Winnerpeg: Blue Bombers set franchise record with win over B.C. Lions (& 11 other thoughts)

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

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions on Friday night by a score of 24-9 in front of 23,685 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Winnerpeg

The Blue Bombers set a new franchise record on Friday by winning their fifteenth game of the regular season, breaking the previous mark of fourteen set in 1960, 1993, and 2001.

One would think that the club could afford to coast after winning back-to-back Grey Cups but they’ve continued to improve, capping an outstanding regular season with a record-setting victory. What started as one of the best stretches in team history has grown into one of the best stretches by any team in CFL history.

It’s worth noting that while this year’s win total is the highest in Winnipeg’s history, the winning percentage of .833 is not. The Blue Bombers went 14-2 in 1960, a winning percentage of .875. The team also went undefeated a number of times shortly following its inception in 1930, though the seasons were extremely short.

This year’s winning percentage is the highest the club has had since the CFL expanded the regular season from 16 to 18 games in 1986.

Schoen the way

Dalton Schoen caught two passes for 84 yards and a touchdown on Friday night, wrapping up a remarkable rookie season that included 70 catches for 1,441 yards and 16 touchdowns. He not only broke the club’s rookie receiving record set by Perry Tuttle in 1986, but he also had the best season by a Winnipeg receiver in two decades.

Milt Stegall made 106 catches for 1,896 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2002, which was also the year he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. Schoen now has the club’s best receiving season since then, topping what Terrance Edwards accomplished in 2010 when he caught 78 passes for 1,372 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Stegall remains easily the best receiver in team history — one could argue that he’s the best receiver in league history — but he only eclipsed 1,400 receiving yards in three seasons — 1996 (1,616), 2000 (1,499), and 2002 (1,896). Schoen did it in his first full year as a professional football player. Wow.

With veteran receiver Eugene Lewis not dressing for the Montreal Alouettes on Saturday, it’s likely that Schoen will finish the year as the CFL’s leading receiver. If so, he will be the first rookie to lead the league in receiving since Curtis Marsh did so in 2000 as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Rourke returns

Nathan Rourke made his much-anticipated return to the field following foot surgery and played relatively well considering he hadn’t seen the field in two months. He completed seven-of-eleven pass attempts for 68 yards, though he missed a deep shot intended for Lucky Whitehead on an uncharacteristic underthrow.

The Lions are saying all the right things about Rourke’s quick recovery but it still seems fair to question whether or not it’s premature. The 24-year-old is usually able to flee the pocket with ease but was caught from behind by defensive tackle Casey Sayles on B.C.’s first drive, leading to a fumble that was recovered by Jake Thomas.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that Rourke will start next week’s West Semi-Final against the Calgary Stampeders. It’ll be interesting to see how his foot holds up over 60 minutes against arguably the league’s best pass rush. For the sake of his future, here’s hoping he doesn’t have any issues.

All hail the M.O.P.

Zach Collaros played only two series on Friday night and both ended in touchdowns as he threw scores to Schoen and Rasheed Bailey. The league’s reigning Most Outstanding Player has finished the season with 37 touchdown passes, which is the second-most all-time over the course of one season in Blue Bombers history.

For context, here is a list of active and retired CFL quarterbacks who have never thrown 37 or more touchdown passes in a season: Bo Levi Mitchell, Jeremiah Masoli, Trevor Harris, Darian Durant, Michael Reilly, Ricky Ray, Kevin Glenn, Travis Lulay, Danny McManus, and Damon Allen.

Collaros was rusty to start last year’s West Final, throwing three first-half interceptions against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. If his performance against B.C. was any indication, he won’t have any rust in this year’s West Final.

Brady bunch (of yards)

Winnipeg native Brady Oliveira entered Friday’s game with 929 rushing yards on the season and ripped off 72 by halftime to finish the year with 202 carries for 1,001 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment considering the former second-round pick ran for only 196 yards through the first six games of the season.

Oliveira is now only the fourth Canadian player to record a 1,000-yard rushing season since the turn of the century, joining Jon Cornish, Andrew Harris, and Jerome Messam. That’s pretty remarkable company.

Punch it in

Winnipeg ran the same play on back-to-back short-yardage tries deep in B.C. territory moments before halftime, as Mike Miller went under centre to run a pair of de facto quarterback sneaks. This appears to have been a blatant attempt to get an underappreciated veteran into the end zone, which is understandable. Miller has 226 career special teams tackles, the most in league history, but entered Friday’s game having scored only one touchdown.

The Blue Bombers ran the same play late in the third quarter and it worked as Miller broke the plane for a one-yard score. Good for him. Miller has had another strong season but playing on special teams is tough for players of any age, much less those who will soon turn 34. If this was Miller’s last career regular season game, it was nice to see him get into the end zone.

