The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions in overtime on Friday night by a score of 34-26 in front of 23,512 fans at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Will the real M.O.P. please stand up?
It’s not often that a game between two teams in a race for first place in the same division coincides with two players battling for the league’s most prestigious award, but that’s exactly what we got on Friday night.
Zach Collaros and Vernon Adams Jr. both played well, though neither quarterback separated themselves as the obvious choice for Most Outstanding Player. Collaros completed 31-of-41 pass attempts for 389 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception but lost two fumbles in the red zone. Adams completed 19-of-33 pass attempts for 352 yards and one touchdown, though he struggled to move the ball in the second half.
Collaros called his interception “stupid” postgame as he overthrew a well-covered Dalton Schoen late in the second quarter and the pass landed in the hands of B.C. safety Adrian Greene. It was a poor decision that was made even worse by the fact that it occurred on first down. There was no reason for Collaros to put the ball into harm’s way as he could have merely thrown it away and rallied on the following play.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) October 7, 2023
The fumbles were ugly as well as Collaros tried to spin away from pressure early in the fourth quarter and ended up in the arms of Mathieu Betts, who made his league-leading sixteenth sack of the season. Sione Teuhema recovered the fumble, ending Winnipeg’s red zone possession. Collaros fumbled again on the next drive when he was enveloped by Woody Baron and Teuhema, who returned it 51 yards to set-up a field goal.
The 35-year-old passer never gave up, however, as his longest completion of the game was only 33 yards. He consistently found holes in the midrange of B.C.’s formidable secondary and used all of the weapons at his disposal, completing passes to nine different targets.
“If you let disbelief creep in, you’re not gonna play very well. I think it’s a skill to kind of get that out of your mindset and it’s something we talk about all the time is continuing to believe,” Collaros told 680 CJOB.
“Obviously, I didn’t put us in good positions there (being) loose with the football. You can’t do that and I’m pissed off about that but guys rallied around me, the defence did an unbelievable job. … I can’t say enough about those guys and the guys around me just continuing to believe. I think everybody had a hand in this one, it was pretty unbelievable.”
My Vancouver-based colleague JC Abbott recently argued that Vernon Adams Jr. should be considered the frontrunner for M.O.P. and his thesis was sound. Had Adams maintained his level of play from the first half into the second half, he’d likely be a shoo-in at this point, though he failed to overcome Winnipeg’s defensive adjustments.
Adams could benefit from voter fatigue as the media is probably reluctant to hand Zach Collaros a third-straight M.O.P. award unless he’s head and shoulders above everyone else, which he hasn’t been this season. Doug Flutie, who won four straight M.O.P. awards from 1991 to 1994, is the only player in league history to win more than twice in a row, putting Collaros on the verge of accomplishing something virtually unprecedented.
Brady Oliveira finished the night with 12 carries for 73 yards and one touchdown along with eight catches for 85 yards, drawing speculation that he should be Winnipeg’s nominee for M.O.P. The team’s head coach shut that down after the game, though he seemed to immediately regret weighing in on the issue.
“Zach Collaros (is our Most Outstanding Player). Brady is a close second, absolutely,” Mike O’Shea told 680 CJOB before suggesting it was unfair to ask him who the team’s M.O.P. should be. “Brady does everything for us and Zach does everything, also. His leadership skills are phenomenal and he gets everyone involved. He’s steely.”
Regardless of whether Collaros or Oliveira gets the nod on Winnipeg’s ballot, this is all the more reason to change the CFL’s archaic awards system. Multiple players from the same division or even the same team should be eligible to be finalists for the same award and the final ballot on awards night should include more than just two players. It’d make the event far more intriguing.
Winnipeg’s defence got shredded like a paper lantern in a wood chipper for most of the first half before tightening up the rest of the way. Jackson Jeffcoat and Willie Jefferson often generated pressure off the edge, even when Winnipeg rushed only three defenders. B.C.’s starting offensive tackles have been inconsistent for most of the season and the Blue Bombers took full advantage.
