In the hours leading up to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ pre-season finale against the Edmonton Eskimos Thursday at Investors Group Field, there was a feeling only a few things might stand in the way of the home team earning a victory.
Maybe the Bombers would suddenly forget they were scheduled to play, causing a forfeit. Or, perhaps only a tad less ludicrous, the grey skies that surrounded IGF might evolve into conditions so vicious that the refs had no other option but to reschedule the game.
Alas, both teams showed up and the clouds eventually parted. But on a night where the Bombers were heavy favourites, it was a watered-down Eskimos team that would leave happy in a game that had no winners.
The end result: a 38-38 tie and the second straight draw for the Bombers, who will now look ahead to Week 2 when they travel to Regina for their regular season debut against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on July 1.
The Bombers were expected to win last night. After all, they had dressed all but one of their 24 projected starters — linebacker Maurice Leggett was out with a lower-body injury — while Edmonton, which travelled earlier in the day, was without a number of key pieces on both sides of the ball.
But as much as the scales tipped in their favour, it wasn’t all disappointment on this night. What the Bombers can take away is a solid effort by a number of their key performers, many who had hoped to shake off any lasting rust before games start in earnest.
NO. 1 OFFENCE ON POINT… EVENTUALLY
All Matt Nichols wanted to accomplish Thursday, he said, was to sustain drives — pick away at the defence for first downs, score some touchdowns. During practice this week, the Bombers’ starting quarterback lamented his performance in a 25-25 tie to the Saskatchewan Roughriders last weekend. Against the Riders, Nichols completed five passes for just 32 yards in just more than a quarter of action. With Nichols, the offence was unable to put up any points, registering just three first downs.
Nichols was a much better version of himself against the Eskimos, even if it took some time for him to settle in. In his five series, the Bombers recorded first downs on all but one. Though Nichols’ first three series produced just three points — a 32-yard field goal from Felix Menard-Briere, who would go on to miss his next two — a strong finish to the first half provided a rallying point for the Blue and Gold.
Down 17-3 midway through the second quarter, Nichols orchestrated back-to-back touchdown drives to tie the game at halftime. Clarence Denmark, who re-signed with the Bombers in the off-season after a brief stint as a free agent, hauled in a seven-yard catch to make cut the Eskimos lead to 17-10. Darvin Adams, who will be leaned on heavily in the offensive scheme this year, flashed his speed on the Bombers’ next possession, capping off an eight-play drive with 40-yard catch in the end zone to make it a 17-17 game through two quarters.
Nichols, who finished the game 19 for 24 for 227 yards and the two scores, was also able to utilize his favourite target in running back Andrew Harris. Harris, who turned 30 in April, showed no signs of slowing down in his debut. Harris rushed five times for 41 yards and added another 49 through the air. Weston Dressler, the Bombers’ other prime target, caught three balls for 28 yards.
NO. 1 DEFENCE STRUGGLES
Though the offence looked to find their way as the game went on, the defence struggled. The Bombers’ No. 1 unit was victimized for much of the first half before being replaced by the second team for the final two quarters.
James Franklin, the Eskimos’ No. 2 quarterback behind Mike Reilly, continued his bid to shed the label of backup. The 25-year-old led the offence in the first half, finishing 11 for 16 for 133 yards and one touchdown a 21-yard strike to Duke Williams on the first drive that was aided by four Bombers penalties.
When Franklin wasn’t picking on the secondary, the run game was pushing the line of scrimmage. The biggest play came early in the second quarter when LaDarius Perkins scampered for 49 yards for a score to put the Eskimos up by two touchdowns. All in all, the Eskimos put up 237 yards of net offence without 10 regular starters in the lineup — not a good sign for Bombers defensive unit that wants to be considered among the best defences in the league.
"Everyone knows the defence. Everyone just needs to work on getting to the ball," said Bombers safety Taylor Loffler, who finished with a team-high six tackles. "That just comes with time. I think we really showed better as we went in the first half. So, we’ll keep on improving on that."
Also, it looks as if the fight for middle linebacker remains wide open. Sam Hurl, who played the entire first half in the middle, struggled for most of the night, finishing the game with just two tackles. Kyle Knox, who played most of the second half and was expected to push Hurl for the starting role, had just one.
THEN CAME THE SECOND HALF
The Bombers’ second-team defence would take over in the second half, leaving the starters to rest on the sidelines.
That meant the return of the quarterback battle between Dominique Davis and Dan LeFevour, both of whom are fighting to earn the No. 2 spot behind Nichols. Davis, like Nichols, started slow early on until he rushed for a seven-yard touchdown to give the Bombers their first lead of the game, 24-17. That was the final play on a night Davis finished six for eight for 101 yards before being replaced by Dan LeFevour in the fourth quarter.
Not to be outdone, LeFevour capped off his first drive under centre with a three-yard run to the end zone that put Winnipeg up 31-17. LeFevour was three for three for 27 yards.
The Eskimos scored their first points in the second half on the very next drive, with Marion Grice breaking the plane with a two-yard run (a missed convert by Sean Whyte would give the Bombers a 31-23 cushion).
The Bombers regained their double-digit lead on the very next drive, this time courtesy of Timothy Flanders, who found open space for a 46-yard run to the house that made it a 38-23 game early in the fourth quarter. It was important for Flanders, who is behind Harris on the running back depth chart, to continue to push for reps. He played well in relief of Harris last year but with the rookie Kendall Roberson making an impression through camp, he needed to prove his worth once more.
It was after Flanders’ run that the wheels began to fall off for the Bombers. With Zach Kline, the Eskimos’ fourth-stringer, now in control of the offence, the Eskimos marched the ball down field on 10 plays to set Grice up with his second touchdown – a one-yard run with 1:04 left on the clock to make it a 38-30 game.
The Eskimos would covert a successful on-side kick, setting up one final shot at a comeback. With the ball on the Bombers’ 37-yard-line and the Eskimos facing a third-and-10, Padric Scott was flagged for roughing the passer. The penalty moved the ball up 15 yards and gave Edmonton a first down.
The next play Kline hit John Harris in the end zone for a 22-yard score, cutting the Bombers’ lead to 38-36. Another penalty – a pass interference call on Derek Jones – cancelled the first attempt at a two-point convert and pushed the second try to the one-yard line. From there, Grice punched the ball in to make it a tied game.
The Bombers were flagged for 16 penalties for 205 yards… Reciver T.J. Thorpe, back this week from a lower-body injury, was injured in the first quarter and did not return to the game… L’Damian Washington led all Bombers with two catches for 89 yards.