipeg’s offensive line wasn’t good enough on Thursday night. The unit looked overmatched by a Montreal defensive line that has been average for most of the season.

The most costly sack of the night came midway through the fourth quarter when Wesley Sutton came on a halfback blitz that wasn’t picked up properly, stripping Collaros of the football. The play ended a promising drive and allowed Montreal to take possession near midfield for their game-tying touchdown drive.

Speaking of Collaros, do yourself a favour and (re)watch his 27-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schoen. There are only two players in the CFL capable of making this type of play: Collaros and Nathan Rourke.

Goal line stand

The Alouettes made the curious decision to run three consecutive quarterback sneaks after reaching Winnipeg’s three-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Dominique Davis was unable to break the plane but got a fresh set of downs after Donald Rutledge Jr. lined up with a finger in the neutral zone.

Though they ended up scoring a touchdown, I found it bewildering that Montreal took Trevor Harris off the field after orchestrating an impressive drive. The offence was moving the ball well — why take such a conservative approach when you need a score?

18-and-no

My colleague Justin Dunk indicated on the latest episode of the 3DownNation Podcast that he believed the Blue Bombers could finish the season 18-0. I told him that was lunacy on the show and I’ll repeat that sentiment here.

The CFL season is a marathon — not a sprint — and it’s inevitable that each team will win and lose at least one game. No dominant team will ever go undefeated and no pathetic team will ever go winless. This is a small league in which teams are forced to play each other over and over again. Familiarity breeds parity.

The Blue Bombers squandered a chance to become the seventh team in CFL history to start 10-0 in the regular season. They also failed to become the first team in league history to reach 400 home victories, a mark the Calgary Stampeders could reach on Saturday.

It’s reasonable for fans to feel disappointed but they shouldn’t feel that way for long. This team still has a stellar record and they remain the favourites to host the West Final. Winnipeg’s record was never going to stay unblemished forever.

Winnipeg entered Thursday’s game with 19 consecutive victories in meaningful games (playoffs included) and 13 consecutive victories at home (playoffs included). It could be a long time before we see a run like that again in the CFL.

Monochrome at home

Winnipeg wore their new alternate uniforms for the first time on Thursday, sporting all-blue outfits accented with gold stripes on the shoulder and leg. It’s a solid look — they’re infinitely better than the camouflage monstrosities the team wore in 2014 — though the large white ‘W’ across the chest made it hard to identify players at times.

Alternate uniforms serve only one purpose: to sell jerseys. Judging by the number of fans wearing them in the stands, these appear to have been a success.

Field position

The Blue Bombers haven’t generated a ton of yardage this year — they currently rank sixth in net offence per game — but have used takeaways and return yardage to produce field position. Winnipeg’s defence held Montreal to only 283 yards of offence but failed to generate any takeaways, forcing the offence to face long fields.

The Blue Bombers spent too much of Thursday’s game stuck deep in their own end, particularly in the first half. The defence has forced an impressive 23 turnovers this season but couldn’t generate one when it mattered most against the Als.

Packed house

IG Field was electric on Thursday night, though the Alouettes handled the noise better than most of the teams that visit Winnipeg. Fans were encouraged to arrive at the game early due to construction on nearby University Crescent — more on that in a moment — resulting in a crowd that was extra eager for the opening kickoff.

The Blue Bombers are averaging crowds of 27,600 this season and currently lead the league in attendance per game. Winnipeg is one of three teams that has never led the CFL in attendance — the other two are Hamilton and Ottawa — which puts them on track to make history in 2022.

It’s clear that the club’s recent success has given fans a renewed sense of pride in their team. I took my dog on a walk on Thursday morning and ran errands for most of the afternoon and saw a ton of merchandise around the city — jerseys, t-shirts, hats, car flags, you name it.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders have led the CFL in attendance for the past five seasons, while the Edmonton Football Team led the league in attendance every year from 1993 to 2015 with two exceptions: Calgary in 2000 and Saskatchewan in 2013.

Fullbacks are people too

Montreal Alouettes’ fullback Christophe Normand has been underrated since he started his career in Winnipeg in 2015. He’s got a rare combination of size and speed and that was on full display when Janarion Grant came close to breaking a punt return up the sideline midway through the second quarter.

Grant has elite speed and two return touchdowns this season — once he commits to finding the edge, he almost always breaks contain. Normand was able to use his speed to force Grant into the sideline, limiting the return to 15 yards.

Timing is everything

Can anyone explain why the city started a major reconstruction project on University Crescent in mid-July? The repairs are scheduled to take three months, which will carry well into the start of the fall semester.

Upwards of 30,000 students are about to return to campus with poor traffic flow to and from the school’s amenities. Why didn’t this project get underway in May to take advantage of the University of Manitoba’s slow summer months?

Up next

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (9-1) are entering their first of three byes this season, providing a much-needed opportunity to rest after ten consecutive weeks of action. The outlook for the bye has completely changed following Thursday’s shocking loss as the B.C. Lions (6-1) and Calgary Stampeders (5-2) are suddenly within striking distance of the top spot in the West Division.

Calgary will visit B.C. on Saturday and host the Toronto Argonauts next week before visiting IG Field for Winnipeg’s next game on Thursday, Aug. 25. The Blue Bombers have already won the season series between the two teams by virtue of their 26-19 win in Week 6 and 35-28 win in Week 8.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.