Blue Bombers serve up 50-burger in Banjo Bowl win over Riders (& 12 other thoughts)

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 54-20 on Saturday afternoon in front of a sold-out crowd of 33,234 at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

The Zach attack is back

3DownNation contributors voted for player awards this past week following the completion of the first two-thirds of the CFL’s regular season. We chose two members of the Blue Bombers to take home year-end hardware with receiver Dalton Schoen as the Most Outstanding Rookie and quarterback Zach Collaros as the Most Outstanding Player.

I cast my ballot for Collaros but felt conflicted about doing so. He’s had a strong season but it’s clear Nathan Rourke would have won the award had he not recently undergone foot surgery. Collaros was legitimately the league’s best player in 2021 but that hasn’t necessarily been the case this year.

My feelings changed after watching Collaros dominate the Banjo Bowl. The veteran completed 21-of-25 pass attempts for 273 yards and four touchdowns in what was ultimately his best game of the season, dominating a well-coached Saskatchewan defence until he was pulled early in the fourth quarter.

Rourke would still likely have won M.O.P. had he remained healthy this year but Collaros has now put together two signature performances against Saskatchewan, throwing for a combined 487 yards and six touchdowns. He also now leads the CFL in touchdown passes with 26, surpassing Rourke who has 25.

Flu the coop

Backup quarterback Mason Fine, defensive back Jeremy Clark, and fullback James Tuck were late scratches for Saskatchewan reportedly due to the stomach flu. TSN reported that extra players were still en route to Winnipeg via ground transportation when the game got underway, which is why the team was short players when they first took the bench.

The additional players eventually made it to the sideline, which I found somewhat surprising. Given the circumstances, I half expected club president and CEO Wade Miller to call in a last-minute favour for some “emergency construction” to take place on the west perimeter, preventing Saskatchewan’s reinforcements from making it to IG Field.

It’s unfortunate that a number of Riders are ill, even if it led to the CFL’s wildest transportation story since Ismael Bamba rode the equipment truck from Regina to Vancouver in 2012. Much like the loose moose that caused delays ahead of the Banjo Bowl in 2017, this will be one of those stories people talk about for years to come.

Williepeg reigns

Winnipeg’s defence had an excellent performance in the Banjo Bowl, limiting Saskatchewan to 251 net yards and 13 offensive points. Low-scoring games are sometimes dubbed “defensive battles” even though the lack of scoring is more attributable to sloppy offence than dominant defence, but this wasn’t the case on Saturday.

The Riders ran the ball effectively, protected Cody Fajardo well in the first half, and generated plenty of yards after the catch. Shaq Evans committed the only dropped pass and it occurred late in the fourth quarter with the score already 47-20.

Winnipeg’s front seven took over late in the game as Saskatchewan had no choice but to repeatedly throw the football. Willie Jefferson recorded three tackles, two sacks, and one forced fumble, while Jackson Jeffcoat chipped in two tackles, one sack, and one fumble recovery.

Jeffcoat’s sack was particularly nice as he eliminated Fajardo’s favourite method of escape. The elusive quarterback loves to flee the pocket by spinning backwards to his right and finding the open field. Jeffcoat got outflanked by Fajardo a few times in last week’s Labour Day Classic but evidently learned his lesson, setting his pass rush a little wider in Banjo Bowl.

‘Kop out

The Blue Bombers are getting the most out of third-string quarterback Dakota Prukop, who carried the ball seven times for 30 yards against Saskatchewan. He converted a key second down late in the first quarter on a slick 17-yard carry Saskatchewan simply didn’t look ready to defend.

Prukop is only in the game for a handful of snaps each week but he tends to produce solid yardage and forces opponents to prepare for his ability to run the ball. Offensive coordinator Buck Pierce has done a masterful job of running the team’s attack this year and this new wrinkle has helped take Winnipeg’s offence to another level.

Backup quarterback Dru Brown also had a solid performance after taking over from Zach Collaros late, throwing his first career touchdown pass on an eleven-yard completion to Dalton Schoen.

Pass the Buck

It’s only a matter of time before another CFL team hires Buck Pierce as their new head coach. I believe there will be a large number of head coaching vacancies this off-season and Pierce should be at or near the top of any team’s list of potential candidates. He’s ready for the job.

Roll the dice

I loved Saskatchewan’s decision to gamble on third down early and often on Saturday, even if they didn’t always do so successfully. The club converted twice on third-and-medium on a long drive in the second quarter that culminated in a one-yard rushing touchdown by Cody Fajardo to make the score 13-7.

