OTTAWA — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers certainly have a flair for the dramatic. For two straight weeks the Bombers have pulled off a late fourth-quarter comeback, both capped off on the final play of the night.
It was a 38-yard field goal from Justin Medlock in the pouring rain Friday night at TD Place that sealed a 33-30 victory for the Bombers after they erased a seven-point lead for the home side. The week before, Winnipeg rallied down 12 points with two touchdowns in the final 95 seconds. Andrew Harris rushed for a one-yard TD with zeros on the clock to edge the Montreal Alouettes 41-40 at Investors Group Field.
Just another day at the office for the never-say-die Bombers, who have the next few days off before returning to practice in preparation for Saturday’s game in Hamilton against the Tiger-Cats.
Before we look too far ahead, here are five takeaways from Friday’s win over the Ottawa Redblacks...
The wild, wild West
The victory not only kept the good vibes rolling in the locker room but also kept the Bombers in the race for top spot in a competitive West Division.
"We knew this was a big game for us — 4-2 is a big difference from 3-3," Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols said. "We preached it all week, we preached it in pre-game: do we want to be a team that’s trying to keep our head above water, keep our head above .500 or do we want to be a team that starts to separate? Guys made that decision tonight that we want to be a team that separates and build on that win column.
"We’re right where we want to be right now as far as record and I think we’re in a good position right now to continue to control our own destiny."
Though Nichols wasn’t advocating for a fourth place finish, it may just be the best-case scenario for the Bombers. At 4-2, Winnipeg is currently behind the Edmonton Eskimos (6-0), Calgary Stampeders (5-1-1) and B.C. Lions (5-2). If the Bombers do finish in fourth place, that would mean a crossover to a weak East Division and a much easier road to a Grey Cup berth. The West Division has won the last nine games against teams in the East, and 15 of 16 games this season.
The Toronto Argonauts lead the East at 3-4, but will struggle for the next month with the loss of veteran QB Ricky Ray, who is projected to miss between four and six weeks with a shoulder injury. It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see a team like the Alouettes, who appeared to be in complete dysfunction by season’s end last year, finish atop the division (they’re currently 2-4; second in the East).
Of course, with only a third of the season in the books, it’s far too early to predict how things will shape out. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting to ponder.
Redblacks can’t buy a break
Through seven weeks, the Redblacks are 1-5-1. Victims of a bizarre schedule, the defending Grey Cup champions had the daunting task of opening the season with back-to-back games against the Stampeders (they tied at home, before losing on the road the following week). Ottawa then went on to play the next four games in the span of 17 days, leaving them a 10-day break before facing Winnipeg.
In each of their losses — which have been by a grand total of 13 points — the Redblacks have managed to stay close, only to be their own worst enemy. Last week against the Argonauts, it was an interception by Trevor Harris early in the fourth quarter that gave Toronto the ball back in enemy territory. That series ended with a touchdown that broke a 17-17 tie. The Argos would win 27-24 on a last-second field goal.
Against Winnipeg, it was kicker Brett Maher who provided life to the Bombers. Maher shanked a punt that sailed just 29 yards before landing out of bounds for a penalty. Winnipeg took over near midfield and six plays later — and with 1:01 remaining — Medlock hit from 40 yards to tie the game 30-30.
Ottawa would get the ball back on their own 27-yard line and instead of draining some clock with at least one run attempt, opted to throw the ball twice. Neither pass was completed, setting up a punt back to the Bombers, who turned good field position into a game-winning boot for Medlock.
A sure sign of a good team is the ability to win close games. While the Redblacks have proven unable to do that this year, the Bombers have. Of Winnipeg’s four wins this year, the greatest has been by eight points with the other three decided by three points or fewer.
"Winning is a feeling you want to feel all the time no matter how it happens," Nichols said.
Medlock bounces back brilliantly
Being the CFL’s most accurate foot doesn’t usually include many funks, if any at all. But that is exactly what Medlock was stuck in over the past few weeks, even if he didn’t care to admit it.
After making good on a 52-yard field goal on Winnipeg’s second drive against the Redblacks, minutes later Medlock missed his next attempt from 47. It was his fourth unsuccessful kick in seven tries, dating back to when he fell short on a 51-yarder against the B.C. Lions in Week 5 that would have pushed the game to overtime.
It figured to be another tough outing for Medlock on Friday, a night where the rain was pouring and the wind blowing. Instead, he was able to bounce back in a brilliant way, finishing 6-for-7, and perfect on his lone one-point convert (he’s never missed the post-TD kick as a Bomber, going 59-for-59 dating back to last season). Medlock also accounted for two singles (rouges) — and 21 of the Bombers’ 33 points — including a crucial one off a kickoff late in the game that cut the Redblacks’ lead to a field goal rather than four points.
"Everyone has a bad play here and there," said receiver Matt Coates, who held for Medlock with Weston Dressler inactive. Coates and Medlock are good friends, their relationship beginning when Coates held for Medlock in Hamilton for half the 2015 season.
"I don’t think he needed any words of encouragement, but we always talk and make sure every little detail gets ironed out. We have 100 per cent confidence in what he’s capable of doing."
On the defensive
Medlock wasn’t the only one to have a bounce-back game and none perhaps needed it more than the Bombers’ defence. The defence has been subjected to hate all season — the biggest factors being the total yards of net offence (418.6) and points allowed (33.4) per game. The critics weren’t just outsiders, either, as defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall publicly voiced his displeasure following Tuesday’s practice for what he declared a lack of execution during team drills.
Veteran defensive back Chris Randle said after the game the message was loud and clear.
The defence responded with one of its best efforts of the season. Save for a couple of lengthy drives — Ottawa drove long fields on their first series of the game and another in the third quarter that combined for 25 plays, 160 yards and 12:09 off the clock — the Redblacks were held mostly in check.
The Bombers limited Trevor Harris to 263 yards in air and 382 of net offence, not overly impressive numbers, but season-bests nonetheless.
"All week and in previous weeks our defence has been called out and we had to respond in some fashion," said Randle, who chipped in offensively as well after returning a fumble forced by Taylor Loffler 32 yards for a touchdown. "To make plays when it mattered the most — that’s what’s it all about."
No Dressler, no problem
After weeks of suffering injuries to key players on defence, the offence was finally dealt its first blow with the loss of Dressler.
Besides maybe running back Andrew Harris, no one has been utilized or has warranted double and sometimes triple coverage from opposing defences more than Dressler.
So when it was announced that the veteran receiver would be out against Ottawa with a lower-body injury that kept him sidelined for the better part of last week’s win over the Alouettes, the Bombers — and Nichols in particular — looked to be in a rough spot.
But as Nichols preached before the game the need for the rest of the receivers to step up in Dressler’s absence, the cast of healthy ball-catchers did just that. Nichols connected with six different players, four of which had at least four receptions, with three totalling at least 58 yards.
Rookie T.J. Thorpe reeled in five catches for 58 yards and now has 20 receptions — for 187 yards — in three career starts in the CFL. Julian Feoli-Gudino caught six of his seven targets, which was one more catch than he recorded in the previous three games. Darvin Adams had five receptions for 58 yards.
The biggest impact may have come from Ryan Lankford, who earned his first start with Dressler out. Lankford only made two catches on the night, but his 79-yard catch and run for a touchdown on the Bombers first play of their first series of the game limited the damage of the game-opening TD drive by the Redblacks.
"It was something we had dialled up, we talked about it all week and we knew that was going to be the first play of the game," Nichols said. "Good luck keeping up with that guy... it played out exactly how we drew it up."