Winnipeg Blue Bombers roll to complete Saskatchewan sweep (& 14 other thoughts)

Photo: Nik Kowalski/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 31-13 in front of 33,234 fans at IG Field on Friday. Below are my thoughts on the game.

On a roll

After the season it’d be great to see a compilation of all the big throws Zach Collaros made while rolling to his right this season. His 36-yard touchdown pass to Rasheed Bailey in the first quarter was just the latest of many he’s made this year, most of which have wound up in the end zone.

Mobile quarterbacks are often judged based on how many rushing yards they have but that’s not entirely fair. Collaros only carried the ball six times for 49 yards this season, yet he constantly finds ways to hurt the opposition with his legs. Mobility isn’t always about getting downfield — it’s about buying time and changing the launch point.

Collaros finished the game completing 14-of-25 pass attempts for 296 yards and four touchdowns, all of which came from distances of 25 yards or more. The 34-year-old also surpassed the 30-touchdown threshold for the first time in his career and now has 32 on the year.

Thick as thieves

Winnipeg’s defence recorded six takeaways on Friday night, four of which came with the game still up for grabs. They stuffed Saskatchewan on third-and-short twice, Jamal Parker made a slick interception (more on that in a moment), and Brandon Alexander scooped up a bobbled snap from Cody Fajardo.

Defensive tackle Ricky Walker penetrated the backfield late in the third quarter to stop Kienan LaFrance on a nice play that head coach Mike O’Shea highlighted in his postgame interview with CJOB. Saskatchewan’s call was a tendency-breaker as they’d previously relied on Cody Fajardo in short yardage.

The Riders put up a respectable 395 yards on Friday but their inability to protect the football cost them dearly. Yardage is irrelevant when you have almost half as many turnovers (six) and points (13).

Danke-Schoen

Sensational rookie receiver Dalton Schoen reached the 1,000-yard receiving mark after making four catches for 125 yards and one touchdown. He now has 1,113 receiving yards on the season and has broken the Blue Bombers’ rookie touchdown record with 11.

Nine receivers have won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award this century, five of whom eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark: Nik Lewis in 2004 (1,045), Chris Williams in 2011 (1,064), Derel Walker in 2015 (1,110), Weston Dressler in 2008 (1,128), and Chris Matthews in 2012 (1,192). Schoen only needs 80 yards over Winnipeg’s final three games to surpass them all.

As impressive as he’s been this season, it seems highly unlikely that Schoen will reach the CFL’s rookie receiving record set by Darrell Mitchell in 1997. The Hall of Fame receiver made 77 catches for 1,457 yards and 17 touchdowns with Toronto that season, leaving Schoen 344 yards behind with three games to go.

Perry Tuttle set Winnipeg’s rookie record with 1,373 receiving yards in 1986, though he had three years of experience in the NFL before coming north. This isn’t the case for Schoen, who’d never dressed for a meaningful professional football game before this year.

Never quit

Roughriders’ receiver Tevin Jones quit on a 36-yard pass from Cody Fajardo in the dying moments of the second quarter and it proved to be a costly mistake. Rookie defensive back Jamal Parker stayed with the play and made his first career interception, returning it beyond the original line of scrimmage to Saskatchewan’s 37-yard line.

Zach Collaros threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Nic Demski five plays later and barely one minute following Parker’s interception. The series completely changed the complexion of the game heading into halftime as Winnipeg’s lead doubled to 14 points.

This is exactly why it’s never acceptable to quit on a play. Jones is a rookie in this league but spent five years in the NFL. He should know better. Barring injury, there’s no reason to stop competing before the whistle is blown.

Demski’s revenge

Nic Demski recorded five catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns against his former team, repeatedly beating coverage deep. He continues to be a thorn in the side of his former team, making 19 receptions for 244 yards and five touchdowns along with eight carries for 48 yards in three meetings against them this year.

The Winnipeg native now has 613 receiving yards on the season, which sits just 41 yards back of his career high.

Clutch challenge

Kaare Vedvik punted the ball for Saskatchewan midway through the second quarter and it struck rookie defensive back J. T. Hassell in the helmet, causing it to bounce awkwardly. Return specialist Janarion Grant was forced to sprint back to his own 10-yard line and jump on the ball, burying the Blue Bombers deep in their own territory.

Winnipeg challenged for no yards, arguing that defensive back Jordan Beaulieu was within five yards of Hassell when the ball bounced off his helmet. A penalty was assessed upon review, though Beaulieu was hardly at fault — he had no way of knowing the ball was going to hit an unsuspecting blocker.

Regardless, the challenge made a huge difference for Winnipeg. The penalty was assessed from the point of the foul, moving the offence up 37 yards to their 47-yard line. Not many challenges result in such significant changes in field position.

Don’t skip arm day

Marc Liegghio has remarkable upper body strength for a kicker and it was on full display when he tackled Mario Alford on a punt return late in the second quarter, possibly saving a touchdown in the process.

The Western product performed 15 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the 2019 East-West Bowl, a showcase game for U Sports players held the year before they are eligible for the draft. Though the 2020 CFL Combine was cancelled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Liegghio was hoping to complete between 18 and 20 reps at the event, which would likely have put him in the top half of participants regardless of position.

It’s impossible to predict how players who aren’t used to making tackles will react when called upon to do so. Remember back in 2012 when Anthony Calvillo was fined for trying to bring down Edmonton defensive back Rod Williams with what resembled a jump kick?

Super Mario

Mario Alford is arguably the most dangerous returner in the CFL and burned the Blue Bombers for a 92-yard kickoff return touchdown in the Banjo Bowl. If these two teams meet again this year — which, at this point, would probably have to happen in the Grey Cup — Winnipeg will have to do a better job of corraling Alford.