Jeffcoat made three tackles and two sacks in what was his first multi-sack game of the season, while Jefferson snapped his eight-game drought by sacking Adams late in the second quarter. He also fought through blocks for two pass knockdowns and now leads the league with 13 on the year. Ricky Walker, Malik Clements, and Cameron Lawson also recorded one sack each.
The unit saved its best for last as Dominique Davis got stuffed on a third-down gamble with just under two minutes remaining. Winnipeg had just scored a touchdown to make it 26-23 and suddenly had possession again on B.C.’s side of midfield, setting up Sergio Castillo’s game-tying field goal. Adam Bighill deserves credit for forcing third down after he chased Vernon Adams Jr. out of bounds just short of the sticks.
Strong-side linebacker Redha Kramdi had a rough outing in the first half, taking a costly pass interference penalty in the end zone. It was a borderline call — head coach Mike O’Shea unsuccessfully challenged it — but there was no reason for Kramdi to initiate contact on Keon Hatcher given that he had inside leverage on an in-breaking route. He also had help in coverage as Winnipeg had dropped nine defenders back in zone on the play. The call drew criticism on social media, though it seemed like a fairly routine penalty.
Winnipeg got lucky two quarters later when Evan Holm forcibly shoved Adams out of bounds and the officials let it go instead of administering a penalty for unnecessary roughness. The non-calls evened out in the fourth quarter when B.C. defensive back Jalon Edwards-Cooper smacked Drew Wolitarsky in the head on a hit that will likely be fined by the league office this week.
Never give up
B.C. almost won Friday’s game in regulation as Vernon Adams Jr. hit Dominique Rhymes for a long gain on the club’s final offensive snap. Defensive back Evan Holm tried to knock the ball down but the veteran receiver managed to secure it and turn up field with a full head of steam and nobody between him and the end zone.
Redha Kramdi chased Rhymes down but failed to make the tackle as the receiver looked destined to score a game-winning touchdown. He started to lose steam around the 20-yard line and Jamal Parker caught him from behind just shy of the end zone. The clock had expired, sending the game to overtime.
The play accounted for over half of B.C.’s offensive yardage in the second half, though it counted for nothing. Parker deserved credit for making a nice tackle and not giving up on the play, as does Brady Oliveira for chasing down Sione Teuhema on his late fumble return. These plays embodied the type of veteran prowess O’Shea covets in his players.
“There were some plays that you’d like to have back, obviously, some plays that could have guys duck their heads a little bit, but our group didn’t,” the head coach told 680 CJOB. “They just stuck with it, they knew they had chip away. You’re down three, you’re down ten, you’re down seven, you’re down ten, you’re down three, you’re down ten. We just sort of kept chipping away and got to overtime.”
Kenny Lawler has played the best games of his career against the Lions, who released him when he first tried to break into the CFL in 2018. He made seven receptions for 200 yards and one touchdown in a 50-14 win over B.C. earlier this year and caught twelve passes for 205 yards and one touchdown in a 30-9 victory over the Lions in 2021.
The veteran receiver didn’t have a performance quite that strong on Friday that but he still played very well, catching nine passes for 97 yards. He scored Winnipeg’s two-point conversion in overtime, made some tough contested catches to move the sticks, and drew a 35-yard pass interference call on Jalon Edwards-Cooper.
Dalton Schoen left Friday’s game late and didn’t return with an undisclosed injury, which made Lawler’s performance all the more important. Drew Wolitarsky finished the game with only two grabs for 25 yards, though he caught the late fourth quarter touchdown that helped send the game to overtime.
Sergio Castillo missed a 48-yard field goal attempt on Winnipeg’s opening drive and Terry Williams brought it out of the end zone, resulting in no points. At the end of the half, Jamieson Sheahan punted from deep in his own territory and Williams returned it to the Blue Bombers’ 37-yard line, setting up a 44-yard field goal for Sean Whyte.
People will focus on Collaros’ two red zone fumbles, which is perfectly fair, though Winnipeg could have won the game despite them had the club done a better job on special teams. Field goals add up quickly, especially when offences struggle to keep up with defensive adjustments.
Houston, we have a problem
Winston Rose started at boundary cornerback in place of an injured Demerio Houston and it didn’t take long for him to be exposed.