The Riders entered Saturday’s game looking to overcome illness, a hostile crowd, and a dominant opponent. Playing aggressively was their only chance to come away with a win and they took their best shot. Respect.

Blue and green

After the most blue-clad crowd in Banjo Bowl history attended last year’s rivalry game, there was noticeably more green in the stands at IG Field on Saturday. I’m not sure Rider Nation was as well represented as they were before the pandemic — gas prices could be to blame — but they still had a strong contingent in Winnipeg.

Keep in mind that this is only my rough observation. I’ve been to every Banjo Bowl since the game garnered its new moniker in 2004 but it’s not like I walk around with an abacus.

Banjo blowout

Saturday’s 34-point win is the most one-sided victory the Blue Bombers have ever had in the Banjo Bowl, though it’s not the most lopsided score in the game’s 18-year history. Saskatchewan laid a 55-10 beatdown over Winnipeg in 2009 as Michael Bishop and Bryan Randall threw a combined four interceptions and Luca Congi kicked six field goals.

Walking wounded

Canadian receiver Drew Wolitarsky left Saturday’s game early in the second quarter due to what appeared to be a lower-body injury. He walked gingerly as he left the field with the team’s training staff and headed straight to Winnipeg’s locker room. He was replaced by Brendan O’Leary-Orange, who caught two passes for 33 yards and the first touchdown of his career.

Veteran defensive back Nic Taylor left the game due to injury as well and did not return. He was replaced at field-side halfback by rookie Evan Holm, who made two tackles. Canadian defensive back Noah Hallett also left due to injury, which is heartbreaking given that he was playing his first game back from a torn ACL.

Stanley Bryant also left the game momentarily but missed only a handful of plays. The future Hall of Fame offensive tackle has missed only one game since joining the team in 2015 and that was due to rest late last season. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him leave the field previously due to injury, but I’m sure local fans were happy to see him quickly return.

Vintage valour

The CFL is selling new merchandise as part of its Turf Traditions line, including this hat featuring the logo Winnipeg wore from 1968 to 1994.

Screenshot courtesy: Lids.ca.

If you ask me, this is the best logo the Blue Bombers have ever had. The team’s current logo is an upgrade over the lightning bolt design it replaced but there’s no denying it’s pretty bland. It also does a poor job of representing the team’s colours as it features only a little blue and no gold.

The vintage logo is clean, classic, and colourful. It could probably use a slight update but it’d make a great primary logo if the club wanted to make the switch.

Triple the fun

I love watching CFL football but I don’t like it when the league schedules three games on the same day. It’s simply too much.

The logistics surrounding Labour Day and its subsequent rematches make it hard for the league to avoid scheduling a triple-header. The six teams that play Sunday and Monday need at least four (and preferably five or six) days of rest before their next game. Given that the league doesn’t want to compete with the NFL on Sunday, that really only leaves Saturday for three games to take place.

I’m curious to see how TSN’s ratings from Saturday will look when 3DownNation reports them later this week. Last week’s games didn’t draw huge numbers and they were pretty lacklustre compared to previous years.

Standing together

The Banjo Bowl feeds the red-hot rivalry between the Riders and Bombers — heck, a brawl broke out at last year’s game — but it was nice to see the clubs join together in support of James Smith Cree Nation.

We all know about the unspeakable tragedy that occurred in that community this past week and it’s time for the healing process to start. They were small gestures, but the commemorative stickers worn on both teams’ helmets and the moment of silence held before the game were respectful displays of leadership and empathy. Bravo.

Up next

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (12-1) are set to take on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (3-9) at Tim Hortons Field next week with kickoff set for Saturday at 4:00 p.m. EDT. The Ticats don’t currently resemble the team that faced Winnipeg in back-to-back Grey Cups and are a mess at quarterback as Dane Evans is dealing with a lingering shoulder injury.

Fans in Winnipeg should also pay close attention to the home-and-home series that starts next week between the B.C. Lions (8-3) and Calgary Stampeders (7-4). It’s unlikely that the Blue Bombers will be overtaken for first place in the West Division but the series between B.C. and Calgary will play a large role in determining postseason seeding.

The Lions looked terrible in a 31-10 loss to the Montreal Alouettes on Friday but it’s possible that Vernon Adams Jr. will be able to breathe some life into their offence after presumably taking over as the starter this week.

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