Tight fight for first

Last year heading into Week 16, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers found themselves in the CFL basement after earning only their fourth win of the season during their Thanksgiving Day matchup against the BC Lions.

Flash forward to this year and the script has been flipped; heading into the final four games of the season the Bombers find themselves in a tight race for first place in the East with the Montreal Alouettes. Making things more interesting is the Week 17 matchup, which by the luck of the schedule pits the top two teams in the East against each other. With the season series currently tied at one apiece, that heavyweight bout might be the clincher to decide which team will host the East final and, perhaps more importantly, rest any wounded players during the East semi-finals.

But before the teams focus on their huge upcoming match up, they had to make sure to take care of business against their Week 16 opponents.
For the Bombers this meant traveling to Edmonton to play the Eskimos, a team that started out as the hottest team in the CFL, but — similar to the Blue Bombers — seemed to cool off midseason.

In their first match up of the season back in Week 6, the Bombers handed the Eskimos their first loss of the campaign; “Swaggerville” shut down Eskimo QB Ricky Ray and the red-hot Edmonton offence, and also forced their best performing receiver Fred Stamps onto the injured reserve for the next three games with an abdominal injury that required surgery.

The loss sent the Eskimos reeling, losing five of eight games and allowing the Calgary Stampeders and BC Lions to claw back into the race for first in the West. On Oct. 15, the Eskimos got an opportunity to return that favour as Buck Pierce and company invaded E-Town.

The Bombers have found little success in their travels to Edmonton, only recording one road win against the Eskimos since 2004. To make things even more interesting, first year defensive end Kenny Mainor, who has made a huge impact on the Bomber defensive line with seven quarterback sacks on the season, was unable to play in the game. Quentin Davie, a defensive end from Northwestern got his first start with the Bombers in Mainor’s spot after being signed by the club on Sept. 17.

Early in the game the Eskimos appeared to be the dominant team on both sides of the ball, stopping the Bombers’ opening drive of the game and then converting a seven-play, 88-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown scored by Canadian running back Jerome Messam. After a second failed drive, the Bomber defence was once again called upon to stop the Eskimos offence who were starting their second drive deep in their own end.

Fortunately, the members of Swaggerville started to live up to their reputation as DB Jonothon Hefney picked off Ray and gave the ball back to the Bomber offence well into Eskimo territory. Despite the great field position, the Bombers would be forced to settle for a Justin Palardy field goal. The first quarter ended with the Eskimos leading 7-3.

The Bombers received a Damon Duval punt to start the second quarter but were forced to punt the ball right back. On their next possession the Bombers continued to struggle on offence, Pierce was hit for the third time of the game and the Bombers were forced to punt once again. The teams would continue to battle for field position with their kicking teams for most of the second quarter, including a missed field goal attempt by Duval that Jovon Johnson ran out of the end zone to the the Bomber 30-yard line. The Bomber drive ended with another punt, as the Bomber’s offence continued to sputter throughout the first half.

A Ray touchdown pass to slotback Jason Barnes completed with only 24.5 seconds left in the half put the Eskimos up by 11 heading into the locker rooms. The late score would make the second half all the more difficult for a dysmal Bombers offence. In the first half, the Bombers only managed 98 yards of total offence in the first half, compared to 219 yards for the Eskimos — unacceptable for a team battling for a home playoff game this late in the season. To put things in perspective, a gadget play on second and short where back-up QB Alex Brink threw a 19-yard pass to Jason Vega, who usually lines up on the defensive line, made Vega the top Bomber receiver in yardage through the first 30 minutes of play.

In the second half, things went from bad to worse; the Bombers announced that WR Clarence Denmark would be out for the remainder of the game, and dominating defensive end Odell Willis needed attention from the training staff as he limped off the field during the Eskimos first drive of the half.

On the ensuing Bomber drive a Buck Pierce pass to Corey Watson bounced right into the hands of Eskimo defensive lineman Greg Peach. The Bomber defence held up the Eskimos offense and forced them to try for a field goal, leading to Damon Duval’s second missed field goal of the game, this time from 48 yards out. Jovon Johnson once again brought the ball out of the end zone and picked up a few blocks as he returned the ball near mid-field.

The return seemed to momentarily spark the Bomber offence as they utilized a balanced attack to work their way deep into Edmonton territory. A pass interference call on Terrence Edwards moved the ball to the Eskimo one-yard line, where Brink found the end zone for the Bombers on a QB sneak play that closed the gap on the scoreboard to 14-10 with 4:54 remaining in the third quarter.

The teams exchanged punts for the remainder of the quarter until the Eskimos capitalized on a shanked Mike Renaud punt that went straight out of bounds. Edmonton scored their second passing touchdown of the game as Ray connected with Stamps for his second TD since returning from injury. As the game entered the final quarter, the Eskimos had regained their 11-point lead and looked to continue their dominating play on defence through the final quarter.

The Bomber offence lost any fleeting momentum they had earlier in the game as they continued to squander their opportunities despite the defence forcing turnovers. Even undisciplined play by the Eskimos — a roughing the passer call that negated a second-down sack — could not help the Bombers mount a comeback as Buck Pierce threw his second interception of the game with 5:39 remaining on the clock.

A third interception by the Eskimos appeared to eliminate all hope for the Blue and Gold. The Eskimos converted a 39-yard field goal to make the score 24-10. A turnover on downs with 13 seconds left in the game gave the Eskimos the ball and the victory.

The loss was their fifth in seven games, and leaves the Bombers with little room for error in the three games remaining in the season. Buck Pierce was picked off a total of three times and sacked four times in one of the most disappointing outings for the Bomber offence this season. Heading into the biggest game of the season to-date against the Montreal Alouettes, the Bombers need to get their offence turned around. Fast.

With the Alouettes winning their game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Oct. 16 27-25, this makes the upcoming game all the more important for the Bombers; not only in their quest for first place in the East, but also leading up to the playoffs in general. The Bombers need just one win now to secure a home playoff game against the Tiger-Cats, but a two or three win streak would be the best way to cap off their most successful season to date since 2007. It would be a great way to instill confidence in a Winnipeg fan base that is all to used to being let down by their sports teams.