Jevon Cottoy is an imposing receiver at six-foot-five and 230 pounds but he’s hardly a burner. Rose still failed to keep up with Cottoy in coverage as he allowed the former Langley Ram to get behind him and score a 70-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. This was an inexcusable error as Winnipeg dropped nine players back into coverage on the play, which should have prevented them from getting beat deep.
Cottoy hit Rose with a stiff-arm after making the catch and scored virtually uncontested from there. Rose and safety Brandon Alexander, who wasn’t in position to help in coverage, were unable to make up and ground on the receiver, though Kyrie Wilson came flying up the sideline to try to help on the play. When your weak-side linebacker is outrunning your starting defensive backs, that’s not a good sign.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) October 7, 2023
Rose was named a CFL all-star in 2019 after recording a league-high nine interceptions and parlayed that success into an NFL opportunity with the Cincinnati Bengals. He hasn’t been the same player since returning to the Blue Bombers in 2021 and appears to be a liability at boundary cornerback, where he’s filling in for an injured Demerio Houston.
Canadian defensive back Tyrell Ford, the team’s second-round pick in the 2022 CFL Draft, is still a free agent after he was cut by the Green Bay Packers at the end of training camp. The Waterloo product started for Winnipeg at field-side cornerback at the end of last season and played extremely well but hasn’t signed back with the Blue Bombers, presumably hoping another NFL opportunity arises.
If it’s possible to get him back under contract during the team’s upcoming bye week, it’s something Winnipeg needs to make happen.
Janarion Grant wasted no time making an impact in his return to the lineup after missing ten games due to an ankle injury, catching an eleven-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter. The speedster has been used sparingly on offence in the past, though it was clever for offensive coordinator Buck Pierce to draw something up for him in his return and it’s clear that B.C. wasn’t expecting it.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) October 7, 2023
Grant finished the night with two kickoffs returns for 45 yards, four punt returns for 34 yards, and the touchdown catch. He also executed a fake jet sweep on Winnipeg’s first possession in the second half and it helped stretch the defence laterally as Nic Demski ran up the gut for 18 yards. Grant is as explosive as any player in the CFL and he’s returned to the lineup at the perfect time for Winnipeg.
Pierce also did a nice job of adding some wrinkles to the offence involving short yardage quarterback Dakota Prukop. The Oregon product took some reps out of the shotgun and they appeared to take the Lions by surprise, recording five carries for 28 yards.
Details matter in big games and Winnipeg had two costly errors from its snappers in the first half.
Mike Benson fired the ball slightly high and to the right on Sergio Castillo’s first field goal attempt, which TSN’s Matt Dunigan suggested was a factor in the kick sailing wide. Chris Kolankowski misfired a shotgun snap near the start of the second quarter, which forced Zach Collaros to hop on the ball for a three-yard loss on second down.
It’s unfair that the media never talks about long snappers or centres unless they make a mistake, but that’s the job. At the professional level, snaps have to be perfect and Benson and Kolankowski picked a bad week to make miscues.
Patrick Neufeld was scratched on Friday as Tui Eli filled his spot in the starting lineup at right guard. The veteran offensive lineman wasn’t listed on the team’s injury report this week, so it’s unclear why he was unable to play. Eli was decent in Neufeld’s absence, though he took a holding penalty late in the fourth quarter working against Woody Baron.
Neufeld remained on Winnipeg’s roster despite not dressing for the game, which means the Blue Bombers played with one fewer player than they could have. Winnipeg did the same thing earlier this year when Dru Brown started against the Calgary Stampeders on Aug. 18 as Zach Collaros remained on the active roster despite being injured.
This is speculation, but it’s possible Winnipeg elected not to dress a replacement due to salary cap constraints. Neufeld’s game cheque would have counted towards the cap even if he were on the one-game injured list, plus the Blue Bombers would have had to pay his replacement. Money is tight at this time of year as teams are trying to spend as close to the limit without going over, as Winnipeg did in 2022 by $64,500.
