Bombers open season with 19-6 win over Tiger-Cats in Grey Cup rematch

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It will go down in the history books as simply a 19-6 win for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but on a night that was always going to be seen as a victory, it will be remembered for much more than what’s written in the box score.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/08/2021 (483 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It will go down in the history books as simply a 19-6 win for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but on a night that was always going to be seen as a victory, it will be remembered for much more than what’s written in the box score.

The CFL officially opened its 2021 season Thursday night, providing, at least for one evening, a feeling of normalcy unlike anything we’ve seen in these parts over the past 20 months.

It had been exactly 620 days since the last CFL game was played, since Winnipeg was showered in blue and gold confetti following a 33-12 win over the Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup in late November 2019. What followed was a cancelled 2020 season owing to a COVID-19 pandemic that health officials would soon find out was tricky to contain and impossible to ignore the need to significantly scale back on permitting sizeable gatherings.

CP Kenny Lawler celebrates his second touchdown of the night against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Thursday at IF Field. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

It would take a collective effort by everyone — from fans to the league office to all nine teams — to reach this point. Navigating through travel restrictions; constantly adjusting return-to-play plans to appease all levels of government; regular testing of coaches and players; and ensuring a safe environment for fans all became part of a new normal. From July 15 to the end of training camp, the CFL administered close to 6,000 COVID-19 tests to league personnel, all of which came back negative.

Even still, it wasn’t as though the 2021 season will go unscathed. When it became clear the CFL still wasn’t in a financial position to wade through the uncharted waters of the coronavirus, the league decided to push back its start date by two months. It was fitting then that Thursday evening began with another, albeit brief, delay to honour the 2019 Grey Cup champion Bombers prior to the rematch against the Ticats.

A fully vaccinated crowd that waited anxiously in line to get into IG Field was now back on its feet, this time to cheer the unveiling of the Grey Cup banner, which honoured all 11 of the team’s Grey Cup victories and will now hang high above the corporate offices near the south end of the stadium. Both teams remained in their respective locker rooms, eventually appearing in front of a nearly sold-out crowd, most of whom were still hollering as if they hadn’t left their homes for close to two years.

Despite an emotionally charged opening ceremony, things couldn’t have gone much worse to start for the home side. After the Bombers began the game with a quick two-and-out on the opening series, Hamilton replied with a clinical seven-play, 89-yard touchdown drive capped off with a 37-yard pass from Jeremiah Masoli to Jaelon Acklin. The Tiger-Cats wouldn’t score again.

But just as the crowd began to settle in, so, too, would the Bombers.

Winnipeg would shake off the rust and capture the lead two drives later, with quarterback Zach Collaros connecting with Kenny Lawler on a 25-yard grab to make it 7-6. The touchdown was aided by a 49-yard reception to Nic Demski, who looked destined to reach pay dirt only to trip over his own feet.

CP Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros went 18-for-28 for 217 yards and two touchdowns. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

The Bombers offence, led this season by first-year offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce, was back at it just before halftime. Collaros, who showed on this night how fleet of foot he can be, extended the drive with an 18-yard scamper on second-and-six to move the chains to the Hamilton 30. Two plays later, Collaros, who finished 18-for-28 for 217 yards and two touchdowns, connected for a second time in the endzone to Lawler, this one from 28 yards, to put the Bombers up 14-6 at the break.

“I’m just so happy for the CFL and the fans, and for the players, guys that didn’t know what they were going to do the last 600 days,” Collaros said after the game. “A lot of things had been up in the air and we really couldn’t get a straight answer for a long time. So, to be able to come together and get this done tonight for the city of Winnipeg, for the fans. And for them to be able to celebrate what we accomplished in 2019 tonight, it’s amazing that we’re here tonight to do that.”

It was the Bomber defence’s turn in the second half to make their mark.

Through Hamilton’s first four drives in the third quarter, the Tiger-Cats were able to muster only 15 plays for a combined 11 yards, resulting in three punts and a surrendered safety. On their fifth drive, Masoli was sacked by Bombers rookie Casey Sayles, and on the next play, Mike Jones forced a fumble on Ticats star receiver Brandon Banks, which was recovered by Jonathan Kongbo.

Special teams would also play a notable role, though the biggest takeaway from that phase Thursday is the Bombers are really going to miss Justin Medlock this season. Three times Winnipeg’s offence was able to move the ball down field into Ticats territory into what would have been well within Medlock’s range.

CP The Bombers gave a packed stadium full of fans something to cheer about. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

But Medlock is no longer on the team — those duties now belong to Tyler Crapigna. Instead of attempting fields goals from 51, 45 and 48 yards, respectively, the Bombers opted to punt the ball away to protect field position.

Crapigna was eventually trotted out late in the fourth quarter and made good on a 15-yard field goal, increasing the Bombers lead to 19-6.

The offence would carry the load the rest of the way. Running back Brady Oliveira, a Winnipeg product who earned the start with hometown hero Andrew Harris out with injury, capped off his stellar night by running out the clock. Oliveira finished with 126 rushing yards on 22 carries.

“I lived out a childhood dream. Being from Winnipeg, I used to come to games here as a kid and sit in the stands and watch games and now that I’m able to experience it and actually soak it all in, I had so much fun out there tonight,” Oliveira said. “It was truly amazing and a game I will remember for the rest of my life. This is just the beginning.”

As the final whistle blew to end the game, players from each side retreated to their respective tunnel, disappearing from sight. Others gathered at midfield and performed a familiar prayer.

Fans exchanged handshakes and cheers, eventually making their way to the exit. It marked the perfect end to the long awaited return of three-down football.

CP Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Rasheed Bailey celebrates one of Kenny Lawler’s two touchdowns. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton 

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

History

Updated on Thursday, August 5, 2021 11:51 PM CDT: Updates story with post-game quotes

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