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This article was published 13/7/2017 (1480 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Of all the ups and downs for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers through the first two games of the CFL season, one thing remained constant: an inability to close out games.
That all changed Thursday night as the Bombers held the Toronto Argonauts to just three points in the second half and none in the final 15 minutes, en route to a 33-25 victory in front of a crowd of 25,085 at Investors Group Field.
Winnipeg outscored the Argonauts 6-0 in the final frame, but it was a pair strong red-zone stands by the defence with just minutes remaining on the clock that ultimately cemented the win. With the Bombers clinging to an eight-point lead, the Ricky Ray-led Argonauts offence marched down the field, their eyes focused on the end zone. Facing a first-and-10 from the Bombers’ 20-yard line, Ray proved unsuccessful on three pass attempts and the Bombers took possession of the ball.
The Argonauts got the ball back with a minute remaining and mounted a second chance at a comeback. With the game on the line, it was T.J. Heath, who left the game temporarily with a knee injury, who would step up big yet again, registering his league-leading fourth interception. The Bombers kneeled on the next three plays to run out the clock.
"You can talk all you want, use all the clichés in the book but if you don’t execute when it matters it means nothing," said the Bombers’ Weston Dressler, who paced all receivers with seven catches for 109 yards. "That not only builds confidence but also belief in each other, that when we say we’re going to get that last stop, or that last score in that last drive of the game, that belief is there — and that carries over."
With the victory, the Bombers improve to 2-1 on the year and travel to Vancouver next week for a rematch of last year’s West Division semifinal against the B.C. Lions, a game that ended the Bombers 2016 season by way of a heartbreaking 32-31 defeat.
The loss evens the Argos’ record to 2-2 as they return home to prepare to play the Ottawa Redblacks for the second time in three weeks.
In the aftermath of last week’s loss to the Calgary Stampeders, quarterback Matt Nichols placed the blame solely on his shoulders, vowing to be better the next game. Against Calgary, Winnipeg put up just 10 points in the game and were held pointless in the second half. The week before, in a season-opening 43-40 overtime win against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina, he threw for a career-high four touchdowns but was mostly invisible in the fourth quarter, allowing for a comeback by Saskatchewan that was spoiled by a Justin Medlock field goal in extra time.
"After our last outing, letting Calgary off the hook by not showing up in the second quarter, I definitely felt like there was a little more attention to detail and a little more attitude at practice this week," running back Andrew Harris said. "That’s a good offence over there… to be able to respond was a big accomplishment for us."
As much as Nichols — who finished the game a modest 22-for-36 passing for 228 yards but went without a sack or an interception — was in search for redemption, it was Harris who would put the team on his back Thursday. Harris totalled 81 rushing yards on 17 carries and his first two touchdowns of the season — a performance on the ground that nearly eclipsed his 89 rushing yards in the first two games. Harris added 13 yards on two catches.
"Andrew is the type of guy you want to get on his back, you want to let him carry your team," said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. "He’s a special weapon."
After scoring a touchdown on the first play of the game — a 104-yard kickoff return by Ryan Lankford — the Bombers wouldn’t make a trip back into the end zone until late in the second quarter, when Harris capped off an eight-play, 75-yard drive with a four-yard run. The touchdown gave the Bombers a 17-13 lead with fewer than six minutes left in the second quarter, one of five lead changes in the half.
On the visitors’ sideline, Ray entered the game as the early candidate for the league’s most outstanding player, averaging close to 400 yards passing per game and completing 70 per cent of his throws through the first three weeks.
He had another strong start to this one, throwing for 243 yards through the first two quarters (he finished 27 for 46 for 330 yards and two interceptions). But as accurate as his arm was at times, his receivers let him down when it mattered most. Brandon Whitaker and Armanti Edwards both dropped catchable balls in the end zone. S.J. Green, whose 85 yards on five catches put him in top spot among receivers with 452 yards in four games, would also fumble the ball in scoring position, costing the Argonauts much needed points.
That wasn’t the only time the Bombers would benefit from the football gods. Argonauts running back Martese Jackson ran for 339 return yards in the game, including a 78-yard punt return touchdown late in the first quarter. He’d have another impressive touchdown run, but a curious illegal contact call by the refs negated the 109-yard return.
"They had some drops, some opportunities to capitalize on but that’s just the way the game is sometimes," said Bombers defensive back Chris Randle. "You got to capitalize on your opportunities and that’s what we did."
Providing most of the offence for Toronto was former Bomber Lirim Hajrullahu, who kicked five field goals through two quarters, giving the visitors a 22-20 lead at halftime.
Hajrullahu ended his night 6-for-6, opening the second half with a field goal that proved to be the final points of the game for Toronto. Harris scored his second touchdown on the Bombers next drive for a 27-25 lead through three quarters. Medlock, who had nailed a 56-yard field goal in the first half, ended his night 4-for-4, hitting two field goals for the only points in the fourth quarter.
"We responded well. The defence were able to hold them down and we were able to get first downs and some field goals," said Harris. "It was a great team effort."
EXTRA POINT: Argonauts receiver and former University of Manitoba Bison Anthony Coombs finished the game with a team-high eight catches for 94 yards.
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.