Brady Oliveira powers Blue Bombers to win over diminished Argonauts (& 12 other thoughts)

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

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Toronto Argonauts on Friday night by a score of 31-21 in front of a sold-out crowd of 32,343 during the Orange Shirt Game at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the contest.

What a weird one

Friday’s much-anticipated game felt like it was ruined well before it started as Toronto elected to rest a number of key players against Winnipeg. Chad Kelly and Shawn Oakman were healthy scratches, while Wynton McManis and Jamal Peters were given the week off with what appeared to be minor injuries.

The Argonauts shouldn’t have been criticized for resting anyone. They clinched the East Division with six games left in the regular season and they’d be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity to gain some extra rest.

However, it’s also understandable that fans were disappointed. Friday’s game felt like it was destined to be like one of those baking shows on which inexperienced contestants try to recreate professionally-decorated cakes in an impossibly short period of time. Fans expected a masterpiece; instead, they suspected they were getting a mess.

Courtesy: Netflix

As it turned out, those fears were largely unfounded. Cameron Dukes led Toronto’s offence efficiently and played virtually mistake-free football, avoiding the type of “welcome to the CFL” moments that typically afflict first-time starters. Winnipeg defence didn’t send a lot of pressure and the secondary seemed determined not to get beaten deep, giving Toronto’s receivers plenty of room to work underneath.

“We knew it was gonna be a good contest. I wouldn’t think any of our guys took anything lightly. Did we make some mistakes? Absolutely. We checked very early to see if there was any effort issues right and there wasn’t,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “It’s two good football teams.”

It wasn’t a strong performance from the Blue Bombers overall but they did just enough to overcome a diminished Toronto team that, despite playing without some star players, was still highly competent.

Duelling running backs

Brady Oliveira and A.J. Ouellette have been battling for the rushing title all season, though Ouellette faded last week when he sat out of the team’s win against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The race may as well be handed to Oliveira at this point as he carried the ball 25 times for 169 yards in the win along with two catches for 12 yards and a touchdown.

The heavy workload didn’t bother Oliveira, who relished being a focal point of the offensive attack.

“I can always get 30 touches no matter what, going seven games straight, 10 games straight, coming off a bye. I’m built for getting 20-plus touches a game and I think I’ve showed it this year when I get those touches. My body feels great right now and I’m excited for next week and the opportunities I get,” said Oliveira.

“The offensive line did a crazy job, they were moving the down guys all night. That’s been the whole message: move the down guys and allow me to get to the backers and I’ll do what I do best. I’m a tough runner, I run downhill, I’ll run over a backer or make him miss. But just get me past those big boys up front and they did that all night and that’s what allows us to get those big yards.”

The Winnipeg had a costly mistake near the end of the first half as he fumbled the ball deep in Toronto territory, negating a chance for Winnipeg to take the lead heading into halftime. It was still a great performance despite the fumble as Oliveira recorded a new single-game rushing career-high.

Ouellette ran with a vengeance on Friday night, scoring a touchdown on a 28-yard reception from Dukes. He sat throughout the second half as Deonta McMahon and Daniel Adeboboye took over in the backfield.

Oliveira expanded his lead over Kevin Brown, who is on a bye this week with Edmonton, to over 300 yards. He hasn’t clinched anything yet, though he’s certainly the favourite to win his first career CFL rushing title with three games left to play.

Matchup malarkey

Toronto played Jamie Harry at field-side cornerback on Friday, giving the native of Lachine, Que. his first start since the end of last year when he was a member of the Edmonton Elks. Harry was a standout at the University of Ottawa but his stock fell in the draft after he ran a disappointing 4.79-second forty-yard dash at the CFL Combine in 2019.

Harry primarily covered Drew Wolitarsky, who starts at field-side wideout for Winnipeg, though I was surprised the Blue Bombers didn’t try to take advantage of the matchup by rotating Kenny Lawler out wide. If you’ve got a rusty opponent with limited speed playing at cornerback, it’s important to test him early and often. Winnipeg didn’t and that feels like a missed opportunity.

Lawler ran a deep route against Harry in the middle of the fourth quarter but safety Royce Metchie was able to provide help, almost intercepting the pass. The play didn’t end up counting as it was negated by an offside penalty.

