Blue Bombers suffer loss, idiotic headbutt against Riders in Labour Day Classic (& 15 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Labour Day Classic on Sunday by a score of 32-30 in front of a sold-out crowd of 33,350 at Mosaic Stadium in Regina. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Zach off track

Zach Collaros had a tough outing in Regina as he managed to complete only five passes through the first three quarters of the game. The 34-year-old threw an early interception to Nic Marshall as the veteran ballhawk jumped a short route to Rasheed Bailey, which led to a Saskatchewan field goal from Brett Lauther.

It took until late in the second quarter for Winnipeg’s offence to get anything going through the air. Backed up at their own 10-yard-line, Collaros completed passes to Dalton Schoen, Nic Demski, and Drew Wolitarsky for 100 yards and a touchdown. They were all impressive catches but Demski’s grab was the best of the bunch as he brought it down with one hand in traffic near the sideline.

Collaros routinely aired the ball out, though with little success. Many of his deep shots were under-thrown, even his 52-yard bomb to Demski late in the third quarter, which required the receiver to fight through coverage to get back to the ball.

“It just wasn’t good enough, all of it, especially offensively,” Collaros told 680 CJOB postgame. “A lack of execution, I don’t even know. It was very bad in the first half. No consistency. Just not good.”

Collaros had a great fourth quarter to finish the game 13-of-26 on his pass attempts for 279 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.

The Cincinnati product has now thrown picks in six consecutive games, four of which were returned for touchdowns. He’s still arguably the league’s best quarterback — heck, he’s won back-to-back Most Outstanding Player awards for a reason — but he obviously needs to do a better job of protecting the football.

“They’re a good defence, good front four,” said Collaros. “They played with a lot of depth, stare at the quarterback in zone. We didn’t execute enough plays and that starts with me. Can’t turn the football over and put us in a bad position to start the game. It’s not good enough.”

Collaros now has 22 touchdown passes on the season and 10 interceptions. It’s not a bad ratio but it’s worse than what we’re used to seeing from the veteran quarterback.

The headbutt

Saskatchewan defensive lineman Pete Robertson knocked down a late second-down pass from Zach Collaros and celebrated by violently headbutting the veteran passer to the turf. The play was not initially penalized, though a late flag was assessed for unnecessary roughness. It’s unclear if the penalty was called by the officials on the field or if the CFL’s command centre intervened.

Fans in Regina were outraged by the penalty, though a replay of the headbutt wasn’t shown on the video screens at Mosaic Stadium. Then again, fans in Saskatchewan cheered Garrett Marino off the field after he intentionally shattered Jeremiah Masoli’s leg. The dangerous combination of passion, adrenaline, and alcohol can make fans cheer for stupid behaviour.

Collaros, who has been vocally critical of the league’s failure to protect quarterbacks in the past, was clearly upset after the game.

“Nothing in this league surprises me,” he told 680 CJOB. “You see it all the time in this league. It happens all the time.”

He also said that “a lot of good quarterbacks that aren’t in the league anymore would probably still be playing” if the CFL did a better job of protecting its passers.

Robertson will likely be assessed a maximum fine for his late hit this week and possibly even be suspended. Given the importance of protecting the health of quarterbacks, a suspension seems warranted.

Fans and media are always quick to pile on when officiating is bad, so it’s only fair to praise it when it’s good. CFL officiating has generally been solid this season and I thought it was excellent on Sunday until the final moments of the game.

Rivalry games can get out of hand if the officials don’t call things correctly and efficiently and Ben Major’s crew did an excellent job for the majority of Sunday’s game. It just would have been nice if they’d done a better job of closing it out.

Extending the Olive branch

Brady Oliveira accounted for most of Winnipeg’s offence in the first half and finished the game with 17 carries for 88 yards and two touchdowns. He had a 12-yard scamper in the first quarter that won’t pop off the stat sheet but was arguably the most impressive run of the entire CFL season.

The Winnipeg native initially looked like he was going to be caught by A.J. Allen for a loss of two yards, then brought down by DeMarcus Christmas for a gain of two, and then by Jayden Dalke for a gain of five. Oliveira kept his legs churning and simply refused to go down, shedding green jerseys like they were going out of style.

Oliveira now has 990 rushing yards on the year, sitting 10 shy of the 1,000-yard mark and almost 400 yards ahead of any other ball-carrier in the CFL.

Defensive letdown

Winnipeg’s defence was lights-out until the midway point of the second quarter when Tevin Jones took a reception 64 yards up the sideline after defensive back Demerio Houston tried unsuccessfully to undercut the route. Mitch Picton caught a 37-yard pass two players later as Winston Rose failed to get a hand on the ball. Three plays later, Antonio Pipkin punched the ball in for a one-yard touchdown run.

The unit bent for most of the second half until it snapped in overtime, as the Riders needed only four plays to score a touchdown. Jake Dolegala threw for 326 yards in only his third career start as the Blue Bombers failed to generate any takeaways. Winnipeg sacked Dolegala three times but failed to pressure him consistently late in the game, which was surprising as Saskatchewan lost veteran right tackle Colin Kelly to what appeared to be a serious knee injury.

Onside kick

Brett Lauther made a brilliant play to start Sunday’s game, dribbling the ball just over the required 10 yards on the opening kickoff and recovering it to give Saskatchewan possession at their own 41-yard-line.

