The day before the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Toronto Argonauts were to meet for their Week 5 matchup Friday night at IG Field, Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea wrapped up his pre-game press conference with a telling proclamation.
The Bombers were the only unbeaten team remaining in the CFL, at 3-0, and coming off their most convincing effort in a 29-14 road win over the Ottawa Redblacks. Still, O’Shea, not one to celebrate the past or look too far into the future, believed his team was capable of taking another step — or two.
"Every time we run the film, the guys are understanding that they can do better. They’re not ones to rest on what they did the week before," he said. "We’ve had some good success so far but I don’t think we’re playing our best football by any means."
Barring access to a fortune teller’s crystal ball or keys to a time machine, it’s hard to imagine even O’Shea would have predicted what would unfold a mere 36 hours later. The Bombers, driven by a collective effort from all three phases, cruised to a 48-21 win over the Argonauts.
The victory keeps the Bombers atop the West Division, putting pressure on the clubs below them to keep pace. It’s just the seventh time since 1939 the Bombers have opened a season 4-0, and just the second time in 32 years. Winnipeg continues it’s four-game jaunt across the East Division, with Ottawa coming to town Friday before heading out on the road for games against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and then Toronto.
The Argonauts — the only winless club in the CFL at 0-4 — will have to wait another week for another shot at their first victory. It won’t get any easier next week in Calgary against a Stampeders team that’s found their footing despite being without franchise quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
If Friday suggested anything, it’s that it could take a while before Toronto tastes victory. It also reaffirmed the Bombers are the team to beat this season.
The onslaught started immediately, beginning with the opening kickoff when Lucky Whitehead returned the ball 104 yards to pay dirt.
Winnipeg doubled their lead minutes later with a one-play touchdown after another stellar effort on special teams.
Charles Nelson set up the score by returning a punt 81 yards, running out of gas on the four-yard line. One player later, quarterback Matt Nichols rolled out to his right and ditched a pass to running back Andrew Harris for an easy score. It was barely five minutes into the game and the Bombers had possessed the ball for 1:11, racked up only four offensive yards and, most importantly, held a 14-0 lead.
"That was amazing. Special teams was on fire and we were able to get some good yardage in the first quarter, second quarter and there was a lot of excitement," said Harris.
By the time the first quarter ended, the Bombers’ lead swelled to 21-0. This time it was Nichols’ arm that shined brightest, his deep pass up the right sidelines aimed perfectly for the arms of Darvin Adams, who came down with it just steps into the end zone.
Nichols has made light of his "game manager" title. But he looked nothing like a clock-cruncher Friday, showing poise in the pocket and leading an offence that racked up 406 net yards.
"I think it just comes with the confidence of knowing what the coverage is, trusting what I’m seeing, having my drops timed up correctly — the types of things I’ve continued to work really hard at," said Nichols, who finished 18-for-24 passing for 209 yards and three touchdowns. "It’s showing up on game day, so I know that the work I’m putting in is showing up, which is obviously a great thing."
Nichols, who was forced from last week’s game after taking an awkward hit to the head, wasn’t done pushing the ball downfield.
Two series after the Adams’ touchdown, he dialled up a 67-yard touchdown pass to Nic Demski to make it a commanding 28-0 lead with nearly 11 minutes remaining before halftime. It was the second long-distance touchdown for Demski in as many games, following up his 82-yard catch-and-run score against Ottawa last week, and third score in three weeks.
The Bombers also chewed up yards on the ground, with Harris finishing with 116 yards on 14 carries. A 52-yard run late in the second quarter would push the veteran running back’s career rushing total to over 8,000 yards, and set up the third of four field goals from Justin Medlock on the night.
Medlock’s 13-yard kick made it a 37-6 Bombers lead at the break.
Toronto’s only score in the half came just after the three-minute warning. Quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson connected on a 31-yard pass to Derel Walker to cap off a five-play, 70-yard drive. It was the first offensive touchdown allowed by the Bombers defence in 10 quarters.
Prior to the touchdown the defence had forced two interceptions, though neither resulted in points for the home side. Winnipeg won the turnover battle 6-3.
Bethel-Thompson, making just his 10th CFL start, showed more promise to begin the second half. Despite the Argonauts fumbling on the opening drive, which resulted in a missed 48-yard field goal from Medlock, Toronto found the end zone first.
A 55-yard pass to Armanti Edwards cut the lead to 37-12, with the Argonauts failed on the ensuing two-point convert. Then, after a Medlock field goal made it 40-12, the Argonauts answered back with a third touchdown, with Bethel-Thompson finding Walker once more.
Walker — the CFL’s highest paid receiver — had been targeted just 13 times through the first three games. On Friday, he had 13 balls aimed his way, with his second touchdown travelling 44 yards to trim Winnipeg’s lead to 40-19. Walker finished the game with nine catches for a game-high 188 receiving yards, while Bethel-Thompson racked up 388 yards on 22-for-39 passing.
"We definitely fizzled off and we need to be better in keeping our foot on the gas, and still accumulating yardage and staying on the field as an offence," said Harris. "It’s a great win for us but we could definitely be a lot cleaner."
An unpredictable comeback suddenly seemed possible after Nichols was removed briefly from the game with a knee injury and Chris Streveler came in. Streveler was intercepted by Toronto’s Alden Darby, who returned the ball to Winnipeg’s 43. On the ensuing drive, the Argonauts marched all the way down to the Bombers’ two.
But despite three attempts to punch the ball in, the Bombers wall up front proved too stiff to break. A third attempt by Argonauts backup pivot Dakota Prukop was stuffed and the Bombers took over, eventually surrendering a safety to limit the damage to 41-21.
"That’s a football team that has a lot of talented players, take a lot of pride in what they’re doing and fought to the very end to make us continue to play for four quarters," Nichols said. "If we don’t get that goalline stand all of a sudden they’re only down two scores with three minutes left. Overall, a great win against a great team."
Outplayed for much of the second half, Winnipeg would have the last laugh. Streveler capped off a three-play, 28-yard touchdown drive with a 23-yard run.
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, July 13, 2019 at 12:40 AM CDT: Final version