Tough game will do Blue good


A large chunk of Saturday’s tilt between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes was more like a boxing match than a football game.

For the better part of three quarters, the two Canadian Football League clubs traded shots, going toe-to-toe before the Bombers pulled away in the final frame. It was Winnipeg’s defence that provided the knockout blow, continuing its pattern of dominating opponents in the fourth quarter with another shutout against the Alouettes.

In the end, the Bombers rallied to a 31-21 victory, improving their record atop the West Division to 11-1, including nine straight wins. The loss was a massive punch to the chin for the Alouettes, who drop to 6-6 and now have no chance of finishing any better or worse than third place in the East.

It certainly wasn’t the kind of game the Bombers have been used to this season, but a rare bout with adversity should bode well as Winnipeg inches closer to the playoffs, which will begin Dec. 5 as hosts of the West final. There are still two regular-season games to be played, including a rematch with the Alouettes next week in Montreal.

Before we look too far ahead, let’s take a look back at the Bombers win Saturday in this week’s edition of 5 takeaways.

 

1. There was a time when the Bombers struggled to win at home, with IG Field a place where opponents routinely visited and returned with two points in tow.

That narrative no longer exists, as Winnipeg, backed by its raucous crowds, has become one of the tougher beats for road teams. The win over the Alouettes solidified a perfect 7-0 record at home in the COVID-19-shortended regular season, the first time the Bombers have achieved such a goal since ending the 1984 campaign 8-0 —when it used to be 16-game season.

But their success hasn’t been limited to this year. In fact, the Bombers have won nine straight games at IG Field and are 18-1 on home turf dating back to 2018.

Head coach Mike O’Shea has made it his mission not to over talk about the stretch of home victories — as doing so would contradict the one-game-at-a-time approach he preaches on the daily — but there’s one element impossible to dismiss: the role of the fans. O’Shea acknowledged after the game the importance they bring to the Bombers, and also the responsibility the team has in putting forth an effort fans can be proud of.

The fans will play a big part in whomever the Bombers play in the West final, so long as they give them something to cheer for.

 

2. There’s no denying the Alouettes showed up to play in the early going, leaning on a formidable ground attack that opened up big passing plays down field as well.

Montreal led for a brief time in the first half, and again early in the second, following a touchdown drive by the Alouettes on the first series of the third quarter. But after that drive, the Bombers defence was able to lock things down, limiting the Alouettes offence to five straight punts and back-to-back interceptions on its final seven possessions.

Credit also goes to the Bombers offence, as it was able to compliment the strong defensive play with consecutive touchdown drives late in the third and early in the fourth quarter. The offence entered the game with the most points off turnovers, with 81, and added another 10 to that total Saturday, including a 47-yard field goal by Castillo in the dying seconds after an interception by Adam Bighill.

 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' DeAundre Alford (45) intercepted a pass as Montreal Alouettes' Quan Bray (4) wasthere to tackle him. The Saturday game marked the 10th time this season the Bombers have shut out an opponent in the fourth quarter.(John Woods / The Canadian Press files)</p>
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Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ DeAundre Alford (45) intercepted a pass as Montreal Alouettes’ Quan Bray (4) wasthere to tackle him. The Saturday game marked the 10th time this season the Bombers have shut out an opponent in the fourth quarter.(John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

3. Among the special achievements by this Bombers D, nothing is more impressive than its ability to lock things down in the fourth quarter. It’s getting to the point where the statistics seem impossible to comprehend.

I’ll admit, with the game locked at 21-21 after 45 minutes, I wasn’t sure we were going to see the same kind of fourth quarter showing against the Alouettes that we’ve become accustomed to. My bad, though, as the Bombers D did what it’s done for a majority of 2021 and that’s playing its best football as the game progresses.

As for those stats, Saturday marked the 10th time this season the Bombers have shut out an opponent in the fourth quarter. After scoring 10 points in the final 15 minutes, Winnipeg has outscored its opponents 116 to 6 — for an eye-popping average of 0.5 points against through 12 games this year.

With two interceptions to cap off the game, it was a fitting end and a reminder that this team is built for another championship run.

 

4. Winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half — to choose the wind in the fourth quarter, resulting in kicking to your opponent twice — has become a pattern for O’Shea.

He has done this several times this season and once again on Saturday. But while it made sense in the three other occasions, it didn’t seem to add up against the Alouettes.

The wind wasn’t all that strong on an extraordinarily warm November evening and the result certainly wasn’t a desirable one. The Alouettes’ seven points in the second half came on the opening drive of the second half, which wouldn’t have happened had the Bombers chose to receive. Even midway through the fourth quarter, with the apparent wind at their backs, the Bombers opted to keep it a one-score game by punting instead of attempting a 53-yard field-goal attempt by Castillo, who was five-for-five from at least 50 yards as a B.C. Lion in 2019.

O’Shea explained after the game that the decision was based on the hope the Bombers D would hold the Alouettes on their first drive in the third quarter, earn good field position and then enjoy the wind in the fourth. As for Castillo not testing his leg from 53 yards out, O’Shea seemed more concerned about him missing a 38-yarder earlier in the game.

Sometimes those decisions play out in your favour and sometimes they don’t. And that usually determines whether it was a good one or not.

 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver Nic Demski gets tackled by Montreal Alouettes’ Nick Usher Saturday night at IG Field. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)</p>
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Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver Nic Demski gets tackled by Montreal Alouettes’ Nick Usher Saturday night at IG Field. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

5. Taking a broader viewpoint of the game, the fact that the Bombers faced some real adversity will bode well for them as they get ready for the playoffs.

Not only did it remind them what it’s like to be in close games, it also showed the Bombers how mistakes can be costly and change the momentum of a game. O’Shea didn’t like how close for comfort things got, acknowledging some uncharacteristic mishaps by his club.

There was the fumble by running back Brady Oliveira that led to the team’s first defensive touchdown against this season and the fact William Stanback, the CFL’s leading rusher, eclipsed 100 rushing yards against a sturdy Bombers D-line. More troubling, though, were some penalties that either extended drives for the Alouettes or altered a Bombers possession.

Patrick Neufeld took a holding penalty on what would have been a first-down pass to Oliveira, leading to Castillo shanking the 38-yard field goal attempt. Drew Desjarlais took a 15-yard roughness penalty after the whistle that pushed the Bombers back from Montreal’s 40 to midfield, resulting in a punt. A procedure penalty by Asotui Eli pushed the Bombers back five yards, which made O’Shea pull Castillo from attempting that 53-yard boot.

None of these examples are overly concerning and require little to fix. But they do provide a stark reminder that playing clean football is paramount to the team’s success and it’s better to have it creep into your game now than when the games truly matter.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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