Lawler primarily saw coverage from Quan’tez Stiggers, who could very well be in the NFL in the relatively near future. The 21-year-old was a three-sport star at B.E.S.T. Academy High School in Atlanta before transitioning to the Fan Controlled Football League. Once he’s eligible to do so, don’t be surprised if he makes the jump to the NFL.

“He’s a good corner, I take my hat off to him. They got a good game plan and I gotta come down with more of those, I know and I will. He’s a guy we’ll see more often,” said Lawler, who made three catches for 29 yards on six targets.

“He’s definitely one of the better (cornerbacks I’ve played this year). I wouldn’t say the best but he could definitely be one of them for sure. He’s a good player.”

No return policy

The Blue Bombers ran a reverse on the opening kickoff as Jamal Parker pitched the ball to Evan Holm, who brought it back 24 yards along the left sideline. It was clear that the play caught Toronto off guard and Holm came close to remaining in bounds and generating a huge gain as he broke contain around Benoit Marion.

Parker pitched the ball again on his second kickoff return as Brian Cole II brought it to the 30-yard line running to his right. This was an interesting call as Cole is more of a bruiser than a gazelle but he still made some headway.

It’s no secret that Winnipeg has struggled in the return game since Janarion Grant landed on the six-game injured list in mid-July. Until Grant is back, the club would be smart to continue to find creative ways to help their returners find room to operate.

As for Winnipeg’s cover units, they didn’t see much of a boost even after Thiadric Hansen made his return from an Achilles injury. Jamieson Sheahan hit a low, driving punt near the end of the first quarter that bounced near the sideline and Javon Leake still found a way to bring it back 48 yard along the sideline. Leake may as well be anointed the league’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player right now. He’s electric.

Scheduling stupidity

Toronto and Winnipeg should have played early in the season when both teams were more likely to be at full strength, which would have ensured the teams played at full strength. The NFL often starts the regular season with a Super Bowl rematch and the CFL would be wise to follow suit with a rematch of the Grey Cup, which they did as recently as 2021.

Per source, the CFL is planning to return to a balanced schedule in 2024, which will ensure every team visits every other team at least once. After the league missed out on some key matchups in recent years — Andrew Harris returning to Winnipeg, Cody Fajardo returning to Regina, Bo Levi Mitchell returning to Calgary, etc. — it’s great that this problem should soon be resolved.

As for Harris, he was welcomed back to a standing ovation at IG Field just before the opening kickoff as he was shown on the video screens while a list of his career accolades was read aloud. It was a nice reception, though it would have been better if Harris were healthy (he was dressed in street clothes) and if it had happened less than 18 months after his departure.

As for Winnipeg and Toronto, it seems like there’s a pretty good chance they’ll meet again at Tim Hortons Field on Sunday, Nov. 19 in the Grey Cup.

Sackless streak

Willie Jefferson failed to record a sack for an eighth straight game, though he generated a takeaway as he stripped Deonta McMahon of the ball and Deatrick Nichols recovered.

“I do wish I could have got a sack but the win is good, the forced fumble is good. We have some more games and I’m just trying to stack them up,” said Jefferson.

“I’m not upset because there’s a lot of good things that we’ve done defensive-wise, that I’ve done defensive-wise in those games. I just haven’t had a sack and I’m saying it’ll come, it’ll come. I’m not gonna cry over it.”

Remarkably, this was the first fumble Toronto has lost on offence all season after previously losing two on special teams. For context, Winnipeg has lost nine fumbles this year.

Truth and Reconciliation

This year’s Orange Shirt Game saw over 1,000 people from 120 Indigenous communities in Manitoba and northern Ontario brought to IG Field as the stadium was peppered with orange. The national anthem was sung in Cree and there were pregame and halftime performances from Indigenous dance groups.

Both teams sported orange jerseys during the pregame warmup and Winnipeg wore their Indigenous logo on their helmets, which was designed by Anishinaabe artist Dené Sinclair and initially unveiled in 2021.

There are three CFL teams that have yet to debut Indigenous logos: Saskatchewan, Toronto, and Montreal. Hopefully, these clubs will join the initiative in 2024 as we work towards truth and reconciliation together.

