It was never going to be a sprint to the finish line.

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This article was published 10/9/2016 (1870 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was never going to be a sprint to the finish line.

When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers stumbled out of the blocks to open the 2016 season with a record of 1-4, it was as disappointing, but predictable. With several new — and key — pieces added to the lineup in the off-season, it was going to take some time for the Blue and Gold to hit stride.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bomber #93 Justin Cole holds the Banjo Bowl trophy as he celebrates after his team won against The Saskatchewan Roughriders at Investors Group Field Saturday afternoon. The final score was 17 -10.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bomber #93 Justin Cole holds the Banjo Bowl trophy as he celebrates after his team won against The Saskatchewan Roughriders at Investors Group Field Saturday afternoon. The final score was 17 -10.

In the ensuing weeks the Bombers eventually turned the corner, and Saturday afternoon continued their steady pace with a 17-10 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders — the second win against their arch rivals in as many weeks — in front of a sold-out crowd at Investors Group Field in the 13th edition of the annual Banjo Bowl.

The victory was the sixth in a row for the Blue and Gold — the first time the Bombers have strung together six successive wins in a season since 2001 — and one that keeps them in the thick of the race for top spot in the West Division.

With a victory by the B.C. Lions (8-3) over the Montreal Alouettes Friday night, the Bombers remain in sole possession of third place in the West for another week with a record of 7-4. Calgary tops the division at 9-1-1. With the loss Saskatchewan falls to 1-10 on the year, extending their losing streak to seven games.

"These last couple games, they’ve been tough," said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea after the game. "Those guys played hard right to the bitter end and it’s only a matter of time until they start winning some games. Hopefully it’s against teams we can catch."

 

ANOTHER NAIL-BITER

The Bombers needed every last second in last week’s Labour Day Classic, with Justin Medlock kicking a 43-yard field goal with zeroes on the clock to clinch a 28-25 win. It would take another late rally in this one, the Bombers eventually finding their footing in the fourth quarter.

With the score tied 10-10 and the Riders with the ball deep in Bombers territory, it was the defence — surprise, surprise — that would once again set the tone for Winnipeg as Kevin Fogg wrapped up Riders receiver Caleb Holley, ripping the ball from his arms as Johnny Adams picked up the fumble.

"That’s it, that’s the one right there," said O’Shea. "That’s a great response by the defence."

From there it was the offence that took over, with quarterback Matt Nichols, 6-0 as a starter since taking over for Drew Willy in Week 6, orchestrating a six-play, 94-yard touchdown drive. He’d eventually end it with a one-yard plunge from the goal line — his second one-yard rushing score in the game — to put the Bombers up for good, 17-10.

"Just proud of this team and how we fought to the end," said Nichols, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 247 yards to go with his two touchdowns. "Clawing for everything and we were able to come up with the plays in the end to win."

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Bombers QB Matt Nichols manages to stuff the ball across the finish line scoring the Bombers their first touch down in the first half of their Banjo Bowl game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Investors Group Stadium.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Bombers QB Matt Nichols manages to stuff the ball across the finish line scoring the Bombers their first touch down in the first half of their Banjo Bowl game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Investors Group Stadium.

NEXT GUY UP

On that drive, Nichols threw to a receiver he’s never thrown to so late in a game this season, finding Julian Feoli-Gudino — in for an injured Ryan Smith, who left the game in the third quarter — for a 38-yard gain that brought the ball to midfield; and he used his legs in a way he hadn’t this season — filling a void left by running back Andrew Harris, who was forced from the game in the first half with a leg injury — by scampering 15 yards to the one-yard line before finally punching it in.

When the Riders took possession, it was another unsung hero who stepped up big for the Blue and Gold. Terrence Frederick, who returned to the lineup after missing the last two games, read the Riders’ fake field-goal attempt perfectly, tackling backup quarterback Brandon Bridge for a two-yard loss and a turnover on downs.

When it wasn’t Feoli-Gudino or Frederick stepping up it was Pascal Lochard, whose punishing runs up the middle helped milk time off the clock. Or Tony Burnett, who knocked down two consecutive passes by quarterback Darian Durant, forcing the Riders to punt and providing Winnipeg with some much-needed momentum. He was in for the injured Ian Wild.

"We talk about it quite often: next guy has to step up, it’s going to take everybody in the room" said receiver Weston Dressler, who finished with a team-high seven catches for 135 yards. "When you have your opportunity you better be prepared and ready and we’ve done a good job all year with that."

As for Harris, Smith and Wild, no injury updates were provided — their conditions will likely to be revealed when the Bombers resume practice Tuesday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Saskatchewan Roughriders QB #4 Durant, Darian gets ready to throw his pass during the first half of the Banjo Bowl.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Saskatchewan Roughriders QB #4 Durant, Darian gets ready to throw his pass during the first half of the Banjo Bowl.

FIXING THE KINKS

The Bombers’ defence allowed Durant to throw for 399 yards last week, an effort that prompted O’Shea to say he expected better this week.

He’d get his wish as the Bombers limited the Riders quarterback to just 283 yards through the air and one touchdown — a 13-yard pass to Naaman Roosevelt in the third quarter that erased a 10-3 Bombers’ lead.

Roosevelt was the only real threat for the visitors in this one, leading the offence with six catches for 121 yards to go with his touchdown. Roosevelt leads the CFL in receiving with 1,095 yards, surpassing Edmonton’s Adarius Bowman (1,008).

As for Durant, his struggles continue. He’s 0-10 this season, with his last win — he played just one game last year due to injury — coming two years ago in the 2014 Banjo Bowl.

The Bombers will take the win, but it was far from a perfect game for the home side.

On special teams, a unit that vowed to be better after allowing a touchdown in the final minute last week, the Bombers missed two field-goal attempts and negated a punt-return touchdown by Fogg that would have given them a commanding 17-3 lead early in the third quarter.

Making it worse was it was the third punt-return touchdown this season by Fogg that’s been called back due to penalty, this time by an illegal block from newcomer Nick Temple.

"I think it’s because I’m a rookie, honestly," joked Fogg.

The Bombers will take the next week of practice to work out those kinks, before returning to IGF Saturday to take on the Toronto Argonauts. Game time is 1 p.m.

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.

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