Blue Bombers best Stampeders in instant classic (& 11 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Larry MacDougal

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Calgary Stampeders on Thursday night by a score of 31-29 in front of 30,062 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Demski’s day

Thursday’s game was brilliantly entertaining from start to finish — it featured 60 points and a whopping 884 yards of offence — but will ultimately be remembered as a career night for slotback Nic Demski.

The Winnipeg native made eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown along with three carries for 36 yards. His touchdown grab late in the first quarter was slick but his best catch of the night may have been a nine-yard reception late in the fourth quarter that converted a key second down.

Demski made only five catches for 21 yards over the course of Winnipeg’s recent home-and-home against Montreal and was due for a bounceback game. It came at a highly-convenient time given the injuries that have plagued the club’s receiving corps all season.

Zach Collaros also had a strong night — he threw for 294 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions — though his untimely turnovers took critical points off the board. The first pick came on a ball he tried to force into double-coverage, while the second was simply underthrown. Both occurred in the end zone.

Nobody will remember the two interceptions because Winnipeg won but that doesn’t make them any less unfortunate. Collaros was exceptional for most of Thursday’s game — he just has to find a way to avoid making mistakes in the most critical area of the field.

Houston, we have a problem

Demerio Houston suffered a non-contact injury early in the first quarter and Jake Maier took full advantage, throwing a 61-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Malik Henry. The second-year cover man didn’t return, leaving a sizeable hole at the boundary cornerback position.

Patrice Rene — Houston’s backup — went down on the ensuing kickoff and was forced to leave the field on the cart. The Ottawa native suffered a torn ACL as a senior at the University of North Carolina, which cost him a possible shot at the NFL. Thursday was his professional debut and it lasted a little under seven minutes — what terrible luck.

Winnipeg accommodated the injuries by moving Winston Rose to the boundary and having rookie Jamal Parker take over at field-side cornerback. Rose started the first two games of the season at boundary cornerback but struggled and, after missing one game due to injury, was relegated to the field.

The injuries clearly impacted the way in which the Blue Bombers played defence, having their secondary sit far off the ball and allow Calgary to complete passes underneath. Maier feasted on the secondary for three quarters but the unit tightened up when it mattered most, allowing only 18 passing yards in the fourth quarter.

Maier didn’t appear to pick on any defensive back in particular and only tested Parker once on a deep shot to Malik Henry early in the third quarter. He even went after Deatrick Nichols — Winnipeg’s best cover man — in the red zone and came away with a touchdown on a perfectly-thrown pass to Henry.

The new Maier of Calgary

If there were any questions regarding whether or not Calgary made the right choice by installing Jake Maier as their new starting quarterback, the second-year passer answered them emphatically with a stellar performance against Winnipeg.

Maier completed 23-of-28 pass attempts for 294 yards and three touchdowns in what was only his fourth career start. He made quick decisions with the football, delivered it accurately, and never came close to turning it over. Though he was unable to put together a game-winning drive late, he certainly played well enough for his team to win against a great team in a hostile environment.

His performance also put into perspective how ineffective Bo Levi Mitchell was at times with the same supporting cast. The two-time Most Outstanding Player didn’t throw more than two touchdown passes in any of his nine starts this year and he only eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark twice.

Here’s a stat that might just blow your mind: Mitchell has thrown 19 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions since the start of the 2021 season. That’s exactly the same number of touchdown passes and interceptions Chris Streveler threw over his two seasons in the CFL.

People are often quick to point out that Streveler is not a “true starting quarterback.” If Streveler’s aerial production wasn’t good enough to be a “true starter” in the CFL, then neither was Mitchell’s.

The faux-mble

Zach Collaros delivered what appeared to be a tipped forward pass early in the second quarter, though the replay revealed it was actually a fumble forced by defensive tackle Mike Rose. Dave Dickenson successfully challenged the ruling on the field but Calgary was not awarded possession because the ball wasn’t recovered prior to the whistle being blown.

The play was officiated correctly according to the letter of the law, though it’s a shame the whistle was blown so quickly. Officiating is extremely challenging and this play illustrated one of the reasons why: officials are simultaneously expected to keep games moving at a fast pace and not to blow plays dead prematurely. It’s a tough balancing act and one that’s impossible to navigate perfectly.

