VANCOUVER – In the end, it went exactly the way it was expected to go.
When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers travelled west early Friday to play the B.C. Lions later that night in their final game of the preseason, they brought with them 55 players, only four of whom were projected to start once the 2018 CFL regular season begins.
The Lions, meanwhile, much like the Bombers did in last week’s 33-13 win over the Edmonton Eskimos, had all their weapons. And just like Winnipeg, B.C. put up a better-late-than-never dominating performance against their opponent, rallying from a slow first half only to come alive in the final two quarters to earn a 34-21 victory in front of a scattered crowd at B.C. Place.
"First half I thought we did really well. I think we ran out of a bit of gas in the second and that's to be expected after we had some guys go down early," said Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea. "Some guys were playing a lot of double duty and we really wanted to evaluate the special teams so we kept a lot of guys that were playing a lot of time on defence were also getting a lot of snaps on special teams, which is what we promised we would give them. We (promised) we would wear them out and I think we did that to a few guys, and they kept on going which was nice to see."
With the loss, the Bombers finish the exhibition schedule 1-1, and now set their sights on the start of the regular season, which they’ll open Thursday night at home against the Edmonton Eskimos. As for the Lions, the win wraps up a perfect run through the preseason, following a 36-23 win over the Calgary Stampeders last week.
The night couldn’t have started much worse for the visitors, even if they’d find their groove later on. Alex Ross began the night at quarterback for Winnipeg, looking to rebound from a dismal performance last week where he completed just one of eight passes for eight yards.
But after an incompletion on the first play of the game, the Lions defensive line collapsed on the second-year pivot on the ensuing play, with Ross sacked by tackle Davon Coleman. The ball slipped out of the hands of Ross on his way to the ground and Odell Willis, who signed with the Lions in the offseason after years in Edmonton and Winnipeg before that, returned it 20 yards for the touchdown. A failed two-point convert had B.C. leading 6-0 just 45 seconds into the game.
"Just hold onto it tighter, secure the football," Ross said of the play. "That's really the only thing I can do in that situation."
He added: "It felt good to get out there and start rolling a little bit, get the completions I didn't get last week. The biggest thing for me this week was the accuracy and the accuracy was there. Last week, everything was just like a yard off so I think I was a little bit more focused this week, a little bit more in-tune with myself and that made the difference."
Winnipeg cut the Lions lead in half on their second series, which ended with a 31-yard field goal from kicker Felix Menard-Briere. The Bombers followed that up with punts on their next three drives, including twice going two-and-out under Ross, who, despite going another game without a passing touchdown, had an overall fair performance.
The 25-year-old finished the night 10-for-13 for 78 yards. That should keep Ross in the conversation as the potential starter for Week 1, with Matt Nichols expected to miss the next four to six weeks with an injury to his right knee.
"I thought Alex Ross came in and fared much better, which is what we expected he would do and I feel on a personal level you feel really good for the guy because he wasn't happy with the way he played the last game," said O'Shea.
The Bombers defence did their part to keep the Lions at bay through the first two quarters, also forcing punts from B.C. in the three series following the Willis touchdown. They were especially strong on the fourth drive that, although ending with a Ty Long field goal and a 9-3 B.C. lead, could have ended a lot worse.
Indeed, the Lions thought they had already scored a touchdown, when Chris Rainey found a hole up the middle on a punt return before taking it to the house. But the run was negated by a holding penalty and the Lions instead began on their own 43. Lions quarterback Jonathan Jennings, who played much of the first three quarters, completed five-of-seven passes in the series to get the Lions as close as the Bombers’ seven-yard line.
But a pair of strong defensive plays by Mohammed Seisay – including strong coverage on a pass to the end zone for Manny Arceneaux and a superb tackle on a reception to Lions running back Jeremiah Johnson – limited the Lions to a 15-yard field goal by Long.
