Winnipeg Blue Bombers overcome early miscues to eviscerate Alouettes (& 11 other thoughts)

Photo: Neil Noonan/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 47-17 in front of an announced crowd of 32,343 at IG Field on Thursday night. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Playing for both teams

Zach Collaros was the most productive player of the night for both teams, generating at least two touchdowns for either side.

Thursday’s contest started with an odd case of déjà vu. The veteran passer suffered a neck injury against the Elks two weeks ago when he threw an awful interception while running to his right to avoid pressure. On his first play back from injury, Collaros threw an awful interception while running to his right to avoid pressure.

In Edmonton, the interception was returned for a touchdown by veteran defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy. Against Montreal, the interception was returned for a touchdown by Canadian linebacker and former first-overall CFL draft pick Tyrell Richards. Yikes.

“My competitive nature sometimes gets the best of me. I have to throw the ball out of bounds and I didn’t see the guy, obviously, I threw it right into his chest. That’s tough,” said Collaros postgame. “It’s a good defence. I’m not taking anything away from them, saying it was just mental errors by me. They did a good job and (defensive coordinator) Noel (Thorpe) always has a great plan.”

The rest of the opening half was up and down for the league’s two-time reigning Most Outstanding Player. He escaped pressure to his right again near the end of the first quarter, only this time he hit Dalton Schoen in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown pass. He found Schoen for a second touchdown moments later, this time on a 22-yard corner route that gave Winnipeg its first lead of the game.

The next two big plays were disastrous for Collaros. He tried to find Kenny Lawler deep in Montreal territory but he was blanketed by double coverage and veteran safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy made the interception. Dequoy made another interception moments later after he crossed the defensive formation seemingly undetected by Collaros as he undercut a slant route intended for Lawler.

One of the strangest things about Collaros’ first two interceptions was the timing of his errors. His first pick-six came on the first play from scrimmage. His second came on first down with his team already in field goal range.

It’s perfectly reasonable to put the ball in harm’s way on third down with the game on the line. On first down with the ball in scoring position? Not so much.

As per TSN’s John Perlberg, Collaros threw zero pick-sixes over his first 36 starts with Winnipeg. He’s since thrown four in his last five. The 34-year-old is arguably the CFL’s best quarterback but he clearly needs to be more prudent with the football, especially when there’s no reason to take risks.

Collaros finished the game completing 16-of-24 pass attempts for 240 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions, hitting Brady Oliveira out of the backfield for the final score. It was still a relatively strong performance overall but throwing two pick-sixes in the same game would have been a much larger problem had the competition been stronger.

The veteran passer credited his teammates for remaining calm and letting him fight through his early mistakes.

“I saw Mr. Prukop, Dakota’s dad, after the game,” said Collaros. “He said, ‘It’s not every day you get to throw six touchdowns in a game.'”

A lot of players talk about forgetting negative plays immediately after they happen but the head coach in Winnipeg thinks Collaros is capable of more. Instead of merely ignoring bad plays, Mike O’Shea believes Collaros can use them to immediately play better.

“I think he’s got the ability to actually take it in and use it,” said O’Shea. “Some quarterbacks are able to do that. They can move on and play the rest of the game and process. I think Zach has got another level to him, which is not just flushing it. I think he can separate that but also use it as a bit of fuel and say, ‘All right, it’s on.'”

Dominant D

It’s tough to find fault with Winnipeg’s defensive effort on Thursday night as the unit allowed only three points over four quarters of work.

Montreal’s receivers generated consistent separation early but were locked down for most of the final three quarters. Winston Rose made his first interception of the year after jumping a late throw to the field side, while Jackson Jeffcoat jumped on a fumble by Cody Fajardo after he mishandled a snap from Justin Lawrence.

Willie Jefferson credited the team’s film study as they were able to anticipate much of what Montreal tried to do offensively.