While we’re on the topic of officiating, the roughing the passer penalty called on Willie Jefferson midway through the fourth quarter was the worst I’ve seen all year. It was a perfectly clean hit. The holding penalty on Ryan Sceviour in the final three minutes was also questionable, though TSN showed only one replay of the block.

Logan’s Run

Peyton Logan had an excellent night for the Stampeders, recording six carries for 51 yards and three receptions for 52 yards. He exploded through holes and made defenders miss in the open field with ease. It was sensational to watch.

There are only a handful of players in the recent memory of the CFL who I can remember being as electric with the ball in their hands. Off the top of my head they are — in no particular order — Brandon Banks, Chad Owens, Diontae Spencer, Chris Williams, Roy Finch, Dominique Dorsey, Chris Rainey, and Marcus Thigpen.

Ka’Deem Carey is arguably the league’s best running back but he almost might not be the best running back on his team. That’s pretty wild.

McCrae came to play

Winnipeg needed a receiver to step up with Greg Ellingson out of the lineup and Greg McCrae didn’t waste any time making an impact in his first career start. He made a highlight-reel grab on the team’s first offensive possession, hauling in a 41-yard touchdown pass despite his defender being called for pass interference.

He finished the game with five catches for 95 yards and one touchdown along with two carries for 12 yards. His performance helped make up for an unusually quiet night from Dalton Schoen, who made only two catches for 34 yards.

Rolling ref

An official was knocked to the ground midway through the third quarter when Malik Henry caught a touchdown pass while careening to the sideline. The incident drew quite a reaction on social media, particularly for the humorous way in which the official rolled forward while signalling the touchdown.

This GIF is bound to become a staple in CFL circles but could even become popular across social media in general. It’s a fantastic GIF with endless comedic possibilities.

Oliveira out

Brady Oliveira rushed eight times for 60 yards and made one catch for 16 yards in the first half but did not see the field in the second half. There was no report indicating why he was held out of the game but it seems fair to assume he must have suffered an injury. It’s unlikely that we’ll get a formal update on his status until practice this week.

#RealignmentSZN

It’s a damn shame that the CFL’s playoff structure makes it almost impossible for Winnipeg and Calgary to meet in the Grey Cup.

Anything can happen in the postseason — teams with losing records have won the Grey Cup before — but it’s tough to imagine this year’s title game being as entertaining as any of this year’s games between Winnipeg and Calgary.

Nobody wants to see another Grey Cup between Winnipeg and Hamilton but do any other interdivisional matchups really inspire excitement? B.C. and Montreal? Calgary and Toronto? Saskatchewan and Ottawa? There’s not a lot of juice there.

It’s mathematically possible that Calgary will finish fourth in the West Division and be the crossover team, though that’s far from likely. If these teams meet again, it’ll almost certainly be in the West Final.

Home sweet home

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are officially the first team in CFL history to record 400 home wins in franchise history. The club squandered a chance to set the record two weeks ago against Montreal, while Calgary missed two opportunities to do so as well in recent losses to Winnipeg and B.C.

It should also be noted that Edmonton has been stuck at 397 home wins since Oct. 12, 2019. Winnipeg entered the season with 396, while Calgary entered the season with 397.

Great call

I had to cover Thursday’s game from home after coming down with COVID and thoroughly enjoyed the commentary provided by Dustin Nielson and Matt Dunigan. The game was highly entertaining and TSN’s broadcast lived up to the level of play from both teams. I’m looking forward to hearing more from both of them.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (10-1) will meet the Saskatchewan Roughriders (5-5) in the annual Labour Day Classic on Sunday, Sept. 4. The Riders have lost four of their last five games but records never seem to matter when these teams do battle. It should be an excellent game.

Saskatchewan has won fourteen Labour Day Classics dating back to 2005, though the Blue Bombers won last year’s contest by a score of 23-8. The Riders will visit IG Field the following week for the Banjo Bowl and again three weeks later for a third and final meeting between the two clubs.

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