Rainey’s would-have-been touchdown was the first of two long returns by the Lions backup running back that were voided by penalty. Later in the second quarter he returned a punt to inside the Bombers’ five-yard line but again it was called back for holding. The Lions would eventually turn the ball over on downs when they were stuffed on third-and-short near midfield.
Those penalties highlighted an undisciplined effort in the first half by the Lions, who were flagged 11 times for 115 yards. The Bombers had six penalties for 60 yards – a total that nearly tied the six flags for 63 yards Winnipeg posted against Edmonton last week.
The penalty that would haunt B.C. the most through two quarters happened on the Bombers sixth series of the game. With Bryan Bennett in for Ross, what looked like a dead drive was suddenly given life when, with the Bombers facing third-and-15 from their own 37, Lions linebacker Frederic Chagnon was called for roughing the kicker. The penalty gave Winnipeg a fresh set of downs and Bennett wasted little time in making B.C. pay, launching a deep pass down the field to receiver Reuben Randle.
Randle, who collected 20 touchdowns in four seasons with the NFL’s New York Giants, outran the long floating pass from Bennett, but he turned back just in time to catch it on the Lions’ three-yard line, before diving into the end zone. The one-point convert from Menard-Briere gave the Bombers their first lead of the game, 10-9, with under five minutes to go in the second frame.
"It was kind of a roll-out, and I guess it was a busted coverage because no one was out there with me pretty much the whole time," said Randle. "Bennett gave me a chance to go out there and make a play and that's what I did for him. It felt good to get back in the end zone for the first time in a long time – it's a great feeling."
Both clubs would add a field goal before the half. Long made good from 46 yards out, while Menard-Briere, not to be outdone, sailed a 52-yarder as time expired in the half, giving the Bombers the 13-12 lead at intermission.
Then came the second half, and the fall of the Bombers. Despite having the momentum from a strong first two quarters, B.C. rallied and immediately took it back.
Chris Streveler – who dazzled last week in his pro debut, completing all 10 of his passes for 140 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown – was unable to recapture any of that magic. The Bombers opened the half with a two-and-out, with the second play almost resulting in an interception from Willis, who just couldn’t get a grip on the ball despite being in perfect position.
That started the beginning of the end for Winnipeg, and the start of a surge from the Lions that would carry them the rest of the way.
Jennings spent the next five minutes orchestrating a drive that began at midfield and ended with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Lions receiver Bryan Burnham. Jennings would connect with Burnham again for the two-point convert, giving the Lions a 20-13 lead. That would be the final series for Jennings, who finished 17-for-24 for 182 yards and the Burnham touchdown.
On the Bombers very next play after the kick off, Streveler launched a pass down the left sideline into double coverage and luck wouldn’t be on his side this time. Lions’ defensive back Otha Foster intercepted the ball, returning it 62 yards for a touchdown. He added insult to injury by bulldozing Streveler at the goal line to give the Lions a 27-13 lead.
"It's not the first pick-6 I've thrown in my life and if I keep playing I'm sure it won't be the last one," said Streveler. "It's how the game goes: sometimes you make a mistake and you've got to be able to bounce back and you got to be confident in yourself. When things don't go well, you know, your teammates are sometimes looking to the quarterback and you got to believe that you're going to bounce back and be able to move the ball."
The only points the Bombers would record in the third quarter were the two from a safety surrendered by the Lions. B.C. that would put the nail in the coffin with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
By then, Ricky Llyod was in at quarterback for the Lions. He would need just five plays to cap off the TD-drive with a one-yard run resulting in a 27-15 B.C. lead.
The Bombers – and Streveler – showed some life late in the game. Streveler, who finished three-for-nine for 44 yards, a touchdown and an interception, connected with Kenbrell Thompkins for a 32-yard score. Streveler found Thompkins again on the two-point convert, but after initially being called a catch, was reversed after replay showed the ball was caught out of bounds.
"I was really happy to be able to get back in there in the fourth quarter and get a drive going and I was happy that we were able to put some points on the board," said Streveler.
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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Updated on Saturday, June 9, 2018 at 1:48 AM CDT: Full write through, final version