In a fortuitous twist, a fan recently sent former NFL punter and brash talk show host Pat McAfee one of my tweets from 2021, which contained a video of Lauther converting an onside kick against the Calgary Stampeders. It’s clear that Lauther has a knack for this unique style of onside kick and opposing teams will need to do a better job of ensuring they’re covering the middle of the field on kickoffs.

It seems like teams have grown more conservative on special teams in recent years but that trend might change after Lauther’s successful onside kick and Jeshrun Antwi’s recent 43-yard run on a fake punt for the Montreal Alouettes. The prominence of special teams is one of the things that makes Canadian football so exciting.

Taken for Grant-ed

With all due respect to Jamal Parker and Greg McCrae, who have taken turns handling the club’s kick return duties over the past seven games, Winnipeg desperately needs to get Janarion Grant back from injury.

The electric return man has been out since mid-July with an ankle injury, though he was reportedly running sprints at practice this past week. Winnipeg has missed Grant’s ability to generate field position and score the occasional game-changing touchdown.

One also has to question Winnipeg’s decision to allow two rouges on Saskatchewan punts. Hindsight is 20-20 but when you give up two free points and the game goes to overtime, that’s a bad combination.

Lawless night

Kenny Lawler was virtually a non-factor on Sunday until he caught a 35-yard touchdown pass in overtime. He also drew a 23-yard pass interference penalty from Amari Henderson, though he was also targeted late in the game on a key second down and was blanketed by Saskatchewan cornerback Nic Marshall.

After catching 14 passes for 293 yards and one touchdown over his first two games back from suspension, Lawler has made only eight catches over his last four games.

Dalton Schoen had a tough start to the game, failing to secure three catchable balls in the first half. The first two were blatant drops in traffic, while the third occurred as he spun to the sideline. He did a great job of trying to sell the catch after it was ruled incomplete, though it was clear upon replay that the ball bounced off the turf as he tried to secure it.

The second-year star eventually bounced back in the second half, making two 24-yard catches that led to points for the Blue Bombers. He finished the game with three catches for 68 yards.

Selling out

The Riders sold out the Labour Day Classic two days ahead of the big game, marking the first time this season they’ve had more than 30,000 fans in the stands. The rivalry game has sold out every year since Mosaic Stadium opened in 2017 with the exception of 2021, when the crowd fell shy of capacity by approximately 400.

The Blue Bombers have sold out every Banjo Bowl since moving to IG Field in 2013, though the local attendance figures recently proved to be inaccurate (for sellouts, at least). It turns out the new capacity in Winnipeg is 32,343 after the club removed some flex seating and expanded the party deck. The club didn’t clarify exactly when these changes took place, though it appears they took place some years ago.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats also sold out this year’s Labour Day Classic against the Toronto Argonauts, while the Calgary Stampeders are approaching a sellout at McMahon Stadium as of the publishing of this article. It’s nice to see the CFL’s rivalry games can still draw massive crowds as we enter the final third of the regular season.

High helmet

Cameron Lawson was charged with roughing the passer on the final play of the first quarter, negating a sack by Ricky Walker. Upon replay, it was clear that Lawson made contact with Dolegala’s helmet, making it the correct call from the official.

It’s not every day that a six-foot-seven quarterback takes a hit to the head. Lawson is relatively tall for a defensive tackle at six-foot-three but it was still a strange sight to behold.

Unpunched playoff ticket

Winnipeg had a chance to clinch a postseason berth with a win in the Labour Day Classic for the second straight year but they failed to do so in the loss. They’ll now look to punch their ticket to the postseason for the seventh straight year in the Banjo Bowl next week.

The team record for most consecutive postseason berths was set from 1980 to 1996, totalling 17 seasons. The club made five Grey Cup appearances over this stretch with three championship victories.

All-time rivalry

The Blue Bombers are now 20-38 all-time in the Labour Day Classic after failing to win the rivalry game for the third straight year for the first time since 1982. The club would have to win each rivalry game through 2041 to even the all-time series record at 38-38.

Only in the CFL

In the latest instance of bizarre things that only happen in the CFL, podcaster and Roughriders’ fan Stephen Safimod was driving for Uber in Regina on Saturday night when Rasheed Bailey, Brendan O’Leary-Orange, Kenny Lawler, Nic Demski, and Willie Jefferson hopped a ride in his van.

The best thing about this league has always been that its superstars are extraordinary and ordinary all at the same time. I like the idea that any Uber driver in the country could be mere moments away from picking up a bunch of CFL stars at any given time.

Uniform watch

I write the same thing every year and I’ll keep writing it until the team makes the change: the Saskatchewan Roughriders should wear their alternate uniforms full-time.

The club’s normal home uniforms are fine but they’re not nearly as sharp as the throwbacks they sport during the Labour Day Classic. Do the right thing, Saskatchewan. Make the change.

Built Ford tough

Tyrell Ford, the twin brother of Edmonton Elks’ quarterback Tre Ford, was released by the Green Bay Packers this past week. My understanding is that Tyrell isn’t going to come back to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers anytime soon as he continues to explore potential NFL opportunities. He’d give the club’s special teams a boost if he came back for the club’s postseason push, along with some depth in the secondary.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (9-3) are scheduled to host the Saskatchewan Roughriders (6-5) for the annual Banjo Bowl on Saturday, Sept. 9 with kickoff slated for 4:00 p.m. EDT. Winnipeg has an 11-7 all-time record in the Banjo Bowl since the inaugural game in 2004 and has won six of the last seven meetings.

If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, you’re out of luck as the game sold out well over a month ago.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.