VANCOUVER – It wasn’t perfect, CFL games rarely are. But for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, it was mission accomplished Saturday night at BC Place.
In what could be described as a rollercoaster kind of match – something CFL games often are – with momentum shifting from one sideline to the other throughout four quarters, it was the Bombers who mustered enough to earn the victory, downing the B.C. Lions 33-23 to open the season a perfect 1-0.
The Bombers are set to begin the first of three bye weeks, which will be delayed after a pair of dry land workouts Monday and Tuesday.
"It’s a win. It isn’t easy here, and the games we’ve played against them here in the recent past have always been tight games," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said.
"This game had everything. As a head coach, we’ll scoot out of here with two points but we’ve got a lot of work to do to clean it all up. We’ll take care of that over the next couple of days in terms of looking at the film. But it certainly wasn’t the cleanest game you’d ever hope for."
B.C., meanwhile, will lick its wounds after the loss, falling to 0-1, but will get a chance at redemption when the Lions travel to Edmonton to play the Eskimos in a Week 2 game Friday night.
The Lions are one of three teams in the West to fall on opening weekend, joining Saskatchewan (23-17 loss at Hamilton) and Calgary (32-28 loss to Ottawa). Edmonton improved to 1-0, edging out a lowly Montreal Alouettes team 32-25.
The win came on a steady day for the Winnipeg offence, a unit that was slow out of the gate but only improved as the night went on. Quarterback Matt Nichols finished 21-for-33 passing for a modest 184 yards, but was effective when it mattered.
He tossed three touchdowns, including two to Drew Wolitarsky and one to Darvin Adams, and made smart decisions with the ball, ending the game without an interception and was sacked just twice.
Perhaps what was most impressive was Nichols’ mobility in the pocket. After a productive off-season, a winter the Bombers No. 1 pivot has referred to as his most productive, and which included tweaks to both his diet and workout routine, it clearly showed Saturday night.
"I can already see it paying off. They obviously weren’t big take-off runs or anything but that’s not necessarily what I’m going for. It’s those types of plays where initial reads aren’t there, so you extend the play and get a couple touchdowns that maybe last year I would have would have tried to throw a covered check-down and then we’re kicking a field goal," Nichols said.
"That was definitely a focus of mine and it was nice to see it pay off immediately out here. I want to help my team win football games anyway I can and I felt like that was an area I could improve and I think that I have."
He displayed his quick feet early in the second quarter, when Nichols scrambled out of the pocket long enough to find a wide-open Adams for a five-yard touchdown to give the Bombers their first lead, 7-3. He did it again early in the third quarter, capitalizing on the first of two interceptions by Jeff Hecht that gave Winnipeg possession at the B.C. 7.
From there, Nichols rumbled once more to his left, long enough to deliver a seven-yard pass to an unmanned Wolitarsky – a score that re-gained the Bombers lead following a Lions outburst late in the second quarter.
B.C. scored 10 points in the final 2:19 of the first half, including a 108-yard kick-off return TD by Brandon Rutley to go up 17-14 at the break.
"There was some mistakes here and there, on all sides of the ball, but overall we kept fighting," Nichols said. "We went down at halftime, came out in the second half and right away the defence made a play and the offence finished it off and played some good complimentary football. All sides picked each other up."
Five times the Bombers made it to the red zone, and four times they found the end zone. But though it looked easy at times, Winnipeg certainly had its challenges.
Earlier in the week, Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall said he wanted his defence to play with confidence, but noted their best road to success would be to eliminate the "explosion plays" – long throws down the field that have haunted Hall’s defences in recent years.
That warning was especially important because of the man they were facing Saturday. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly, who jetted from Edmonton after six seasons to sign a four-year deal with B.C. worth $2.9 million, certainly tested a Bombers secondary with three new starters from last season.
In the end, Reilly finished with an impressive 324 passing yards, but only had one touchdown – a 15-yard strike to Lemar Durant 4:45 into the third quarter – and two interceptions. And even the pain of the Durant TD was somewhat eased by the Bombers blocking the ensuing one-point convert and returning it the other way to add two points to their side, making it a 23-23 game.
"The most important thing is the points and we had more than them. So, he can throw for 5,000 yards in the game and it doesn’t matter to us," said Hecht, who entered training camp battling for a starting role at safety. "It’s good for guys for their individual statistics, it looks good on Richie if we keep the number low but we’re here to win football games, that’s our goal."
Hecht added: "The yards are an indication we aren’t playing clean football yet. We were making a lot of mistakes; there was a couple missed assignments that they capitalized big time. So it gives us a lot to work on going into the bye, which is good, kind of humbling to keep our feet grounded. But we don’t care about yards, we care about points."
Though the Lions’ air attack swelled to an inexcusable number, the run game was kept in check. In fact, B.C. attempted just four carries in the game, totalling a scant four yards. By comparison, the Bombers chewed up the Lions defence in the ground game, with running back Andrew Harris accounting for 148 yards on 16 carries – an average of 9.3 yards per run.
Harris’ longest run of the game went for 31 yards, but it was a 19-yard scamper to open the fourth quarter that helped seal the game. Facing a second-and-10 from the Lions, Harris pushed through a number of would-be tacklers to move the chains. Five plays later, backup quarterback Chris Streveler punch the ball in from the goal line to put the Bombers up 33-23.
There were major question marks around the Bombers offensive line heading into the season, with the departure of two starters from last year – centre Matthias Goossen and right guard Sukh Chungh – and with left guard Patrick Neufeld out with an undisclosed injury. But their replacements on the interior – Cody Speller, Michael Couture and Geoff Gray at left guard, centre and right guard, respectively – proved up to the challenge.
"We still got to grow and get better but today was a step in the right direction. We still need to improve as we go along here," said Harris. "Just a clean team game."
When it looked like the Lions might be mounting a comeback, Hecht was there to turn the tide once more. He snuffed out a Reilly pass intended for Bryan Burnham, giving the Bombers the ball back with just four minutes to go.
From there, Winnipeg milked the clock, and the defence stopped one final drive by the Lions before the clock ran out and goal of victory reached.
B.C. Lions' Lemar Durant (1) reaches for a pass near Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Adam Bighill (4) during the first half.
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.
Updated on Sunday, June 16, 2019 at 9:18 AM CDT: Writethru with quotes