The most ominous prospect for the rest of the CFL is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have yet to fire on all cylinders in 2022.
It’s a frightening thought for the league’s other eight franchises considering the Blue and Gold are now 9-0 after claiming their latest scalp with a 35-20 win over the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday night at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium.
Winnipeg certainly appeared beatable on the night, and their first loss would have easily been forgiven when you take into account that Thursday’s game was their third in the past 14 days, and second in six.
“I think that’s the toughest situation our guys have been in,” head coach Mike O’Shea told reporters after the win. “Full marks to Montreal. They took the ball away early and often and our guys kept on grinding and digging… I think that’s a really good win.”
All three of those games have been played on the road, and all three have come in different time zones, to say nothing of being an already-fatigued team playing in some intense heat and humidity in southern Quebec.
And yet when the Bombers needed to spark to get themselves over the finish line still unbeaten, they found it.
“The stretch that we got right now, no doubt, it’s tough,” said running back Brady Oliveira, who finished with 17 carries for 92 yards, while adding one catch for 35 more. “It’s a grind, and everyone in this locker room loves the grind, we embrace the grind and we love the process and it’s getting us better.”
Entering the fourth quarter all square at 14-14 against the Als, who came into the game with a 2-5 record and on their second head coach of the season, the Bombers erased a forgettable first 45 minutes by torching Montreal in the final 15 .
Quarterback Dakota Prukop broke the deadlock nearing the midway point of the final frame on a one-yard sneak. That was followed up by a tackle for a loss and a sack from Winnipeg’s reinvigorated defense, forcing the two-and-out and the ensuing punt, which receiver/returner Janarion Grant took 57 yards to the house to double the lead.
Winston Rose reeled in an interception, and after Montreal got the ball back, Als starting pivot Trevor Harris was picked off again, this time by Adam Bighill, setting up Brady Oliveira’s six-yard touchdown run two plays later to put the game well out of reach.
“The guys found a way to give a little more, which is, yeah, it’s damn good,” O’Shea said. “They are always thinking of their teammates and making sure they get it done right for them. For them to be able to give more like that is pretty special.”
Montreal put up a helluva fight early on, forcing an interception out of Bombers pivot Zach Collaros — one of three in the game — on Winnipeg’s first drive, then holding them to a pair of punts in the next two drives, followed up by a strip sack on Collaros on the fourth.
“Early on, it was tough sledding,” Bighill said. “Their defense played great, they were bringing a lot of pressure and disrupting the offence. I thought as a defense we played pretty good all night long, applied some pressure, got some takeaways when we needed to.
“But every phase took their turn making some big plays tonight… those are the kinds of things that we need to do more of, putting together all three phases more frequently because those are the things we’re capable of.”
The slow start aside, Winnipeg’s deficit was just three points after the first quarter.
Rookie receiver Dalton Schoen added another major to his league-leading tally of seven on the season on a nine-yard hookup with Collaros in the second quarter.
The play capped off a 104-yard drive by the Bombers and sent them into the half with a 7-3 lead, having held their opponents out of the end zone in the first half for the third straight game.
“The fact we were able to go that long, it shows a lot about our offence,” Oliveira said. “It shows the grit that we have in that huddle, that we’re not going to give up and we’re going to keep fighting.”
David Cote’s second field goal of the game moved Montreal to within a point early in the third quarter, but the Bombers answered that with an 11-play, 70-yard drive capped off with Rasheed Bailey’s five-yard touchdown catch from Collaros.
Harris found Tyson Philpot on a 15-yard pass to put the Als back 14-12, and former Bombers quarterback Dominique Davis fell over the goal line on the two-point convert to send the game into the fourth tied 14 apiece.
“It was a wild game, it was a dog fight,” Oliveira said. “We know every team is going to bring their A-game when they play us in the league.”
Winnipeg’s fourth-quarter outburst was exceptional, rattling off 21 points in just over six minutes of play on the back of the team’s defense standing tall.
Cote narrowly missed another 49-yard field goal, clanging it off the upright before being declared a dead ball.
Winnipeg’s ensuing drive took the ball 85 yards to paydirt, with the ninth and final play finished off by Prukop’s second touchdown of the season.
Oliveira, who rushed for his first 100-plus-yard game of the season in last Saturday’s win over the Calgary Stampeders, needed just two carries after Harris’ second pick of the game, rushing for 11 and then another six for his second rushing touchdown of the season.
Drew Wolitarsky led Winnipeg’s receivers with five receptions for 90 yards, including a clutch 41-yarder in a 1st-and-20 situation during the drive that broke the tie earlier in the fourth.
Collaros, who struggled with poor protection at times, finished 15-for-26 for 210 yards, two scores and three interceptions.
The reigning most outstanding player left the game briefly in the third, returning quickly to shovel the ball to Bailey after the Als were called for pyramiding as Marc Liegghio fired a would-be field goal through the uprights. Instead, the Bombers got a fresh set of downs and four more points.
Liegghio was surgical, nailing all four converts, the 19-yard field goal that was taken away due to Montreal’s lack of discipline — the Als took seven penalties worth 77 yards overall — and drilling a couple of punts that pinned Montreal deep,
“It just shows we’re going to play to the last whistle,” Bighill said. “We’ve got guys that believe we can win with just one snap left.”
The Bombers return to IG Field next Thursday for a return date with Montreal, Winnipeg’s 10th straight game without a bye.
“We expecting the same kind of football,” defensive end Willie Jefferson said. “We’re expecting a physical rematch at IG Field. We know they are going to come trying to get us back for beating them at home. It’s going to be a tough game.”
Their first bye of the season comes a week later. It will be well-received for a team still dealing with some key injuries, including receiver Greg Ellingson, who missed this third straight game with a hip issue, and safety Malcolm Thompson, who missed his second in a row with a calf ailment.
Just don’t expect the Bombers to rest on what they’ve done to date.
“There’s no point in looking back at where we came from because nobody cares,” Bighill said. “It’s about going forward. It’s about 1-0 next week. It’s about getting a playoff spot and being able to play in November.”