Zach Collaros described it perfectly after the final whistle: "It was a weird game."
Despite having two turnovers in the first half and missing three field goals, the Blue Bombers still managed to beat the Edmonton Elks 37-22 on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium to remain on top of the CFL mountain at 6-1.
Apparently when you play against a quarterback making his first career CFL start, you don’t have to be perfect.
The game looked like it was going to be over by halftime as the Bombers jumped out to a 14-0 lead and the Elks didn’t register a first down until the final minute of the first quarter. But Winnipeg was feeling generous as they shot themselves in the foot just enough times to make things interesting. In the end, that’s what separates great teams from good teams: they can produce a flawed performance and still walk away with a road victory by two scores.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
1) Question answered: this secondary can play
Willie Jefferson and Adam Bighill have been brilliant this season, but the biggest story coming on defence has to be the secondary.
All-stars Marcus Sayles (B.C. Lions) and Winston Rose (Cincinnati Bengals) have moved on since the 2019 championship run and Mercy Maston tore his Achilles prior to the season.
The Bombers had 22 (!!) defensive backs in training camp and Deatrick Nichols and DeAundre Alford were two of the new faces that stood out and earned starting spots. But dating all the way back to Week 1, these guys have rarely, if ever, looked like CFL newcomers. Nichols hauled in his third interception of the season on Saturday as he picked off Edmonton quarterback Taylor Cornelius late in the game. Alford was the star of the night as he forced a fumble and intercepted Cornelius twice, one of which he took back to the house — a play that the Elks were never able to come back from.
Alford has an incredible story as he didn’t start playing football until his senior year of high school and then he played his college ball at Div. II Tusculum University. The Bombers defence, which refers to themselves as the Dark Side, wouldn’t be the cream of the crop if it wasn’t for their new look secondary being one of the biggest surprises of the season. They haven’t surrendered a passing touchdown in their past four games.
"I feel like it’s the best defence in the CFL and I think we’ve put everyone on notice that we’re gonna play fast and physical and just be a Blue Bomber. Do whatever it takes to win and it starts with us on defence," Alford said.
If Alford and Nichols keep playing the way they are, they could find themselves in the all-star conversation at the end of the year.
2) Does anyone have Justin Medlock’s number?
New kicker, same story.
Ali Mourtada is the latest placekicker to make Bomber fans want to rip their hair out this season as the 31-year-old from Foxboro, Mass., missed not one, not two, but three field goal tries to the right in his debut.
The first attempt was from only 28 yards out, while the last two were from 51 and 44 yards away. He connected on all of his extra point attempts, but that wasn’t enough to not have people on social media calling for him to be cut before the game even ended. If you’re hoping the Bombers return from the bye week with a new leg in their next game on Oct. 1 on the road against the Lions, prepare to be disappointed. I asked O’Shea after the game if he’d be comfortable having Mourtada kick in their next contest and he responded with "Absolutely."
"We didn’t miss by much. I know we missed a couple. I did trot him out from some decent distance, too, and I will keep trotting him out from that distance. He’s got a good, strong leg. He’ll refine it," O’Shea said.
It’s actually pretty darn impressive that the team’s kicking woes haven’t cost them a game yet. Between Tyler Crapigna, Marc Liegghio, and Mourtada, the Bombers are 8/16 on field goal attempts. However, you can only play with fire so many times before getting burned.
The thing is, the Bombers are likely going to need one of the three kickers they already have on the roster to figure it out down the stretch here. Unless the Blue and Gold pay up, don’t expect Justin Medlock to ride into town and save the day. Another name people like to throw around is Lirim Hajrullahu, but the Dallas Cowboys signed the former Bomber to their practice roster last week.
3) Spreading the love
Former Bombers receiver Lucky Whitehead is grabbing headlines across the league and has inserted himself into the Most Outstanding Player conversation with his incredible play for the B.C. Lions. But over in Winnipeg, you won’t find the same receiver popping off each week as Collaros has done an exceptional job at utilizing everyone.
His favourite target this week was Darvin Adams, especially in the end zone, as the pair of veterans connected for a touchdown and a two-point convert. Rasheed Bailey also bounced back from a quiet Banjo Bowl performance as he grabbed six passes for 72 yards. Saturday was Kenny Lawler’s turn to stand at the back of the line as the promising wideout only made one catch for 30 yards.
The Bombers didn’t have a single 1,000-yard receiver in 2019 and that might be the case again this year, especially since it’s a 14-game season. But that’s no knock on the receiving corps, as they have shown that all of them — Adams, Bailey, Lawler, Nic Demski, and Drew Wolitarsky — are capable of being "the guy" when it’s their turn.
4) Say hello to Cornelius
You might not have known who Taylor Cornelius was before Saturday, but you’ll likely be very familiar with him in the next month as the Bombers play the Elks in two of their next three games.
Starting quarterback Trevor Harris missed Saturday’s tilt with a neck injury and has been placed on the six-game injured list.
Prior to the game with Winnipeg, Edmonton head coach Jaime Elizondo told reporters that he didn’t bring Cornelius to the Elks with him just to be a backup quarterback forever. The Elks are high on the 26-year-old Oklahoma State product as Elizondo said they see Cornelius as the eventual replacement to Harris. Cornelius didn’t put up strong numbers against the Bombers (to be fair, he found out late in the week that he’d be starting and he was going up against a dominant Winnipeg defence), but he showed some flashes that made it obvious why Elizondo is so high on him.
The 6-5 pivot from Amarillo, Texas, can sling it and he’s also pretty quick for a big guy as he tucked the ball and ran twice for a total of 23 yards. Unfortunately for the Elks, the bad outweighed the good as Cornelius had two backbreaking turnovers that spoiled any chance of pulling the upset. His pick-six to Alford was a risky throw and he held on to the ball for too long when Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat worked together to strip-sack the young passer.
But if Cornelius can clean up the mistakes, he’ll be a quarterback to keep an eye on.
5) Another milestone for Harris
Put your hand up if you thought Andrew Harris wasn’t going to be the same old No. 33 this season.
Harris has been a huge addition to the offence since making his season debut in Week 4 after battling a calf injury. Edmonton’s James Wilder Jr. is the league’s leading rusher and had a solid game on Saturday scoring his first two rushing touchdowns of the season while carrying the rock 14 times for 71 yards, but the 34-year-old Harris outgained him. Harris took 19 carries for 97 yards and made two catches for 36 yards. In the process, he became the CFL’s sixth all-time leading rusher as his 9,391 yards surpassed Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee Kelvin Anderson, who sits at 9,340.
Harris has his work cut out for him if he’s going to make it to the fifth spot on the list as he currently trails Bombers legend Charles Roberts who finished his career at 10,285 yards.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.