Curiously, star defensive end Willie Jefferson entered the game as a wide receiver when Miller went under centre. The four-time CFL all-star started his college career at Baylor as a receiver and has the frame to be a dominant red zone target, standing six-foot-seven with a seven-foot wingspan.

It’ll be interesting to see if Jefferson takes reps on offence again moving forward. On one hand, it makes sense to get him involved in the red zone as the team looks to add new wrinkles to the offence heading into the playoffs. On the other hand, it’s possible the team only put Jefferson out there so other teams would have to prepare for it in film study.

Attendance

Winnipeg averaged crowds of 28,641 at IG Field during the regular season this year, finishing first in the league. This marks the first time the Blue Bombers have led the league in attendance dating back to the league’s official inception in 1958.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders led the CFL in attendance for the past five seasons, while the Edmonton Elks did so every year from 1993 to 2015 with two exceptions: Calgary in 2000 and Saskatchewan in 2013. Ottawa and Hamilton are now the only two CFL teams never to lead the league in attendance.

This year’s attendance is also Winnipeg’s best since they averaged 30,637 fans per game in 2013, which marked the inaugural season at IG Field. Not including this week, CFL games have averaged 21,863 fans per contest in 2022, which puts Winnipeg 31 percent over the league’s average attendance figure for the year.

Built Ford tough

Tyrell Ford, Winnipeg’s top pick from the 2022 CFL Draft, made his first career start on Friday and played brilliantly, recording two tackles and three knockdowns. He spent a lot of time in coverage against B.C.’s top receivers and broke up two passes intended for Lucky Whitehead and one intended for Dominique Rhymes.

The 24-year-old played with speed, physicality, and timed his contact perfectly to avoid penalties when breaking up passes.

Cornerback is usually reserved for American players but there seems to be a recent trend towards more Canadians getting the opportunity to play the position. Hakeem Johnson started at boundary cornerback for B.C. on Friday, while Edmonton’s Jamie Harry and Saskatchewan’s Nelson Lokombo have had chances to start as well this season.

Jamal Parker also made a brilliant knockdown in the first quarter when Nathan Rourke targeted Keon Hatcher on a 35-yard pass over the middle and Parker climbed the ladder to break it up. The rookie defensive back has played very well since cracking the active roster in Week 8 and making his first start in the Labour Day Classic.

Ring it up

Winnipeg inducted receiver Joe Poplawski into the Ring of Honour on Friday, making him the 14th entry to the presitigious group. The five-time CFL all-star caught 549 passes for 8,341 yards and 48 touchdowns over nine seasons with the team (1978-1986) and is a member of the Canadian Football, Winnipeg Football Club, and Manitoba Sports Halls of Fame.

Joe Pascucci, a retired sports director for Global TV in Winnipeg, posted a great video featuring the receiver to his Twitter account. Check it out below.

Walking wounded

As Friday’s game meant nothing in the standings for either team, the top priority was to stay healthy heading into the postseason. Starting receivers Lucky Whitehead and Jevon Cottoy left the game for B.C. and did not return, while Winnipeg defensive back Redha Kramdi suffered an apparent leg injury midway through the fourth quarter. He left the field under his own power but walked gingerly.

Nic Demski missed Friday’s game with a calf injury, though head coach Mike O’Shea told the media this week that he’s “not worried” about it. This aligns with what my sources have indicated as the Winnipeg native should play in the West Final on Nov. 13. My sources have also indicated that offensive lineman Chris Kolankowski could possibly play as well, though he is currently out with a knee injury.

’90s night

It was ’90s night at IG Field and fans were encouraged to dress accordingly. It didn’t appear as though many fans participated — most were in winter jackets — though I saw an excellent Hulk Hogan costume while walking through the concourse.

At the risk of sounding like an obnoxious millennial, can every night be ’90s night? I loved hearing the music of my youth, including hits from Blink-182, Haddaway, S Club 7, and Metallica. It’s not that new music is bad — I’m just in denial about rapidly approaching middle age.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (15-3) will host the West Final on Sunday, Nov. 13, marking the first time in six decades that the team has played host to the game in back-to-back years. The visitors will be the Calgary Stampeders (11-6) or B.C. Lions (12-6) depending on who wins next week’s West Semi-Final at BC Place Stadium.

The Blue Bombers swept the Stampeders in their three meetings this season, though the clubs haven’t met since August. Bo Levi Mitchell was under centre for the first two meetings between the West Division rivals before Jake Maier took over the starting job for the rest of the season.

Winnipeg went 2-1 in three meetings against B.C., though they had already locked up the West Division for their final two meetings.

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