The Blue Bombers are back on top of the Canadian Football League standings after a nail-biting 26-24 win over the Calgary Stampeders Thursday night at IG Field.
The victory improved the Bombers record to 6-2 and snapped a two-game losing streak after losses to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts. It also created some distance between Winnipeg and the Stampeders, who fell to 5-3, in the race for top spot in the West Division.
Winnipeg was supposed to resume practice Sunday, but a change of plans has their first formal workout now set for Monday. The Bombers are back at it Thursday night when they welcome the struggling B.C. Lions to town.
But before we look too far ahead, here are five stzorylines from the win over the Stampeders.
It wasn’t an overly glowing endorsement by O’Shea, but perhaps it was a sign that he knew more than he was sharing when he followed that up by saying he hoped to get in on some of the action in what’s been a stellar season for returners. Heading into Thursday night, there had already been 14 return touchdowns across the league, just one short of the total from all of last season.
Grant not only tied last year’s mark with a 76-yard punt-return touchdown in the first quarter — which, by the way, was his first touch in a CFL regular-season game — he surpassed it with an even more impressive 83-yard jaunt just minutes before the first half expired. It was just the eighth time in league history a player has returned two punts for touchdowns, and the first for the Bombers’ franchise.
In total, the 25-year-old Grant collected 306 return yards, including 222 yards on seven punt returns — an average of 31.7 yards per run. There will certainly be more written on Grant in the days to come, but it was an impressive debut for a player that had been cut by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and, more recently, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Medlock is a proud field-goal kicker, someone who arguably puts more time into his craft than most of his peers, but he just hadn’t been used much this year. In fact, he had just 13 attempts in seven games prior to Thursday, and his 76.9 per cent conversion rate ranked the worst among "qualifying" kickers (minimum of 10 attempts). Against the Stampeders, he was his vintage self, going a perfect four-for-four, including a season-long 55-yarder. After the ball travelled through the uprights on that massive kick, Medlock exceeded his fist-pump quota with a passionate celebration afterwards.
He also continues to be one of the league’s best punters, with a career-high average of 45.2 yards per boot. His six punts inside the 10-yard line are also the most in the CFL. Needless to say, a confident Medlock is a dangerous Medlock.
It’s a confidence booster; beating Calgary, no matter who is on its roster, is a big deal for any team in the CFL. The Stampeders have dominated the league over the past decade, including the Bombers, winning 15 of the previous 18 contests between the two clubs.
The win also gives the Bombers an early lead in the three-game season-series, which is the first tiebreaker when it comes to determining the standings. It also reaffirmed Winnipeg’s authority at home, where they have now won seven straight games, dating back to last season. Good teams protect their home turf and the Bombers have done just that.
Many will downplay the win because it was Nick Arbuckle leading the way for the Stampeders instead of franchise quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. It’s tough to dispute that, as Mitchell, the reigning league and Grey Cup MVP, would make any team instantly better.
But that does little justice for Arbuckle, who I thought played a stellar game, and was good enough to earn his team the win. Calgary went three-for-four in the red zone, including two rushing touchdowns by Arbuckle who, save for two interceptions, looked composed in the pocket for much of the night.
The 25-year-old finished 22-for-36 passing for 260 yards and one touchdown. Though Mitchell is expected back in time to play the Montreal Alouettes next week, Arbuckle, who is a free agent after this season, should have a bright future ahead of him.
Indeed, the struggles continued against Calgary, with Winnipeg putting up just 12 points, all on field goals. The Bombers have now gone six quarters registering a single offensive touchdown — not exactly a recipe for success in a league driven by offence.
It’s hard to complain about a 6-2 record, and credit should go to Calgary’s defence, a group that, despite suffering massive turnover in the off-season, remains among the best in the league. But there’s clearly something missing with the offence and, from the outside, it looks like a lack of confidence.
Whether it’s the play-calling from LaPolice or the play of Nichols — or both — the Bombers’ attack hasn’t intimidated opposing teams. I was told after the game a few players in the Calgary locker room were calling Winnipeg’s offence predictable; at times, it certainly was.
Far too often the Bombers relied on short passes, either unable or unwilling to stretch the ball down field. It was check-down after check-down to running back Andrew Harris, who, for the third-straight game, led the Bombers in receptions. Harris is among the best players in the league, but with an offence as talented as the Bombers are at receiver, you’d think there’d be room to be more creative.
It didn’t end up hurting the Bombers in the end, thanks to the impressive effort by special teams, but it also didn’t do enough to suggest to fans the issues over the last three weeks are in the rear-view mirror. Clearly, something has to change.
Yes, there were times when you were left wondering, 'How did that guy get so wide-open downfield?' There was a particularly concerning stretch late in the first quarter, which included back-to-back touchdown drives that erased a 10-0 Winnipeg lead.
But consider that those two drives accounted for nearly half (138 of 306 net yards) of Calgary offensive output, and more than half the points they scored in the game, the defence played pretty tight the rest of the way. After those two scoring drives, the Stampeders punted six times, including five two-and-outs, and were intercepted once on their next seven possessions.
More importantly, when the Bombers needed a big play on defence, someone stepped up in a big way. Following a fumbled punt return by Grant late in the second quarter that gave the Stampeders possession deep in Winnipeg’s end, it was Marcus Sayles who came up with a massive interception in the end zone.
Then, with Calgary pressing to take the lead with less than two minutes remaining, down by two points and marching near midfield, Winston Rose stepped in front of another pass. His league-leading sixth interception gave the ball back to Winnipeg with 1:24 left and the Bombers were able to run out the clock.
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 Saturday, August 10, 2019 at 11:33 AM CDT: Correction: Bombers had one offensive touchdown in last six quarters.