Bombers ‘D’ steals show again

Completely manhandles Riders vaunted offence

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REGINA — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will enter Week 6 atop the Canadian Football League standings following a 23-8 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the annual Labour Day Classic on Sunday.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/09/2021 (458 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

REGINA — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will enter Week 6 atop the Canadian Football League standings following a 23-8 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the annual Labour Day Classic on Sunday.

The Bombers improved to 4-1, with the victory over the Roughriders coming on the shoulders of a stellar defensive performance and an effort by the offence that improved over time and was able to find the end zone when it mattered.

It was also just the second win for the Bombers on a September long weekend in the past 17 years — the 2020 affair was wiped out with the rest of the season owing to COVID-19 — and the first victory since 2016. In 57 Labour Day clashes between the two prairie rivals, that was Winnipeg’s 20th win.

It certainly felt like a statement game for the Bombers, as the Roughriders were heralded all week as the class of the CFL, having been the only remaining unbeaten team, at 3-0. Now 3-1, Saskatchewan will look to get back on track when they meet Winnipeg again this week in Saturday’s Banjo Bowl rematch at IG Field.

But that wasn’t exactly the feeling in the Bombers locker room postgame, as it’s clear Winnipeg sees sweeping the home-and-home series as the only way to truly have their presence felt across the league.

“Next week will be the deciding factor,” Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson said. “If we can come back and do it two in a row, back-to-back, gain the lead in the West and start our run, then we can say we sent the league a message.”

But before we look ahead, let’s take a look back at Sunday’s win in this week’s edition of five takeaways.

CP Saskatchewan Roughriders running back Jamal Morrow is taken down by Noah Hallett on Sunday. (Kayle Neis / The Canadian Press)

1) The Bombers defence was once again the show stealer, limiting what was supposed to be a prolific Roughriders offence to a measly 258 yards. Saskatchewan was averaging a league-best 26.7 offensive points per game, but managed only eight Sunday, all made up of field goals and singles. The Roughriders made it to the red zone just once — and didn’t record a point — and converted just 22 per cent on second down.

It was the third time in five games this season the Bombers have held their opponent to fewer than 10 points. Winnipeg dressed nine defensive linemen for the game to provide different looks for Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo and it worked.

The run game was also non-existent, with William Powell recording just eight carries for 44 yards. Brandon Alexander had two interceptions, Deatrick Nichols had one, turnovers that led to 10 points for the Bombers. The Bombers had five total takeaways.

2) I was curious and somewhat skeptical about what we would see from Andrew Harris in 2021, and somewhere along the way I mulled over just how important he is and will be for the Bombers this season.

It wasn’t that I forgot what he’s done — the Bombers don’t return to prominence in recent years without him, and they certainly don’t win the 2019 Grey Cup — it was just that how much more can you ask from a guy who has played more than 10 years in the CFL, at one of the hardest positions on the body?

When he admitted he didn’t dedicate the extended offseason completely to a return to football and then pulled up lame early into training camp, my concern only strengthened. Sunday was just his second game back and while his Week 4 performance against Calgary was notable, what we saw against the Roughriders was near vintage Harris.

He finished with 18 carries for 95 yards, and added two receptions for 27 more, but it’s how and when Harris chewed up yards that’s of particular note.

After the Bombers were pushed out of field goal range with a pair of penalties early in the fourth, Harris reeled in a pass behind the line of scrimmage and scampered 17 yards on second-and-23 to salvage three points. Head coach Mike O’Shea said it was the touchdown drive late in the third that was the turning point in the game, and Harris was a big part of it, ripping off runs of 20 and 15 yards.

His passion is contagious, his skill without doubt. He’s only going to get better and that’s a scary thought.

CP Saskatchewan Roughriders running back William Powell only had eight carries for 44 yards. (Kayle Neis / The Canadian Press)

3) Could you imagine if the Bombers went with Matt Nichols over Zach Collaros? Talk about scary.

Collaros hasn’t thrown out the lights, still without a 300-yard passing game, but he’s exactly the kind of quarterback the Bombers need. He completed 70 per cent of his passes for 245 yards and his 27-yard touchdown pass to Nic Demski was as smooth as you’ll see this year.

Simply put: he’s a gamer, capable of extending plays with his feet and has an accurate arm in the pocket and on the run. He won’t kill a play until it’s dead and his willingness to exhaust all options has earned him the respect of his teammates.

There was also a brief scare late in the first quarter when Collaros was seen limping after a hit and had to retreat to the locker room. In came Sean McGuire, who bobbled the ball, only for Collaros to return for the rest of the series. McGuire has promise, but it’s Collaros or bust.

4) It’s kind of odd that the biggest area of concern for a Mike O’Shea coached team is special teams. But that’s the Bombers weakest link five games into the season.

The kicking game is back in question, and it’s clear Liegghio is best suited as the punter and little else, at least for this season. He missed two field goals, though one was from 56 yards, and made one from 37. Don’t be surprised if recently signed American kicker Ali Mourtada gets a serious look for the Banjo Bowl.

Then there’s the return game, and it’s not working with Charles Nelson at the helm. Nelson finished with 45 yards on eight punt returns and has shown little flash with the ball in his hands. He’s been here for parts of three seasons and isn’t a threat at receiver. If he can’t pick it up, perhaps it’s time to find someone who will.

5) Not here to toot my own horn but I predicted earlier in the week that the Bombers were going to win. My prediction was based on the Roughriders being rusty coming off the bye and the injection of Harris in the lineup.

But it also had to do with what I felt was a Saskatchewan team being overhyped after three wins against three average opponents. The B.C. Lions, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa Redblacks combined for three wins through four weeks.

When they finally were up against a good team, and solid defence, they crumbled at home in front of a sold-out crowd. Fajardo called it arguably the worst game of his career.

Are the Roughriders pretenders? It’s too early to tell at this point, but let’s see their response come Saturday. Could say a lot.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

CP Zach Collaros completed 70 per cent of his passes for 245 yards on Sunday. (Kayle Neis / The Canadian Press)
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.

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