Six weeks into the 2021 Canadian Football League season, there’s zero doubt the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are the cream of the three-down crop.
The Bombers completed a two-game sweep of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, following up a 23-8 win in last week’s Labour Day classic with a 33-9 victory in the Banjo Bowl Saturday at IG Field. Winnipeg improved to 5-1, building on their lead atop the West Division.
It was an impressive feat, just the third time since the inaugural Banjo Bowl in 2004 they’d been able to string together back-to-back wins. And you could feel the growing animosity between the prairie rivals, including a small brawl just before halftime.
"You know the history of these Prairie teams. They’ve been at it for a long time, long before we’ve been here," linebacker Adam Bighill said. "It’s just keeping the tradition alive, really. A game like this, blood boils hot and at the end of the day sometimes it spills over. We’ve got to make sure we’re smart and on the right side of it and it looks like we were today."
It was as complete a game as we’ve seen from the team this year. With that, here are five takeaways from the win.
1) Let’s get right into the donnybrook that took place after the Bombers punched in the second of three quarterback-sneak touchdowns by No. 2 Sean McGuire just before halftime.
Frustration boiled over on both sides, leading to pushing, grabbing and some players throwing punches near the goal line. The Bombers certainly benefitted from the skirmish, as Saskatchewan had two players — defensive back A.J. Hendy and defensive tackle Garrett Marino — ejected from the game. The fact no one was ejected from the Bombers raised some eyebrows, as there were actions from the home side that appeared worthy of a disqualification.
Notably, Andrew Harris grabbed the helmet of Roughriders defensive back Christian Campbell and ripped it off his head, while receiver Nic Demski also appeared to be in the thick of the chaos. The explanation I’ve heard is that neither player threw punches, unlike Hendy and Marino, and therefore were spared disqualification.
When watching replays of the skirmish, the Roughriders also might have got away with a third ejection, as defensive lineman Micah Johnson can be seen throwing punches at a helmetless Harris underneath a pile of bodies. All things considered, it appears the referees got this one right.
2) The Bombers offence had their best game of 2021, recording a season-best five touchdowns on the day. Quarterback Zach Collaros still hasn’t reached the 300-yard passing mark, finishing with 278 on 18-of-22 passing, but connected with each one of his five starting receivers for at least two catches, including touchdowns to Darvin Adams and Kenny Lawler.
Credit to offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce for not abandoning the run game after it stalled early; Harris racked up 80 yards on 18 carries. Pierce also took full advantage of Demski’s versatility, drawing up a plan that had the receiver rack up a career-high 134 yards on five catches.
It should be noted that the success came against a badly beat up Roughriders defence. Saskatchewan was without both starting halfbacks in Ed Gainey and Loucheiz Purifoy, as well as their best pass rusher in defensive end A.C. Leonard, who was serving the first of a two-game suspension. Losing two more starters in Hendy and Marino for the second half, had the Bombers not found their scoring touch in the final two quarters then we would really be asking some questions.
3) The defence continued their tear this season, shutting out Saskatchewan in the second half for a second straight week. In both victories, the Bombers have outscored their opponent 56-17.
Winnipeg’s defence is now averaging a league-best 12.6 points against per game, while surrendering fewer than 10 points in four of their six games this year. It’s been particularly tough sledding for Saskatchewan, a team that has gone three straight games against the Bombers, dating back to the 2019 West final, without a touchdown.
The Bombers are loaded with talent, with the likes of Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat, Brandon Alexander and Adam Bighill, among others, all having all-star calibre seasons. But we’ve gone far too long without pointing out the stellar play of Bighill in 2021.
On Saturday, Bighill had a quarterback sack and interception and finished second among Bombers in defensive tackles, with six, bringing his total to 36— one fewer than CFL leader Avery Williams of Ottawa. The Bombers middle linebacker is playing with a notable chip on his shoulder, perhaps owning, at least in part, to having to restructure his contract this season. Either way, he’s back to his form from 2018, when he was named the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player and is showing no signs of slowing down.
4) Expect the Bombers to finally address their kicking situation this week after another tough outing for rookie Marc Liegghio.
Liegghio struggled mightily in the game, including sailing wide two converts and falling yards short on a 48-yard field goal attempt. Simply put, that’s just not good enough for the professional ranks and while the Bombers haven’t been burnt by the lost points, games are only going to get more competitive as the season marches on.
Head coach Mike O’Shea confirmed after the game newly signed kicker Ali Mourtada has completed quarantine and will be at practice this week. While I take no pleasure in dogging a young kicker, Liegghio had a chance to steal the job and hasn’t. He will remain the punter this season, and will likely still get an opportunity to prove he can be trusted with field goals, just likely not this season.
5) Back-to-back wins have given the Bombers some breathing room at the top of the West, and if they can continue to roll in the coming weeks, that coveted bye to the division final is certainly within grasp.
Winnipeg is ahead of Saskatchewan (3-2) and B.C. (3-2) by four points, with the Roughriders and Lions having a game in hand, and have an even greater edge against Edmonton (2-3) and Calgary (2-4) as we inch towards the midway mark of the regular season.
Catching fire over the next month has the potential to significantly widen that gap, as the Bombers will play their next five games against the Elks and Lions. Winnipeg is better than both clubs and should be able to continue to rack up points, with a 4-1 mark not at all unreasonable.
"Winnipeg is the class of the league right now," Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson said Saturday. "They are better than the rest of us and it’s by quite a bit."
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.