Blue Bombers wreck Lions to reclaim first place in West Division (& 10 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions by a score of 50-14 on Thursday night in front of an announced crowd of 30,874 at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Taking things personally

Blue Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea downplayed the importance of Thursday’s game in the West Division standings but make no mistake: this game was huge.

The Lions entered Thursday’s contest with a two-point lead in the standings and a chance to secure the season series against Winnipeg. B.C. dominated the first of three meetings between the clubs back in Week 3, crushing the Blue Bombers by a score of 30-6. We’ve yet to reach the midway point of the season but a second loss to B.C. would have made it extremely difficult for Winnipeg to catch the Lions for first place.

The home team was laser-focused on Thursday, playing fast and physical. The defence laid a bunch of big hits on Dane Evans, Zach Collaros connected on a number of deep shots with relative ease, and the protection issues that plagued Winnipeg in their first meeting with B.C. were completely erased as the offensive line was near perfect.

Whether or not they’ll admit it, it seems clear that the club was keen to prove they’re still the team to beat in the West Division. Though the Lions were without starting quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. on Thursday, the Blue Bombers still deserve credit for dominating early and often against a tough opponent.

“I thought our guys played very well. I thought to a man they worked really hard to win their one-on-ones,” said O’Shea postgame. “The receivers played fast and they made some tough catches. It was good. Zach (Collaros) was his usual self and overall the whole team played a good game.”

That’s not to say Winnipeg is going to has an easy path winning the division. The Lions have a pretty light schedule over their final 10 games with half of those contests being against the Edmonton Elks (0-8), Calgary Stampeders (2-5), and Saskatchewan Roughriders (3-4). The club also doesn’t have any remaining games against the Toronto Argonauts (6-0), who handed the Lions their first loss of the season.

“We know we play them another time and who knows what the records are gonna look like by the time we get there, but we obviously know that we’re gonna play them again and we’ll be ready for it,” said veteran linebacker Adam Bighill.

“(The win) is what we needed, obviously, but this is what it’s all about, it’s fun. Football is fun, playing in the West is fun, playing against good football teams is fun, laying it on the line with your brothers is fun, and it’s fun to get wins like this tonight.”

Circle your calendars for the evening of Friday, Oct. 6 when the Blue Bombers will visit BC Place Stadium for their third and final regular season meeting with the Lions. It could very well determine which team gets to host the West Final in November.

Pass the Buck

B.C.’s defence has been easily the best in the CFL so far this season, allowing seven points and 60 yards per game fewer than any other team in the league through Week 8. Those numbers were probably a little inflated from two meetings against the lowly Edmonton Elks, but it’s still an impressive unit led by Mathieu Betts, Garry Peters, and T.J. Lee.

Blue Bombers’ offensive coordinator Buck Pierce clearly found a few wrinkles to exploit on film as Winnipeg opened the game with deep shots to Kenny Lawler and Dalton Schoen, culminating in 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Collaros hit Lawler for another big gain on the club’s third offensive possession, though it was negated by penalty.

Winnipeg was unable to score a touchdown against B.C. during their game of the season but they wasted no time cracking that nut on Thursday. Collaros, who 280 passing yards by halftime, deserves credit for executing alongside his supporting cast, but it’s clear Pierce’s game plan was perfectly designed to beat’s B.C.’s tough defence.

Defensive reinforcements

Veteran defenders Kyrie Wilson and Winston Rose made their season debuts coming off long-term injuries on Thursday night, returning to the starting lineup at weak-side linebacker and field-side cornerback, respectively.

Winnipeg’s defence wasn’t tested much in what was a miserable night from B.C.’s offence but there didn’t appear to be any signs of rust from either player. Rose finished the contest with five tackles and one knockdown, while Wilson made two total tackles.

Rose may have been victimized on a 26-yard pass to Keon Hatcher midway through the second quarter as the receiver came wide open on an out-breaking route. It’s unclear if Rose simply lost track of Hatcher as his route developed or if field-side halfback Evan Holm was supposed to switch off coverage but didn’t.

One of the most impressive defensive players on the night was Brian Cole, who continues to get more work in a rotational role. The second-year linebacker is fast, physical, and versatile, finishing the game with one pass knockdown.

Super Demerio

Demerio Houston made an impressive interception late in the first quarter on deep ball intended for Alexander Hollins. The third-year cover man appeared to recognize the go route almost immediately and tracked the ball perfectly before out-leaping the receiver at the point of attack.

Houston now has six interceptions on the season, which is as many as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have as a team. The Calgary Stampeders have even fewer with four.

Wasted challenge

Mike O’Shea threw his challenge flag late in the second quarter after Willie Jefferson was called for a horse collar tackle on Dane Evans.

The challenge was a waste as the replay clearly showed Jefferson grab Evans around the nameplate and tug him to the ground. The league rulebook states that unnecessary roughness occurs when “tackling an opponent by grabbing the inside collar of the side or back of the shoulder pads, or jersey.” It was a textbook call.

O’Shea explained the challenge postgame, which appears to have been influenced by the last meeting between the two teams.

“[Jefferson] had [Evans] by the shoulder more than anything, there wasn’t a down, there wasn’t a backwards motion,” he said. “The fact of the matter is the last time we played them, I left my flag in my pocket probably five times when I could have won challenges. I wasn’t going to do that again.”

A better use of O’Shea’s challenge would have been in the first quarter when Kenny Lawler was called for offensive pass interference, negating a big gain. Though he initially appeared to push the defender out of the way, the replay looked far more innocuous as the defender’s momentum took him out of the play.

After the game, O’Shea confirmed that he could have challenged the penalty, though he was doubtful it would have been overturned. Lawler was visibly frustrated by the call in the locker room and didn’t mince words when asked about the flag.

