Zach Collaros furthers M.O.P. case as Blue Bombers decimate Elks (& 11 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Elks on Saturday evening by a score of 48-11 in front of 27,159 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

All hail the M.O.P.

If there was any doubt regarding who should win Most Outstanding Player this year, Zach Collaros ended that debate after completing 15-of-19 pass attempts for 241 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception on Saturday. His first incompletion didn’t occur until late in the second quarter and his numbers would likely have been even better had Winnipeg continued to push the ball down the field in the second half.

B.C. Lions’ quarterback Nathan Rourke was the best player in the league before undergoing foot surgery in August but Collaros has since far surpassed his level of production. It’s unfortunate that Rourke couldn’t continue to compete for the award but it’s not anyone’s fault that he got hurt. There’s even a recent precedent for this situation.

Collaros threw for 3,376 yards, 25 touchdowns, and eight interceptions over 12 games with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2015 before suffering a torn ACL. He was considered the heavy favourite to win M.O.P. that year but was eventually surpassed by Henry Burris, who threw for 5,693 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions over 18 games with the Ottawa Redblacks.

Burris was still a worthy recipient of the award despite the injury to Collaros. It’s not his fault that a competitor got hurt and there’s no asterisk beside his recognition. He earned M.O.P. that season. Period.

A similar scenario has played out this season, only this time Collaros is in the opposite role. He deserves to win M.O.P., just as Burris did seven years ago. He has 10 more touchdown passes than his nearest competition and has only gotten better as the season’s gone on, throwing for 15 touchdowns and three interceptions over his last five starts.

Collaros also entered a prestigious spot in club history as he’s now thrown for 35 touchdowns on the season. He surpassed Jack Jacobs to tie Tom Clements (1987) for third-most in team history in a single season and is only one touchdown pass behind Matt Dunigan (1993) for second place.

Enjoy it while it lasts

Winnipeg officially clinched first place in the West Division on Saturday and tied a single-season club record with 14 wins, matching marks set in 1960, 1993, and 2001. Between the team’s victories, back-to-back Grey Cups, and back-to-back first-place West Division finishes, this is easily the best time to be a fan of the Blue Bombers in over a half-century.

Success is fleeting. Hamilton appeared in back-to-back Grey Cups and finished the regular season with a sensational 15-3 record in 2019. The club was expected to snap a long championship drought and reach new heights led by up-and-coming quarterback Dane Evans, yet they’re currently battling to earn a postseason berth at 5-10.

Hamilton’s sudden collapse should serve as a cautionary tale for fans in Bomberland. All empires fall and sometimes they do so with little warning.

There’s no telling how long Winnipeg’s current string of success will last. It could go on for another ten years or it could end next week. Nothing should ever be taken for granted, especially in professional football. Just ask fans in Hamilton.

If you’re a fan of the Blue Bombers, enjoy the success while it lasts. Buy a ticket to the West Final and cheer your face off. There’s no way of knowing how long this remarkable run will last.

Ugly Elks

Edmonton generated some positive buzz after beating Saskatchewan in Week 15 but they were atrocious on Saturday. The defence put up little resistance against Winnipeg’s offensive attack and has now allowed more than 45 points on five separate occasions this season. There’s no excuse for that and Chris Jones needs to be held accountable.

Dillon Mitchell and Kevin Brown seem like nice finds on the offensive side of the ball but the team hasn’t uncovered any impact first-year players on defence. Who do you build around in 2023? Jake Ceresna is elite but he’s been on the roster since 2018. Three of the team’s starting defensive backs are over 30. The defence should be better — or at least younger.

Taylor Cornelius didn’t make any critical mistakes but he simply wasn’t accurate enough on Saturday. He only completed 11-of-24 pass attempts and, though some of his incompletions came as a result of being contested by Winnipeg’s defenders, many were simply inaccurate throws.

Canadians galore

Université de Montréal product Redha Kramdi took over at strong-side linebacker from Donald Rutledge Jr. to make his first career start on Saturday and recorded three tackles.

It’s always nice to see Canadians get the opportunity to play positions that are typically reserved for Americans. Only two homegrown players have started at strong-side linebacker all season and they were both in Saturday’s game: Kramdi for Winnipeg and Enock Makonzo for Edmonton.

Occasionally there’s chatter around the league about the possibility of lowering the ratio and this is just another example of why that’s unnecessary. The Blue Bombers are the best team in the league and they started nine Canadian players against Edmonton, two more than the required minimum of seven. Teams that draft well and develop their picks never run out of Canadian starters — only lousy teams do.

Most of Winnipeg’s homegrown starters on Saturday weren’t first-round picks, either. Brady Oliveira was a second-round pick in 2019, Brendan O’Leary-Orange was a fourth-round pick in 2020, Jake Thomas was a fourth-round pick in 2012, Shayne Gauthier was a fourth-round pick in 2016, and Kramdi was a second-round pick in 2021. Chris Kolankowski, who has won the starting job at centre over Michael Couture, was a sixth-round pick of the Toronto Argonauts in 2016.

