Brady Oliveira caps outstanding season as Blue Bombers stomp Stampeders (& nine other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Calgary Stampeders by a score of 36-13 on Friday night, capping the regular season with a 14-4 record. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Brady 2k

Brady Oliveira started Friday’s game and recorded seven carries for 32 yards before turning things over to Johnny Augustine and Greg McCrae late in the first quarter. The Winnipeg native officially reached 1,500 rushing yards and 2,000 yards from scrimmage on the season, becoming only the second Canadian player in CFL history to reach that milestone alongside Jon Cornish.

Oliveira isn’t the first member of the Blue Bombers to reach 2,000 yards from scrimmage in a season as Roberts Mimbs went for 2,207 yards in 1993, Willard Reaves recorded 2,140 yards in 1984, Willie Burden had 2,127 yards in 1975, and Charles Roberts went for 2,102 yards in 2003 and 2,098 yards in 2005. Regardless, this season has firmly put him among the club’s all-time great running backs, which is pretty remarkable company.

Kudos to the fifth-year ball-carrier who continues to improve with each subsequent season. I’ve followed Oliveira since his days at the University of North Dakota and recall many scouts privately expressing doubt that he would develop into an every-down running back at the CFL level. He’s already surpassed the highest expectations anyone could have reasonably had for him and he’s reaping the rewards.

Much ado about Dru

Dru Brown started Friday’s game and played the equivalent of approximately three quarters, completing 13-of-17 pass attempts for 278 yards and two touchdowns along with two carries for 13 yards.

The 26-year-old is a pending free agent and should receive significant interest from other teams looking to upgrade their quarterback rooms this off-season. Ottawa is arguably the most logical possible destination, though Saskatchewan and Calgary could also be options if Winnipeg can’t retain his services.

If given the choice between him and Jake Maier, one could easily argue that Brown is the better quarterback. Maier completed only six-of-fifteen pass attempts for 110 yards on Friday and finished the season with 19 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. Meanwhile, Brown threw for nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in limited action with Winnipeg.

Maier is under contract with Calgary for next season on a deal that includes over $100,000 in guaranteed money, which gives him some job security. Another thing working in Maier’s favour is that he and Brown share an agent, which could make it awkward for the Stampeders to try to replace him with the up-and-coming passer.

Regardless, it’s clear that Calgary needs to bring in a challenger for the quarterback job. Tommy Stevens, who struggled to move the ball in limited action on Friday, isn’t the answer, while third-string passer Logan Bonner didn’t attempt a pass all season.

Unsung targets

Rasheed Bailey and Brendan O’Leary-Orange, two members of Winnipeg’s receiving corps who often go overlooked, shone against Calgary as both scored long touchdowns.

Bailey caught a tipped pass on an intermediate route late in the third quarter and dodged four defenders en route to a 68-yard touchdown. It was a sensational play from a receiver who’s often tasked with the dirty work most targets are hesitant to do: blocking downfield and chipping defenders off the edge.

O’Leary-Orange beat Jonathan Moxey for a 31-yard touchdown on a corner route that was executed to perfection off play-action. The 27-year-old is in his third season and has oozed potential since he finished an injury-plagued collegiate career at the University of Nevada, though time is running out for him to take the next step. As a pending free agent, he might get the chance to take on an expanded role elsewhere this off-season.

Regardless, it was nice to see Bailey and O’Leary-Orange add some excitement to an otherwise bland, meaningless football game. It felt right for a player with the initials B.O.O. to score a touchdown four days before Halloween.

Young guns

Winnipeg promoted a number of players from their practice roster to replace their resting veterans against the Stampeders, providing a rare opportunity for some of the club’s youngest players to perform.

Miles Fox made an excellent play near the start of the second quarter when he sacked Tommy Stevens, who was looking to step up and escape the pocket. Tanner Schmekel, his fellow defensive tackle, also recorded a cleanup sack. The pair struggled in the run game for a portion of the third quarter as Dedrick Mills teed off behind Calgary’s starting offensive line, though the defence adjusted well in the fourth quarter.

The defensive tackle position is particularly interesting given how Winnipeg allocates its salary cap. The club spends a lot of money on edge rushers Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat, which means there’s not a lot of money to spend along the interior of the defensive line.