“That’s a horrible call. The dude was tugging me off, I have to fight all the way back to make a great catch. The refs need to go back and watch that and learn from that play because I don’t believe that was offensive P.I.,” he said. “I believe I have the rights to that area as much as the person has rights to his area and I had to fight and get back to the ball.”

Lawler didn’t ask the team to challenge the play as he wasn’t sure it could be reviewed. He finished the game with seven catches for 200 yards and one touchdown, making his goal of reaching 2,000 yards on the season seem a little less outlandish.

Adam Bighill also wasn’t happy about the unnecessary roughness penalty he was assessed late in the third quarter for what looked like a clean hit on Keon Hatcher.

“The guy who threw a flag was on the exact opposite side of the collision, who could not clearly see where I hit him, how I hit him. The fact is, he threw a penalty because I hit the player hard. This is what football is, so I would like there to be a little bit more clarity and absolute precision in a call. Just because someone gets hit hard doesn’t mean a flag needs to come out,” said Bighill.

“What happened at the end of the game when Hatcher came to catch another ball on the in route? He dropped it. Why? Because he’d gotten hit before. That’s what defence does. That’s why they have to fear coming in the middle. It ain’t for free. When people get hit hard, that’s football.”

Walking wounded

Kenny Lawler left the game late in the first quarter and received attention from trainers but returned on the club’s next drive. If the club suffered any other injuries, they went unreported.

It seems fair to question whether or not Zach Collaros should have been pulled earlier than he was with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

The two-time reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player helped put the team up 37-5 midway through the third quarter following a wild second-down scramble that saw him reverse field with a number of defenders in tow. Given the score and the risk of Collaros taking a nasty hit, this would have been a perfect time to give him the rest of the night off. Instead, he played another quarter and a bit.

Winnipeg gave up an embarrassing late comeback to the Ottawa Redblacks earlier this year, so one could argue it made sense for the team to keep applying pressure for as long as possible. However, when considering how many quarterbacks has suffered injuries this CFL season — Dane Evans left the game with a rib issue at the end of the first half — Winnipeg probably should have had Dru Brown in the game earlier.

As for Brown, it took him three plays to cover 95 yards on his first drive of the game, capping it with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schoen.

Hold the butter

Brady Oliveira fumbled after catching a fourth quarter swing pass from Zach Collaros and linebacker Boseko Lokombo brought it back 30 yards for B.C.’s only touchdown of the night. The veteran running back had his legs cut out by defensive back Jalon Edwards-Cooper and lost control of the ball while falling to the turf.

The play was eerily similar to Oliveira’s fumble against Ottawa in Week 6, which also took place after he broke loose along the sideline. The Winnipeg native has generally protected the ball well since becoming the team’s starter, though this is a trend he’ll have to find a way to stop.

Oliveira made up for the fumble on the ensuing drive as he broke a 27-yard run for a touchdown following an unsuccessful B.C. onside kick. The gain was one yard short of matching his longest carry of the year.

Going to the dogs

The halftime show at IG Field was a dog show, which is objectively one of the best forms on entertainment on the planet. If we had more dogs doing more things more of the time, society would be a better place. Dogs are the best.

Touchdown regal

Milt Stegall has been selected for induction into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame with the ceremony scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 2 at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg.

The announcement was pretty shocking, if only because it served as a reminder that Stegall hadn’t already been inducted. The 53-year-old has been a member of the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame since 2009 and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame since 2012. Clearly, he shouldn’t have had to wait this long to get the call from the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

Stegall’s all-time CFL record of 147 touchdowns gets more impressive with each passing year. Andrew Harris, by the league’s oldest active offensive skill position player, has 81 career touchdowns. The 36-year-old became the CFL’s fifth all-time leading rusher last week but he’s got barely half as many touchdowns as Stegall.

Here are some notable CFL players who have fewer combined touchdowns than Stegall: Andrew Harris and Brandon Banks; Mike ‘Pinball’ Clemons and Mervyn Fernandez; Geroy Simon and Jason Clermont; Jeremaine Copeland and Ben Cahoon; Arland Bruce III and Joe Poplawski; Ray Elgaard and Darren Flutie; Normie Kwong and Joffrey Reynolds; Robert Drummond and S.J. Green; Leo Lewis and Jason Tucker; Travis Moore and Jon Cornish; Brian Kelly and Andy Fantuz; Terry Vaughn and Terrence Edwards; Don Narcisse and Jamel Richardson; Dave Sapunjis, Ed Hervey, and Kerry Watkins; Jerome Messam, Tyrell Sutton, and Brandon Whitaker; and Paul Masotti, C.J. Gable, Troy Davis, and Fred Reid.

Butter chicken

There’s been a huge response on social media to the mind-numbing Burger King butter chicken commercials that have started playing relentlessly on TSN during CFL broadcasts. In a cruel (but delicious) twist of fate, let the record show that the press box meal served at IG Field on Thursday night was butter chicken.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (6-2) will visit the lowly Edmonton Elks (0-8) on Thursday, Aug. 10 with a great chance to remain atop the West Division. The two teams met at IG Field in Week 7 with Winnipeg coming out on top 28-14 despite a relatively uninspired performance in the first three quarters. Brady Oliveira took over the game late, rushing for 80 yards in the final frame, while Jackson Jeffcoat and Willie Jefferson made back-to-back sacks on Edmonton’s final drive to help seal the win.

Edmonton promoted Jarious Jackson to offensive coordinator this past week, moving Stephen McAdoo into an advisory role. It remains unclear who will start at quarterback with rookie Jarret Doege and former first-round CFL draft pick Tre Ford as the two primary options for the Elks. Taylor Cornelius, who is 0-7 as the team’s starter this year, will take over the team’s short-yardage duties.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.