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Won hard and put away wet

It's not just the low-hanging fruit for Blue

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You know how whenever it seems too good to be true, that's because it usually is?

That 45-21 win by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers over the Toronto Argonauts on opening night of the 2014 CFL regular season last week seemed a bit like that, didn't it?

And because it did seem just a little too easy, a little too dominating, a little too, well, un-Bombers-like, there was more trepidation in the air at Investors Group Field Thursday night than you might have expected heading into a Week 2 contest against an expansion Ottawa Redblacks team playing their first regular-season game in franchise history.

That's because it was one thing to demolish an Argos team that shot themselves in the feet all night long last week.

The more important determinant of just how new and just how improved the 2014 Bombers really are was whether they could do it again against an opponent that didn't take 22 penalties and didn't repeatedly turn over the ball the way the Argos did.

The early returns last night were not positive if you were a Bombers fan. A Bombers offence that fired on all cylinders against the Argos -- and produced an offensive star of the week in QB Drew Willy -- sputtered in the early going against a Redblacks defence that looked pretty good for a band of castoffs, which is what they are.

Even more worrying in last night's early going was the performance of a Bombers defence that looked so masterful in shutting down a future Hall-of-Famer in Toronto QB Ricky Ray last week but appeared utterly helpless against another future Hall-of-Famer in Ottawa QB Henry Burris.

In what must surely be some kind of record for spectacular starts for new football franchises, Burris led the Redblacks to touchdowns on Ottawa's first three possessions, staking the Redblacks to a 21-7 lead by the end of the first quarter.

Just when it was all starting to look disturbingly familiar to a crowd of 27,553 fans that had seen this movie before -- over and over again by a Bombers team that won just nine games the last two seasons combined -- the Bombers dug deep and found a grit that had been conspicuously absent in recent years.

First, it was Bombers rookie tailback Nic Grigsby cementing his status as a keeper by scoring his second TD of the game midway through the second quarter to narrow the Ottawa lead to 21-14. Then it was rookie placekicker Lirim Hajrullahu looking like another solid off-season pickup, hitting from 47-yards as time ran out in the first half to make the score 21-17 heading into the locker-room.

But on a night when nothing came easy for Winnipeg -- in stark contrast to that Toronto game -- the Bombers had the entire left side of their offensive line helped off the field. Tackle Glenn January returned, but guard Chris Greaves never did.

And it showed as Willy took the kind of beating that used to be reserved for Buck Pierce -- some of it even legal and between the whistles. A late hit to the back of Willy's knees in the third quarter looked particularly egregious, but he stayed in the game.

In the end, it was a special-teams play -- fittingly enough on a team that has former special-teams players as head coach, GM and CEO -- that turned the tide for the Bombers, a 96-yard Demond Washington kickoff return for a TD in the fourth quarter that got the Bombers within two points.

That set the stage for the game-winning TD drive late in the fourth quarter that gave Grigsby his third TD of the game and Winnipeg's only lead of the game. It was, as the final whistle sounded moments later, the only lead the Bombers needed.

So what's the takeaway? The Bombers have now won the easy way and the Bombers have now won the hard way. And I'd argue it was last night's performance that was more impressive, precisely because it was so hard.

But most impressive of all? A Bombers franchise that won just three times in 2013 has already won twice in the first two weeks of 2014.

Twitter: @PaulWiecek


John Woods / The Canadian Press

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris (1) calls for the ball deep in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' zone during the first half of Thursday's game.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2014 C3

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