Casey Sayles left in free agency last year and the club could let Ricky Walker do the same this winter after he played well in his first season as a starter. If he walks, Fox would presumably be the next man up after spending this season on the practice roster. Schmekel should also see an increased role if Cameron Lawson is promoted to the starting role depending on the future of Jake Thomas.

Lawson and Thomas are both pending free agents, which means the club could be forced to pick between the two. Lawson is eight years younger than Thomas, so it seems obvious who they’ll pick if push comes to shove. Thomas has had an excellent twelve-year career but it’s clear that Lawson is ready to be a full-time starter at nose tackle.

Brian Cole, who has been very good on special teams this season, also had a strong game as he forced a turnover on Calgary’s second drive when he met running back Peyton Logan in the hole and wrestled the ball away, giving Winnipeg possession in Stampeders’ territory. It remains unclear if he’s ready to unseat Kyrie Wilson as the full-time starter at weak-side linebacker but he’s phenomenal on special teams if nothing else.

Ravi Alston made his first career start at receiver and was mostly invisible, garnering zero targets. The only time his name was called was when he was called for an offside penalty on Winnipeg’s second drive. It would be unfair to write off the Montana State product after only one game but it seems fair to suggest this wasn’t the type of debut he coveted.

Drew Richmond was mostly solid at left tackle in place of Stanley Bryant, though he lost a one-on-one matchup with Julian Howsare late in the second quarter. The veteran defensive end beat him with speed to the outside, sacking Dakota Prukop and forcing the quarterback to fumble, which Winnipeg recovered. The offensive line was generally solid in pass protection, though the club attempted only 25 passes as the prioritized the run game in less-than-ideal weather.

Surging ahead

Sergio Castillo capped a strong season by going five-for-five on his field goal attempts, which included three kicks from beyond 40 yards and one from beyond 50 yards. It was an especially impressive performance given the poor weather conditions at McMahon Stadium, which is a windy venue at the best of times.

The veteran kicker has finished the year making 90.2 percent of his field goal attempts, which is exactly what the team was looking for when they signed him shortly before training camp.

Walking wounded

The top priority for a meaningless game is everyone remaining healthy and it appears Winnipeg managed mostly to do so. Many of the club’s starters played only the first quarter, while Zach Collaros, Nic Demski, Stanley Bryant, Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat, Adam Bighill, Winston Rose, and Brandon Alexander didn’t even dress.

Janarion Grant took a few big hits in the return game but appeared to finish the game no worse for wear. Rasheed Bailey left the game late as he appeared to suffer a non-contact injury to his right leg, though he appeared to be fine standing along the sideline in the late stages of the game. TSN also speculated that Johnny Augustine got hurt late, though it remains unclear if that was the case.

Year-end honours

Each CFL team’s award nominees were unveiled this past week, which sparked controversy when Brady Oliveira was named Winnipeg’s Most Outstanding Player over Zach Collaros.

Though I didn’t receive one of four media votes, I went on the record last week stating that I would have voted for Collaros. I also would have voted for Chris Kolankowski over Jermarcus Hardrick as the team’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman, though Hardrick was still a worthy selection. The Nebraska product has been in the CFL for a decade but has been forced to live in Stanley Bryant’s shadow during his entire tenure in Bomberland.

I won’t publicly speculate regarding the next round of awards since I have a vote, though I’ll be happy to share my ballot after the results are announced.

Wintery weather

It was minus-six degrees in Calgary at kickoff with heavy snow and moderate wind. The weather on the prairies has been poor for the better part of a week as the cold and snow reached Winnipeg late on Wednesday evening.

It’s around this time of year that I find myself looking up real estate listings in B.C. and Ontario. Looking at the prices, it doesn’t take long to decide that the cold and snow isn’t so bad after all.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (14-4) will host the Calgary Stampeders (6-12) or B.C. Lions (12-6) in the West Final on Nov. 11 at 6:30 p.m. EDT depending on the result of next weekend’s West Semi-Final. The contest will mark Winnipeg’s fourth straight appearance in the West Final and be the third straight one played at IG Field.

Winnipeg went 2-1 against B.C. during the regular season by a combined score of 90-70, though the Lions were the only CFL team to win as visitors in Winnipeg this year. The Blue Bombers swept Calgary in three meetings, meanwhile, with Winnipeg outscoring the Stampeders by a combined score of 79-42.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.