Blue Bombers implode in shocking loss to Hamilton (& ten other thoughts)

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday by a score of 48-31 in front of 22,288 fans at Tim Hortons Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

What was that?

Saturday’s matchup in Hamilton was one of the most bewildering games in the recent memory of the CFL, which is saying something given the nature of the league.

Winnipeg entered the contest as a 7.5-point favourite, which was perfectly reasonable considering how they’d mowed down their opponents with relative ease this season. 3DownNation‘s contributors unanimously picked the Blue Bombers to win and cover over a Ticats team that played terribly in recent back-to-back losses against Toronto.

It was difficult to imagine Hamilton winning this game, though it never seemed impossible. This is the CFL, after all — anything can happen. It was the manner in which Hamilton won that was truly shocking.

In hindsight, the Blue Bombers might have been due for a letdown. They just secured two emotional victories over a hated rival and have essentially wrapped the West Division. The team is also heading into a bye week, which can sometimes be a distraction. Who doesn’t look forward to a week off? It’s only natural to look ahead to spending time relaxing with family and friends.

There’s no reason for Winnipeg to hit the panic button after Saturday’s loss. This is still the best team in the CFL and they’re still going to host the West Final. However, this loss makes it reasonable to ask questions that would have seemed unfair as recently as a week ago.

If Winnipeg’s loss to Montreal in Week 10 blemished their armour, this loss blasted a three-inch hole into it. They’ll need to spend their bye week mending that hole as well as they can heading into their final four regular season games.

Excellent Evans

Ricky Ray was at Tim Hortons Field to celebrate his induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, yet it appears he wasn’t the best quarterback in the building.

Dane Evans, whose future in the CFL appeared to be in jeopardy as recently as two weeks ago, looked like the second coming of Doug Flutie as he completed 25-of-32 pass attempts for 327 yards and a career-high five touchdowns. For context, Ray did not have a five-touchdown performance over the final eleven years of his CFL career.

Evans showed a sign of things to come in the first quarter as his touchdown pass to Tim White was as nice as any throw all season. If there had been any less speed on the ball, it would have been knocked down or intercepted by a trailing Deatrick Nichols. If there had been any more speed on the ball, it would have been intercepted by Donald Rutledge Jr. or sailed over White’s head depending on its trajectory.

Evans hasn’t had a great season overall but he dominated the Blue Bombers at Tim Hortons Field. Matthew Schiltz appears to be recovering well from his wrist injury but this suddenly looks like Evans’ team once again. Kudos to him.

Dreadful defence

As well as Evans played, Winnipeg’s defence did little to throw him off his game. The front seven generated little to no pressure throughout the contest, while Hamilton fully controlled the line of scrimmage in the run game.

The backbreaker for Winnipeg’s defence came with just under ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The game was still well within reach at 41-31 and the Blue Bombers were firing on all cylinders offensively, scoring two touchdowns in a little under five minutes.

The Ticats then churned out a 14-play, 90-yard drive, converting five times on second down and once on third down. A particularly costly play came with just over five minutes remaining as Evans avoided Adam Bighill on second-and-nine to run just far enough for a first down.

“We just needed another stop, to tell you the truth,” head coach Mike O’Shea told CJOB 680’s Derek Taylor after the game. “I thought we had ’em. We just probably didn’t tackle well enough.”

The drive lasted over eight minutes and eliminated any further possibility of a comeback by Winnipeg. Hamilton finished the game with 424 yards of offence and zero turnovers.

“Kudos to [Hamilton] for being able to come out and punch us in the mouth this week,” said defensive back Brandon Alexander. “Maybe we needed that, to be honest with you.”

The strip

People tend to blame the offensive line whenever a quarterback faces pressure but Malik Carney’s strip-sack of Zach Collaros was a perfect example of why that’s wrong.

The Ticats blitzed six defenders and Winnipeg didn’t have any extra blockers in to help provide protection. It was inevitable that at least one rusher was going to come free and it was up to Collaros to evade them or throw the ball almost instantly.

Collaros’ initial read was to his left and he didn’t appear to notice the oncoming rusher until it was too late to escape the pocket. Carney made a nice play to wrap the quarterback up with his left arm and reach for the ball with his right, though it appeared Collaros had already lost control of it by that point.

Collaros had a decent game — he completed 23-of-34 pass attempts for 342 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions — though there’s no question he was outdueled by his counterpart.

Disappointing debut

Brandon Alexander made his much-anticipated season debut at safety, dressing for his first game since suffering a torn ACL in last year’s Grey Cup. The expectation was that the five-year veteran would help take Winnipeg’s defence to a new level as he is not only a great player but a leader capable of elevating those around him.