It’s also possible that the team’s current roster composition played a role in the decision. Rookie defensive tackle Tanner Schmekel is the only Canadian currently on the practice roster, making him the only realistic option for a late addition.
Still not clinched
The top spot in the West Division remains up for grabs despite the result of Friday’s game. The Lions can still finish atop the West Division if Winnipeg loses its two remaining games and B.C. wins its two remaining games. Any combination of a B.C. loss or a Winnipeg win will clinch first place for the Blue Bombers.
In a way, the Blue Bombers should never have found themselves in this situation. The team held a 25-9 lead in the final three minutes of their game against the Ottawa Redblacks on July 15, a contest Winnipeg ended up losing 31-28 in overtime. B.C. had the opposite experience against the Redblacks on Sept. 16 when they trailed 37-21 in the final three minutes before completing a shocking comeback to win 41-37.
These two games provided a four-point swing in the West Division standings in B.C.’s favour. They also illustrate how mistakes from early in the season can come back to bite a team when the playoffs draw near. My least favourite CFL cliché is “the season doesn’t start until Labour Day.” That’s nonsense. The mistakes teams make in June or July can be just as costly as the ones they make in the fall. Just ask the Elks, who will miss the playoffs despite being 4-3 in their last seven games.
Assuming B.C. and Winnipeg meet in the West Final, home-field advantage will be paramount. With the game now likely to be played at a raucous IG Field, the Blue Bombers should be heavily favoured to return to the Grey Cup for a fourth consecutive year. The Lions shouldn’t be counted out, of course, but they are far more suited to playing indoors than they are in the wind and the cold.
Remember how dominant Lucky Whitehead was in his first season with the Lions in 2021? It’s funny how quickly things can change in the CFL.
Whitehead ran a post working against Jamal Parker on B.C.’s first possession of the game and there was no safety help in the middle of the field. Parker, making his first start of the season, ran with Whitehead and timed his hit well, breaking up a nice throw from Vernon Adams Jr. Whitehead finished the night with only two catches for ten yards.
Keon Hatcher and Alexander Hollins have been the two best receivers for the Lions this season while Dominique Rhymes has missed eight games due to injury. Canadian targets Justin McInnis and Jevon Cottoy have also played well, making Whitehead arguably the No. 6 option in Vancouver.
It seems safe to assume the pending free agent won’t be back in B.C. next year simply because the team doesn’t need him. Logical potential landing spots for the 31-year-old would be Calgary, Ottawa, and Hamilton.
The B.C. Lions dubbed Friday night’s game the “Gravy Bowl” in celebration of Thanksgiving long weekend, serving turkey dinner, pumpkin pie, and hosting a pie-eating contest. In their promotional guide for the season, the Lions indicated that the Gravy Bowl is “soon to become classic game night,” so it appears this theme is here to stay.
If the league’s schedule-makers are smart, they’ll have Winnipeg visit the Lions for the Gravy Bowl every year. It’s a fun theme and the two teams have developed a solid rivalry in recent years. If the same two teams play the same night with the same theme every year, people will catch on and start to anticipate it.
Fans in Winnipeg would be able to plan ahead and save their money accordingly in order to make the trip every few years. Going to the Gravy Bowl could become a rite of passage, just like going to the Labour Day Classic in Regina. Who doesn’t want to visit Vancouver in the fall?
The Banjo Bowl has been a smash hit for the Blue Bombers since its inception in 2004 and the CFL needs more contests like it: fun, branded rivalry games that stand out from the rest. The Gravy Bowl could be the next one.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (12-4) are on bye next week and will return to host the Edmonton Elks (4-12) for their final home game of the regular season on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 7:00 p.m. EDT. The Elks were eliminated from postseason contention against the Toronto Argonauts on Friday night as they turned the ball over three times in a 35-12 loss.
If you’re looking to attend a (sort of) double-header in two weeks, the Manitoba Bisons (2-3) will host the Alberta Golden Bears (4-1) on Friday, Oct. 20 at IG Field with kickoff slated for 7:00 p.m CDT. It should be a good night of football as the Bisons look to slow down Matthew Peterson, who leads all of U Sports with 807 yards along the ground this season.