On a night when some of their long-suffering faithful finally abandoned them, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rewarded the true Blue believers with a gritty -- and absolutely critical -- win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Canad Inns Stadium Thursday night.
With a franchise record streak of nine consecutive regular season sellouts snapped Thursday night by a crowd of 27,039 -- 2,504 short of a full house -- a chastened Bombers team finally found life -- and an effective starting quarterback -- in authoring a 32-25 come-from-behind victory over the Ticats.
The win improved the Bombers record to 2-5 and, more importantly, puts them two points behind the 3-4 Ticats for the third and final playoff spot in the East Division.
But most importantly of all, a sparkling performance by starting QB Joey Elliott -- making his third career CFL start and first since 2010 -- gave the faithful reason to believe the best may be yet to come, which they vocalized with chants of 'Jo-ey, Jo-ey, Jo-ey' in the fourth quarter.
Elliott went 33-43 for 406 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT against the Ticats -- far and away the single most effective performance by a Bombers quarterback this season.
"Personally, it's a great win," Elliott said after the game, "and for all the friends and family who have been backing me."
It was also, of course, a monumental victory for a Bombers team that had won just once in six games prior to last night and appeared to be in jeopardy of having the season slip away before Labour Day.
"The first thing is it allows us to keep pace with everyone else in the league," said head coach Paul LaPolice. "But more than anything, it was a lift for our guys."
In addition to Elliott, the Bombers did a lot of other things right Thursday night. While both the defence and special teams yielded costly big plays -- a second quarter 72-yard punt return for a touchdown by Hamilton's Chris Williams was particularly egregious -- both units also came up with big plays when they were needed most.
First and foremost, this one turned on the turnover battle. In a CFL season in which teams that have won the turnover battle have also won the game 89 per cent of the time, the Bombers forced six Hamilton turnovers -- three on fumbles by Hamilton QB Henry Burris. Winnipeg gave up no turnovers of their own, although it bears mention that Hamilton defenders dropped three easy interceptions.
Winnipeg scored 17 points off the Hamilton turnovers, but perhaps just as importantly took a Hamilton touchdown off the board in the first quarter when it still looked like the Ticats might turn things into a rout. With the Ticats already leading 7-1 and running roughshod over the Bombers defence, Winnipeg defensive end Alex Hall stripped the ball from Burris just as he was about to fall over the Bombers goal line for what would have been Hamilton's second touchdown in just their second possession of the game.
"Anything I can do to help the team win, I'm for," said Hall. "But that was big-time."
Despite the overwhelming flow of play, Winnipeg trailed just 14-7 heading into the locker-room for halftime, thanks to a pair of first-half field goals by Bombers place-kicker Justin Palardy.
Elliott, who was 16-21 for 178 yards in the first half, caught fire in the second half, leading Winnipeg on touchdown drives of 78 yards late in the third quarter to tie the game and then following up with a 50-yard touchdown drive three minutes into the fourth quarter that gave Winnipeg their first lead at 24-17.
But just when it seemed this one was over for good, Burris authored a three-play 107-yard touchdown drive with under five minutes to play -- capped by a two-point convert -- to tie the game 25-25.
Elliott simply would not be denied on this night, however, as the Bombers QB led the offence on an eight-play, 92-yard touchdown drive on the ensuing possession, capped by a four-yard touchdown run by backup tailback Will Ford with 1:25 to play.
Ford was inserted late in the game after starting Bombers tailback Chad Simpson -- who rushed for 86 yards on 18 carries and scored a touchdown -- left the game after he yet again hurt his leg. The nagging injury was not considered serious.