It has been, to put it mildly, a season of challenges for this 2012 edition of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
And with an opponent next Friday in the B.C. Lions, who lead the league in six defensive categories and haven't given up a touchdown in their last two games, there will be plenty of challenges still to come.
But before we all move on to the next formidable task at hand, there is credit due -- and some praise to be paid -- to a Bombers team that put in a courageous performance in very difficult circumstances at Canad Inns Stadium Thursday evening to beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 32-25 and earn the most important victory we've seen in these parts since last year's East final.
Much has been made -- and quite rightly -- about the monster performance of newly installed Bombers starting quarterback Joey Elliott, whose 406 yards of passing were a welcome salve for a legion of Winnipeg fans grown weary of seemingly always having to be content with the second-best offence on the field.
But within Elliott's passing numbers was another noteworthy tale of a Bombers receiving corps -- with the lone and notable exception of Kito Poblah, who never caught a single ball -- who worked with relentless efficiency, collectively and individually, to give Elliott open targets to throw to all night.
Cory Watson (10 catches, 105 yards) and Chris Matthews (eight catches, 118 yards, 1 TD) both registered over 100 yards receiving, while Terrence Edwards (four catches, 73 yards) and Clarence Denmark (five catches -- including a 38-yarder on the winning touchdown drive for 77 yards) made big catches at key times.
And then there was the play of the defence, who also recorded their best performance of the season. While Hamilton registered 424 yards in net offence, a lot of it went for nothing on a night the Bombers defence stripped three fumbles from Hamilton QB Henry Burris and forced the Ticats to turn the ball over on downs two times.
The biggest forced fumble came in the first quarter, as defensive end Alex Hall -- who has blossomed over the last three games into a major force for Winnipeg -- showed the value of never giving up on a play by tracking down Burris from behind and knocking the ball loose just as Burris was about to fall over the goal line and put the Ticats up 14-1 and seemingly en route to a rout.
It was a critical forced fumble that kept Winnipeg in the game and if it seemed familiar, it should. Winnipeg's only other victory this season -- at the end of July against Edmonton -- was also preserved as the result of a great hustle play by a defensive lineman. In that game, it was Bombers tackle Jake Thomas who tracked down Edmonton QB Steven Jyles from behind and forced a fumble late in the fourth quarter, just as it was looking like the Eskimos were about to kick a short game-winning field goal.
They were both exactly the kind of hustle plays that have been missing from the Bombers defence in most of this season's losses, most notably in a listless defeat to the Montreal Alouettes heading into the bye week.
But in the biggest game of the season so far, the Bombers responded with their best game -- and effort. Henoc Muamba forced two fumbles and did not look out of place starting at middle linebacker; linebacker Jonathan Hefney had a sack and had his best game of the season; tailback Chad Simpson proved elusive and tough to bring down, racking up 119 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown; and the offensive line mostly controlled the line of scrimmage.
Was it perfect? Hardly. Winnipeg fell behind early, yet again, and have now been outscored 54-8 in the first quarter this season. The Bombers continued to give up way too many big plays -- a 72-yard Hamilton punt return for a TD and an 84-yard bomb late in the fourth quarter that tied the game for Hamilton among them. And you have to wonder how the game might have been different if Hamilton defenders had caught the three easy interceptions that Elliott threw directly to them.
But in a season in which the Bombers have had few breaks go their way, maybe it was only fair that they finally got some big ones just when they needed them most.