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This article was published 12/11/2017 (221 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A dark cloud hung over the locker room of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the feeling of defeat taking its toll on the nearly 50 men that occupied its space.
Some players were slow to shed their equipment, seemingly stuck in a state of disbelief. Others wasted little time getting into street clothes, before moving freely from stall to stall to share a final embrace — hugs and handshakes symbolizing the end to an emotional and wild ride cut short.
"I just didn’t anticipate this right now. My mindset was set on Grey Cup since I’ve been training. This is hard, man," said cornerback Chris Randle, a lump soon filling his throat. "In this league, where it changes like it does, it’s just…
"Man, we deserved more."
The Bombers truly envisioned a better ending. What they got was a rude awakening at the worst possible time. The end result was a 39-32 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos in the West Division semifinal at Investors Group Field Sunday. With the win, the Eskimos move on to Calgary to play the Stampeders in the West final Nov. 19.
After finishing the regular season with a 12-6 record — good enough for second place in the West and a home playoff game for the first time in six years — the Bombers are eliminated from the post-season. The Grey Cup drought, however, moves on, now sitting at 27 years and counting.
"Right now they’re a little shocked. They expected to win," said head coach Mike O’Shea. "Just like Edmonton did, we came in expecting to win."
The long history without a championship wasn’t what weighed on this group after the game. What hurt the most was the feeling they’d developed a bond strong enough to overcome whatever challenges they faced. Despite losing a number of key players to injuries late in the year, there was still a sense of confidence and trust in one another that better times lay ahead. That bond was now being used to console a group still coming to grips that the journey was over.
"After a game like this, you go see your brothers and you can feel the love and compassion," said running back Andrew Harris. "Everyone feels let down right now and it’s horrible. But at the same time, I really feel like I have brothers in that locker room. There are definitely positives to take out of this season."
The silver linings will have to wait. There will be plenty to look back at fondly — from the season and from what unfolded Sunday. For one, the offence put up 489 yards of net offence. Quarterback Matt Nichols, playing with an injured calf that limited his mobility and a finger that has been broken since early October, threw for 371 yards and three touchdowns.
"Obviously, guys like Moe Leggett and Jamaal Westerman and Darvin Adams, those guys are all-star guys. Travis Bond we also lost at the end of the year," said Nichols. "Anytime you have multiple guys that are recognized as top-tier guys at their positions across the league, when you lose that many guys obviously it’s going to affect you a little bit, but I wouldn’t say that’s the reason we lost."
Nichols, who went 35-for-48 passing, connected with Weston Dressler for two TDs and hit L’Damian Washington for the other score. Matt Coates had his best game of the season, putting up a career-high eight catches for 100 yards. Harris, who was voted the West nominee for most outstanding Canadian, was able to establish a run game that worked well early on. He finished with 11 carries for 77 yards and added four catches for 43 yards.
"When you look back at the tape I think offensively we did well in getting first downs and we controlled the clock well in the first half," said Harris. "We were accumulating yardage and first downs when we needed to."
Tied 10-10 at halftime, the Bombers began to unravel in the second half, mostly because of the defence. All season long attention had been paid to limiting explosion plays, especially long touchdown passes. But once again, those issues crept into play, with Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly taking advantage of busted coverages and a lack of communication.
What started the downfall in the second half, however, was an ill-advised fake punt call by O’Shea with the Bombers pinned in their own end. Facing a third-and-three, O’Shea called for a direct snap to running back Timothy Flanders. The Bombers had practised the play for weeks hoping to execute it perfectly when it mattered. Instead, Flanders was stuffed short of the first down and Eskimos took over the ball.
"Not getting the fake punt, and then they ended up scoring a touchdown right after that," said O’Shea. "I feel like I let the guys down, absolutely."
Reilly, who finished 23-for-33 and three touchdowns, was only made more dangerous by a stellar run game. The Eskimos acquired C.J. Gable at the trade deadline to give what was already a potent offence more options.
Gable was averaging 98 yards in his four games with Edmonton. Winnipeg understood the threat Gable brought out of the backfield and was able to keep him in check early on. He registered just 16 yards on five carries in the first half.
Gable would come alive after the botched fake punt, finishing off the ensuing drive for the Eskimos with a spectacular 15-yard run for a touchdown — the first of two scores on the night. On the play, Gable was able to shed 10 different tacklers before being pile-driven into the end zone with the help of his teammates. That put Edmonton up 18-10.
"As a defence you need to respond to adversity," said Randle. "Your team needs you at that moment. For us not to respond…the result is we lose the game."
Gable finished the game with 107 yards on 16 carries. With an established running game, Reilly turned to the air to finish the Bombers off. The Eskimos would score on back-to-back drives that ended with long touchdowns. The first was a 33-yard pass to Brandon Zylstra, who finished with a game-high eight catches for 156 yards.
Reilly then connected with Adarius Bowman for his second touchdown of the night — a 42-yard completion that put the Eskimos up 32-16 early in the fourth quarter. Another 15-yard touchdown run for Gable increased that lead to 39-16 minutes later.
"It really sucks because I know deep in my heart that we, as a secondary, are better than what we showed tonight," said Bombers halfback T.J. Heath.
The Bombers added two touchdowns late in the game, both of which came from Dressler, including one with no time left on the clock. Dressler cared little about his night, lamenting instead his fumble six plays into the fourth quarter that led to a Gable touchdown. The Bombers lost the turnover battle 3-0, and were 0-5 this season when giving up more turnovers than their opponent.
"That one hurts for me personally because you feel like you let guys down," said Dressler. "That’s not how I wanted to end this year."
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 Sunday, November 12, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST: Adds quotes