The officials used orange flags on Friday night in recognition of the upcoming National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and they should make the change permanent. The CFL used orange flags for decades before recently switching to yellow in what appears to have been a blatant attempt to make the game look more like the NFL.

Orange flags are used at every level of Canadian football except the CFL.

Packed house

The Blue Bombers sold out a third consecutive game on Friday, bringing their average attendance up to 30,212 so far this season. They are on pace to surpass last year’s average attendance figure of 28,652, which was slightly inflated by an inaccurate maximum attendance figure, and post a new single-season high since IG Field opened in 2013 when the club averaged crowds of 30,637 despite going 1-8 at home.

Winnipeg led the CFL in attendance for the first time in franchise history last year and are on pace to do so again this year by a wide margin. It helps that the team wins consistently, of course, though the quality of the stadium and electric atmosphere have helped bring fans back game after game.

No ball for you

The CFL recently started using balls that contain microchips, which provide the league’s technology partner, Genius Sports, with statistical data. This data is currently inaccessible to the public but will presumably be rolled out once the league’s statistical database and user interface start working consistently.

Players aren’t permitted to throw these new balls into the stands or keep them as a souvenirs without being assessed a $500 fine. It turns out fans can’t keep them either as I witnessed a lucky patron in the stadium’s north end zone catch a ball that was kicked by Boris Bede before being corralled by a security guard, who retrieved the ball.

The fan appeared disappointed, which is perfectly understandable. Consider this a public service announcement: if you catch a ball at a CFL game, be prepared to either hand it over to security or do your best Janarion Grant impression as you try to escape.

Walking wounded

Demerio Houston suffered an injury at the end of the second quarter and left the field shakily under his power. Winston Rose moved to boundary cornerback to replace him, while Jamal Parker slotted in at field-side cornerback in place of Rose.

Parker held his own, though he took a 16-yard penalty for pass interference near the end of the third quarter after contacting Damonte Coxie slightly before the ball arrived. He appeared to bump Coxie again on Toronto’s second-last offensive drive, though it went unpenalized.

As always, O’Shea declined to comment on Houston’s injury after the game.

Sir Duke(s)

Cameron Dukes made his first career start in the CFL’s loudest stadium against arguably the league’s best defence. It was quite a test for the rookie quarterback, who passed with flying colours. He finished the game by completing 15-of-20 pass attempts for 198 yards and one touchdown along with four carries for 34 yards and one touchdown.

“He did well. He didn’t give us any easy balls to pick off or anything like that. He used his legs well, he extended drives,” said linebacker Adam Bighill. “They have a good quarterbacks coach in (Ryan) Dinwiddie. They operate really well, they’re well prepared. He came in and he played well.”

The 25-year-old was inexplicably taken out of the game for most of the fourth quarter and Winnipeg took advantage by forcing Bryan Scott to throw four straight incompletions. Dukes returned for his team’s last two drives of the game, the first of which fizzled out when David Ungerer III dropped a third-down pass that would have otherwise gone for a first down.

Dukes didn’t receive significant NFL interest coming out of Lindsey Wilson College and played for the Vegas Knight Hawks of the Indoor Football League last year. Plenty of quarterbacks have taken untraditional paths to CFL stardom and it’s great that Dukes appears to be taking full advantage of his opportunity to develop.

The six-foot-one, 205-pound passer doesn’t have breakaway speed but he was very elusive in the pocket, consistently evading pressure from oncoming rushers. The CFL needs more up-and-coming quarterbacks and it appears Dukes could be a future starter in the making.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (11-4) will visit the B.C. Lions (10-4) on Friday, Oct. 6 for the third and final game of their season series, which currently stands at 1-1. The winner will capture the season series and get a big leg up in the West Division standings as both clubs are looking to finish first and host this year’s West Final.

B.C. shocked the Blue Bombers in their first meeting of the season on June 22, defeating the home side 30-6. Winnipeg exacted their revenge at IG Field on Aug. 3 when they blasted the Lions by a score of 50-14. After a pair of blowouts, one gets the sense next week’s game is going to be close, though only time will tell.

As of the publishing of this article, the Lions are hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver. The game will conclude at approximately 11:30 p.m. EDT.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.