Instead, Alexander’s presence wasn’t particularly noticeable with the exception of a big shot he delivered on Steven Dunbar Jr. early in the second quarter. He finished the game with four tackles and took some of the blame for his unit’s disappointing performance.

“There was a lack of communication on our side and I’ll take a lot of the onus on that. Me being first back and seeing the field differently, I wasn’t able to communicate with everybody how I normally do and everything, so I definitely take part of that,” said Alexander.

“It was running pretty fast. I was able to get most of my calls out but I wasn’t perfect today how I normally would be. I’ve just gotta do better on my job, I’ve gotta watch a little more film, be able to make the adjustments that I need to, and be able to make sure that the guys are all on point. The guys weren’t on point and a part of that has to do with me.”

Potpourri

Winston Rose has had an up-and-down year at cornerback but the 54-yard touchdown pass he allowed late in the first half has to be a new low for him.

Kiondre Smith has had a solid rookie season for Hamilton but has no business getting behind opposing defensive backs. He’s a possession receiver — not a burner — yet he blew by Rose and outran the veteran defensive back to the end zone.

Winnipeg has recently experienced a rash of injuries in its secondary, losing boundary cornerback Demerio Houston and field-side halfback Nick Taylor. If this unit is going to be successful with rookies like Evan Holm and Jamal Parker entering the lineup, they need to get better production from their veterans.

Schoen shines (again)

Rookie receiver Dalton Schoen set a new career high with 158 receiving yards on the night, bringing him within a stone’s throw of the 1,000-yard mark on the season. Had Winnipeg gotten the ball back with ten minutes remaining, it’s possible he would have challenged the legendary Milt Stegall for one of his many spots in the club’s record book.

Stegall has three of the club’s top five all-time single-game receiving records with totals of 233, 234, and 254 yards. David Williams’ total of 240 yards might have also been in reach, though the top spot — Alfred Jackson’s 308-yard game from 1994 — will probably stand for the rest of time.

Mental toughness

It was interesting to hear Cody Fajardo and Dane Evans speak out recently regarding how difficult this season has been for them mentally and emotionally. It’s refreshing when athletes speak honestly about their feelings and it’s easy to sympathize with both quarterbacks to at least some extent. We’re all human and there’s a ton of pressure that comes with playing the game’s most important position in two of the league’s most passionate markets.

With that said, there’s also something to be said for mental toughness. Fajardo complained about being booed by his hometown fans, which was a little eyebrow-raising considering Saskatchewan’s offence was horrible for most of Friday’s loss to Edmonton. Fans who dole out their hard-earned money to attend a sporting event are entitled to cheer or boo as they see fit. If a player doesn’t want the crowd to boo, the solution is pretty simple: play better.

The reason I mention this is Blue Bombers’ kicker Marc Liegghio has already been booed plenty of times through his relatively short professional career, particularly in the team’s 20-17 loss to Montreal last month. He has not only never complained about being booed but has gone a perfect ten-for-ten since his tough outing against the Als, including a 55-yard game-winner in the Labour Day Classic.

You don’t get very far in professional football without mental toughness. Liegghio’s shown that in spades and Evans showed that on Saturday with his stellar performance against Winnipeg. Maybe Fajardo can take notes.

Centre of attention

It was interesting to see Michael Couture dress as the backup to Chris Kolankowski at centre after returning from a long-term forearm injury. The 28-year-old has been a fixture in the starting lineup for the past four seasons but was relegated to a reserve role against Hamilton, taking a number of snaps at tight end.

It’s worth noting that Kolankowski is under contract for 2023 on a deal that will pay him a little over $80,000. Couture, meanwhile, is a pending free agent who earns close to double that. If Winnipeg is looking to save money along the offensive line next year, it’ll be interesting to see if they choose to roll with Kolankowski at centre.

Walking wounded

Jackson Jeffcoat left Saturday’s game due to injury due to what was reported as a lower-body injury and did not return. The Blue Bombers don’t have much depth at defensive end right now as Thiadric Hansen is injured, Cedric Wilcots II is on the practice roster, and L.B. Mack III was released earlier this month.

Winnipeg would be wise to pursue a trade for a defensive back during their bye week, while Mack would be a solid readdition depending on the severity of Jeffcoat’s injury.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (12-2) are on a bye this upcoming week, giving them a chance to rest their lingering injuries, bumps, and bruises.

The club will host the Saskatchewan Roughriders (6-8) for the final regular season game between the two teams on Friday, Sept. 30, which should be a good game after a ravaging stomach flu put the Riders at a significant disadvantage in the Banjo Bowl.

How will Winnipeg respond to being thoroughly outplayed in a meaningful game for the first time in three years? There’s only one way to find out.

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