“We locked in and we was focused and we was ready. We know they got some good offensive linemen, some good receivers, a good quarterback, and an excellent running back. The preparation that we put into this week, the time that we put into watching film, the time that we put into running plays and things like that at practice, it shows,” said Jefferson. “We was ready for them. Whatever play they ran, we already knew it was coming, so it was just on us to execute and stop it.”

The unit allowed only 173 net yards, which could be the lowest total by one team in any game this season. Montreal dressed William Stanback and Walter Fletcher in the backfield but generated little production, accounting for only 44 yards along the ground.

Stand back, Stanback

Montreal listed Walter Fletcher as their starting running back ahead of William Stanback on Thursday, though Stanback ended up getting the start. Depth chart deception is tacky and should be more heavily policed by the league, but that’s a column for another day.

Stanback is the highest-paid running back in the league, though his production has been underwhelming this season. The five-year veteran averaged over six yards per carry in each of his first three seasons in the CFL but has been mediocre in 2023, entering Week 12 as the league’s ninth-leading rusher with an average of 4.7 yards per carry. On Thursday, he was essentially a non-factor.

Running backs generally have short careers and it appears as though Stanback is already declining badly at the age of 29. He’s making almost $60,000 more this year than Brady Oliveira, who is not only the league’s best running back but also a ratio-breaker for Winnipeg. The local star was sensational on Thursday, carrying the ball 18 times for 119 yards and making a six-yard touchdown reception.

Snap, snap, snap

Early in the second quarter, Montreal receiver Austin Mack appeared to make an acrobatic 17-yard catch along the sideline to give the Alouettes a first down in the red zone. Danny Maciocia, the team’s general manager, was watching from the press box and immediately started snapping his fingers, urging his team to get to the line of scrimmage and run their next play as quickly as possible.

Upon replay, it was clear that Mack’s foot hadn’t landed in bounds. Blue Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea threw his challenge flag a split second before Montreal could snap the ball and Maciocia pounded his fist in disappointment.

Maciocia has worked almost exclusively in personnel since joining the Alouettes in 2020 but has 15 years of head coaching experience at the CFL and U Sports levels. Even from a few hundred feet away and without the benefit of watching the replay, he knew the officials had made the wrong call on the field. It was overturned and the Alouettes were forced to kick a 42-yard field goal.

Make it make sense

Ricky Walker Jr., rushing off the edge after trading spots with Willie Jefferson, pressured Cody Fajardo early in the second quarter and forced the veteran quarterback to throw an interception to Brandon Alexander. Montreal head coach Jason Maas challenged for roughing the passer and won as the replay clearly showed the defensive tackle’s hand make contact with Fajardo’s helmet.

The contact was innocuous but it was still the correct call. The CFL’s rulebook clearly states that defenders cannot touch the quarterback’s head or neck. It was a penalty.

The problem is that Edmonton defensive lineman Kony Ealy jumped on Zach Collaros’ head two weeks ago and the play went unpenalized even after it was reviewed by the command centre. It’s ridiculous that one play was penalized and the other wasn’t. Rules need to be enforced with consistency.

The CFL rulebook makes no distinction regarding whether or not a quarterback is in the pocket or on the run. Roughing the passer is roughing the passer.

As an aside, Walker had possibly his best rep of the season on the preceding play as he shot the gap effortlessly on a handoff to Walter Fletcher. He was in the perfect position to make the tackle for a significant loss, though Jackson Jeffcoat beat him to it as he flew in virtually unblocked off the edge. Sometimes life is like that.

Packed house

Winnipeg nearly sold out Thursday’s game with a crowd of 32,344, crushing its previous season-high, which was set at 30,874 against the B.C. Lions in Week 8.

The club has now averaged crowds of 29,502 so far this season, a 2.9 percent increase over last year. Next week’s Banjo Bowl sold out over a month ago, which will bring the team’s average attendance even higher.