Sorry not sorry

Riders’ head coach Craig Dickenson falsely accused 3DownNation of misquoting him this past week, which we discussed in the most recent episode of our podcast. The quotes stemmed from a press conference that followed Saskatchewan’s loss at home to the Edmonton Elks two weeks ago in which he said his team was “not very good” and “weren’t that good even at 4-1.”

Dickenson is one of the CFL’s good guys. He’s warm, courteous, and affable. His press conferences are pleasant — he addresses members of the media by name, answers questions honestly, and cracks the occasional joke. But when it comes to holding his team accountable, Dickenson failed miserably this past week when he apologized for comments that he later suggested were a “little negative.”

Rob Vanstone wrote a great column for the Regina Leader-Post on this topic this week. Dickenson’s comments, while pointed, were undeniably accurate. The Riders are letting the opportunity to appear in the Grey Cup at home slip rapidly through their fingers and have only themselves to blame. Dickenson’s mistake wasn’t making the comments in the first place but apologizing for doing so.

Any player who is satisfied with losing five straight games at home has no business playing professional football. Period. It’s impossible to play well every week — heck, Winnipeg got crushed by Hamilton two weeks ago — but Rider Nation deserves a team that takes enough pride in itself to embrace fair criticism, which is what Dickenson provided following a disappointing loss to Edmonton two weeks ago.

Saskatchewan only has a few more weeks to figure things out and has yet to clinch a playoff berth. It’s time for them to look inward — not outward — for how they will salvage their season.

Osh to 80

Mike O’Shea isn’t nearly as friendly with the media as Craig Dickenson — at his press conferences, O’Shea exudes the warmth of a slurpee in a snowstorm — but he has quickly and quietly ascended a prestigious list over the last few seasons.

Now with 80 career regular season wins, O’Shea is officially the fifteenth-winningest head coach in CFL history. Depending on how Winnipeg finishes the season, O’Shea could still tie or surpass No. 14-ranked George Brancato (82) and tie No. 13-ranked Jack Gotta (83). No. 12-ranked Tom Higgins (84) will be within easy striking distance next year, though it’s worth noting that O’Shea is not under contract with Winnipeg in 2023.

O’Shea’s career winning percentage is better than that of Frank Clair, Ron Lancaster, Eagle Keys, Cal Murphy, and Marc Trestman, which is pretty remarkable considering he started his career 12-24. His success carries well beyond the regular season, of course, as he is 6-3 in the playoffs and 2-0 in back-to-back Grey Cups.

O’Shea is already in the Hall of Fame as a player but he could make it all over again based solely on his coaching resume. He’s the league’s best active head coach and should be considered among the best head coaches in CFL history. There are only five head coaches who should still be considered clearly ahead of O’Shea: Wally Buono, Don Matthews, Frank Clair, Bud Grant, and Hugh Campbell. Beyond that, one could argue that O’Shea tops the rest.

Truth and Reconciliation

Winnipeg and Saskatchewan demonstrated strong leadership on this year’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, including a number of initiatives that played out before, during, and after Friday’s game. It was neat to see so many fans set aside their usual blue and green in order to wear orange to a game that represented the two provinces with the country’s largest Indigenous populations per capita.

Those who defended the Edmonton Elks’ old name argued for decades that the moniker was meant to “honour” Indigenous people, not demean them. This was never true, of course, but it’s nice to see CFL teams have since figured out how to truly honour the Indigenous community. We’ve got a long way to go but we’ve also come a long way.

Holm is where the heart is

Cody Fajardo tested rookie halfback Evan Holm on three deep corner routes to Kian Schaffer-Baker, the first two of which connected for a combined 58 yards. The third one came midway through the fourth quarter, though the second-year receiver was unable to squeeze the ball along the sideline.

Holm has started the past two games in place of an injured Nick Taylor and it appears that he will start at field-side halfback for the rest of the season. He intercepted Mason Fine on the final play of the game but he’ll need to continue to improve in coverage over the rest of the regular season.

Walking wounded

Donald Rutledge Jr. left the game due to an undisclosed injury and did not return. He was replaced at strong-side linebacker by former second-round draft pick Redha Kramdi, who recorded two defensive tackles. Canadian defensive back Malcolm Thompson also left the game due to what appeared to be a knee injury midway through the third quarter while covering a punt and did not return.

Herd and Huskies

The No. 9-ranked Manitoba Bisons visited the No. 2-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies on Friday with kickoff occurring one hour after the game between the Roughriders and Blue Bombers got underway. The CFL and U Sports need to find more ways to work together, not compete against each other.

What if the game between the Bisons and Huskies had been played in the afternoon? It could have been shown in the tailgate areas around IG Field as fans cheered for their respective provinces and enjoyed refreshments leading up to the big game. The focus of Friday’s game was the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation but this seems like a simple idea that could be implemented next year on a different day.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (13-2) are scheduled to host the Edmonton Elks (4-10) on Saturday, Oct. 8 at 7:00 p.m. EDT. My math from Friday night was wrong — Winnipeg can only clinch first place in the West Division with a win next week if the B.C. Lions lose to the Toronto Argonauts that same afternoon.

Winnipeg beat Edmonton by a score of 24-10 at Commonwealth Stadium back in Week 7 in what was one of the most bizarre games of the CFL season thus far. Zach Collaros completed only seven passes including an 81-yarder to Dalton Schoen, while Edmonton dominated in time of possession (37:14 to 22:46) and net yardage (357 to 274).

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