Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea was unequivocal this week, insisting any suggestion his club’s game against the Montreal Alouettes at Investors Group Field Friday night was a must-win was "ludicrous."
Yeah right. If you believe that, then you believe everything would have been peachy-keen in Bomberland if Winnipeg had lost to the woeful 1-7 Als and carried a three-game losing streak into a back-to-back series with the Saskatchewan Roughriders beginning next weekend.
That nightmare scenario, of course, would have been the opposite of peachy-keen and it is precisely why the gritty 24-16 come-from-behind win over the Alouettes might yet go down as the most pivotal 60 minutes of football this team plays in 2014.
A clutch second-half performance by the Bombers — sparked by a blocked punt return for a TD and capped by a game-winning TD drive with under three minutes to play — propelled Winnipeg to a victory that snapped both a two-game Bombers losing streak and a two-game losing streak at home; improved Winnipeg’s record to 6-3; and gave the Bombers something positive to build on heading into a two-game series against a Saskatchewan team that has dominated the Bombers in recent years.
Trailing 6-1 at the half, the Bombers got a blocked punt by Derek Jones early in the third quarter that was returned for a TD by Don Unamba to give the Bombers — and a crowd that had been lulled to sleep by a horrendous first half — some life.
And then with the Bombers trailing 16-14 late in the fourth quarter, a successful challenge of a pass interference non-call by Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea kept alive a game-winning drive, capped a couple plays later by a 26-yard TD run by running back Nic Grigsby with just 2:32 to play.
The victory marked the third time this season the Bombers have come from behind in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to win — and the second time they did it against Montreal.
What about Drew?
The Bombers offence had a forgettable night, recording just three first downs in a horrendous first half and finding the end zone just once on a night when the red-zone offence struggled mightily. But they don’t give extra points in the CFL for style and QB Drew Willy — as he has repeatedly this season — overcame middling numbers to get it done when it mattered, once again leading the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter to cement a burgeoning reputation as a quarterback who rises to the big moments.
Willy finished the night 14-of-23 for 200 yards and one interception.
A Montreal touchdown in the third quarter — a one-yard TD run by backup Als QB Tanner Marsh was set up by a 71-yard catch and run by running back Tyrell Sutton a couple of plays earlier — was just the second offensive touchdown for the Als in five games and just their second TD on offence in 85 possessions.
Former Bombers QB Alex Brink started the game for Montreal but was yanked after the first quarter and replaced by Jonathon Crompton, who was the Als fourth-stringer just a couple of weeks ago.
Crompton moved the ball in a way Brink was never able to, finishing the night 18-of-29 for 266 yards, but with three interceptions.
Beast of the East, still a big test in the West
With the win the Bombers are now 5-1 against their former division mates in the East and have posted all but one of their six victories this season over an East Division opponent.
But the heavy lifting is now in front of them. The Bombers are just 1-2 against West Division opponents and will play seven of their final nine games against the West, including the next three.
That test begins next weekend with the first game of an annual back-to-back series with rival Saskatchewan that has not been kind to Winnipeg in recent years. The Bombers have not won in Regina on Labour Day Weekend since 2004.