The Blue Bombers led the CFL in attendance for the first time in franchise history in 2022 and are on pace to top that figure this year. Last year’s mark was also the club’s best average figure since IG Field opened in 2013 when the club averaged 30,637 over their nine home games despite posting a miserable 1-8 record.

Thursday

This week’s game between Montreal and Winnipeg marked the final Thursday night game of the season for the CFL. In an odd scheduling quirk, five of this year’s ten Thursday night games featured the Blue Bombers, making at least half of them appointment viewing for fans in Manitoba.

Television ratings on Thursday nights have been approximately 10 percent lower than games on Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights. Ratings are up from 2022 to 2023 and they could continue to grow with the league moving away from their lowest-performing night of the week.

No risk it, no biscuit

I liked Montreal’s decision to gamble on third-and-two late in the third quarter near midfield. Cody Fajardo underthrew Hergy Mayala, who was unable to secure the catch with defensive back Deatrick Nichols possibly getting a hand on the ball. The execution was poor but the decision was smart. Montreal’s offence was having a hard time staying on the field and the game was still well within reach with Winnipeg up 30-17.

Aside from the interceptions Collaros threw, the Blue Bombers were virtually unstoppable on offence. Though the gamble didn’t pay off, it was smart for the Alouettes to try to stay on the field and keep Winnipeg’s attack on the bench.

SEAL the deal

Damian Jackson was on the field when Winnipeg’s defensive line ran a stunt early in the fourth quarter, resulting in Jake Thomas and Ricky Walker Jr. converging for a sack on Cody Fajardo. Jackson signed with Winnipeg as a long snapper after playing defensive end in college at Buffalo, though he was converted to fullback in training camp.

This was the first time I’d noticed the former Navy SEAL take reps at defensive end this season. If he’d taken any previously, I’d either failed to notice or forgotten. Not many professional football players can say they’ve played on offence, defence, and special teams and Jackson has managed to do so barely halfway into his rookie season.

Jackson also made his first career catch on Thursday, though he was tackled by Tyrice Beverette for a gain of only one yard in the red zone. When asked postgame if he thought he would get another chance at scoring a touchdown this season, Jackson seemed to think he’d missed his chance.

“That was probably my only opportunity,” he said in the locker room, laughing. “I’ll leave the touchdowns to other people, man. I don’t really care for them. I’ll help them get it but I ain’t worried about it.”

Both of Winnipeg’s sacks came from the interior of the defensive line with Jake Thomas and Cameron Lawson getting one apiece.

“We have such great (defensive) ends that they get a lot of attention. They’re getting two or three guys trying to block them every play, so that usually opens up me, Ricky or Cam to get a one-on-one and we’ve just been kind of taking advantage of that,” said Thomas.

“Honestly, they’re one of the better offensive lines in the league. Kristian Matte year in and year out I always think is one of the best guards and they’re a pretty solid group. This is kind of what we were trying to hammer home this week. We haven’t really been doing it a lot, so I think they probably weren’t expecting as much from us.”

Right on time

There was a 15-minute weather delay at IG Field that briefly disrupted player warmups, though the offending thunderstorm missed the stadium to the north. Considering the number of weather delays the CFL has had to deal with this season, it was refreshing to see the game start on time and proceed without delay.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (9-2) will visit the Saskatchewan Roughriders (5-5) on Sunday, Sept. 3 at 7:00 p.m. EDT for the annual Labour Day Classic. Winnipeg has already won in Regina once this season, defeating Saskatchewan by a score of 45-27 back in Week 2. Trevor Harris started that game at quarterback for the Riders, though Jake Dolegala will likely be under centre next week with Harris and Mason Fine battling injuries.

The Labour Day Classic was once a dreaded event for fans in Winnipeg as the club lost 11 straight matchups from 2005 to 2015. The Blue Bombers have since turned things around, winning three of the last six meetings, including both since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Winnipeg hasn’t won more than two straight Labour Day Classics in 40 years.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article attributed a quote to Dakota Prukop, when it should have been attributed to his father.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.