How they Dru it up

Backup quarterback Dru Brown took over the controls with four minutes remaining in the game and threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schoen on his second play from scrimmage. For anyone wondering, the second-year passer is under contract with Winnipeg for 2023.

This is notable because Brown has played exceptionally well when given an opportunity to play this season, albeit in limited action. It’s tough to imagine another team seeing him as an undisputed day-one starter but he could certainly compete for a starting role with a handful of other clubs.

Third-string quarterback Dakota Prukop threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Brady Oliveira in the second quarter, which was his second of the season. It’s not often that three quarterbacks on one team throw touchdown passes in the same game.

According to CFL head statistician Steve Daniel, B.C. Lions’ quarterbacks Buck Pierce, Jarious Jackson, and Zac Champion all threw touchdown passes in a 40-10 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sept. 27, 2008. Coincidentally, Pierce and Jackson were both involved in Saturday’s game as Pierce is Winnipeg’s offensive coordinator and Jackson is Edmonton’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator.

Receiving greatness

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Dalton Schoen and Nic Demski caught a bunch of passes and made big plays for Winnipeg. Pretty hard to believe, huh?

Schoen caught seven passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns, while Demski made five catches for 92 yards and a touchdown along with three carries for 22 yards. Schoen now leads the CFL in receiving yards with 1,275 and touchdown receptions with 14.

There’s not much to write about this pair that hasn’t already been written. They’re brilliant players. It’s as simple as that.

Return policy

Second-year kicker Marc Liegghio had to help make a tackle for the second consecutive game when his team momentarily lost contain on Christian Saulsberry’s kickoff return to open the second half. There’s not a lot to criticize about the Blue Bombers right now but they have been vulnerable at times on kick coverage. They’ll need to tighten things up come the postseason.

Walking wounded

Offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick left Saturday’s game due to injury early in the fourth quarter, though it didn’t appear to be serious. He was replaced at right tackle by Geoff Gray, while Michael Couture took over for Gray at left guard.

Winnipeg’s offensive line had a couple of shaky games over the first half of the season but they’ve been excellent over the past month. Collaros faced little pressure on Saturday, while there were plenty of running lanes for Brady Oliveira.

Milestone watch

Oliveira ran 14 times for 61 yards and a touchdown against Edmonton and now sits just 81 yards shy of 1,000 on the season. Though it’s unclear how much he’ll play over the club’s two remaining games, he has a chance to become just the fourth Canadian to rush for 1,000 yards over the past decade alongside Jon Cornish, Jerome Messam, and Andrew Harris. That’s pretty elite company.

First round exit

The Toronto Blue Jays blew an 8-1 lead against the Seattle Mariners on Saturday and have been eliminated from postseason contention. Canadian baseball fans are understandably upset about the team’s early playoff exit but there are at least two groups that must be ecstatic: TSN and the CFL’s head office.

The Blue Jays have been dominating national TV ratings in recent weeks and would surely have continued to do so had they made a deep playoff run. Toronto’s early exit should help get more eyeballs on the CFL heading into the final weeks of the regular season.

Sweet tooth

I released my official Nestlé minibar Halloween candy ranking on Friday night and my tweet garnered a surprising number of replies. For those who missed it, here’s the list.

1) KitKat
2) Smarties
3) Coffee Crisp
4) Aero

Yes, Smarties are ranked second and no amount of slander will convince me otherwise. They are excellent, bordering on elite.

Here is how I would rank the remaining popular Halloween candy collections. I’m planning to rank all 16 candies on one giant list in a few weeks once I’ve conducted further research.

Cadbury

1) Caramilk
2) Mr. Big
3) Crispy Crunch
4) Wunderbar

Maynards

1) Swedish Fish
2) Sour Patch Kids
3) Fuzzy Peaches
4) Swedish Berries

Mars

1) M&Ms
2) Twix
3) Snickers
4) Peanut M&Ms

Next up

The Blue Bombers (14-2) will visit the B.C. Lions (10-5) on Saturday, Oct. 15 with kickoff slated for 10:00 p.m. EDT.

The game will no longer have playoff implications for Winnipeg as they’ve clinched first place in the West Division, though B.C. is still hoping to clinch a home playoff date. The Lions are currently tied with the Calgary Stampeders for second place at 10-5, though B.C. owns the season series by virtue of their head-to-head record.

There will be plenty of conversation in Winnipeg this week regarding how much Zach Collaros should play over the club’s two remaining games.

If last year is any indication, he’ll play at least one. The Blue Bombers played three meaningless late-season games in 2021 and Collaros started two, finishing one.

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