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WINNIPEG – Running back Steve Slaton had two touchdowns, one on the ground and one through the air, as the Toronto Argonauts opened up the pre-season with a 24-22 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Monday night at Investors Group Field.
In 2011, it was little-known Chad Kackert who solidified a job with Toronto with a game-winning scamper in Winnipeg in pre-season play. Fast-forward three years and Kackert is now retired and his replacement(s) used tonight and next week to prove that they are worthy of replacing the former Grey Cup MVP.
Slaton and a host of other backs carried the ball as Toronto won their third straight pre-season game in Winnipeg.
Drew Willy made the start for the Blue Bombers under centre as he looks to sharpen his game before the two teams open the season on June 26th. Willy has already been named Winnipeg’s starter by new head coach Mike O’Shea after serving as a backup to Darian Durant in Saskatchewan.
The University of Buffalo grad helped put the first points of the pre-season on the board when he connected with Clarence Denmark as the veteran made a circus 42-yard reception to set up a field goal from the same distance. The 3-0 lead was given by kicker Liam Hajrullahu.
Responding for the Argos was Willy’s counterpart Trevor Harris who started for Toronto. The third-year pivot engineered an impressive drive, finding Jarod Fayson and Darvin Adams before a pass interference call set the Argos up on the one yard line.
Harris handed the ball off to running back Curtis Steele who punched it in for the touchdown and a 7-3 first quarter lead to complete an 11-play 85 yard drive.
The Argos starter is the favourite to take the backup spot behind Ricky Ray – who did not make the trip – after the Argos let Zach Collaros go.
Steele is in a battle of his own with a handful of tailbacks all vying for the starting spot. Steele all but one offensive snap in the first half and started the second half, finishing with 38 yards and the major on six carries.
If running back is indeed the biggest question mark in the Argonauts’ offence, they Scott MIlanovich and his staff waste no time trying to find an answer. As the second quarter began, the Boatmen platooned three backs – Jeremiah Johnson, Anthony Woodson and Steve Slaton – combined for 72 total yards through the air and on the ground before Slaton bounced outside for an easy 13-yard major to extend the Argos lead to 14-3.
Harris gave way to Mitchell Gale, in his second year out of Albien Christian just after the second quarter began. Harris finished with 81 yards passing on 8 of 12 passing and led one touchdown drive.
With Chad Simpson gone and the incumbent Will Ford not dressed, the Bombers tailbacks set out to prove that there is a bit of competition in their backfield as well. Rookie Paris Cotton ensured he stood out, rushing for 28 yards on the drive to help set up a 6-yard touchdown pass from Willy to former Argo non-import Julian Feoli-Gudino.
Feoli Gudino hauled in the reception on a play-action fake to finish off a nine-play, 76-yard drive.
With that, Willy’s day was done after completing 6 of 12 passes for 108 yards and 1 touchdown. Max Hall entered the game with 3:58 left in the first half.
Hall’s first drive was set up by a 34-yard punt return by Cotton which led to a 48-yard field goal by newcomer Brett Mahar out of Nebraska to cut Toronto’s lead to 14-13 before halftime.
Hall would start the second half before handing controls over to Brian Brohm with 3:12 left in the third quarter. He went two-and-out on his first drive.
As Brohm continued, so did Gale for Toronto who closed out the third quarter, completing 11 of 16 passes for 118 yards. The Argos started the fourth quarter with TCU product Casey Pachall under centre.
Mahar would add another field goal to pull the Bombers back to within one with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Pachall took his first deep shot, when he looked for KJ Stroud but the ball fell incomplete. What made the attempt significant is it was the first test of the new pass interference replay rules approved in the off-season. Milanovich’s challenge was successful and it set the Boatmen up at the Winnipeg 35 yard line.
A roughing the passer call on the next play extended the drive again before Slaton hailed in his second major of the game, grabbing a pass in the flat and taking it 20 yards for the touchdown and a 24-16 lead.
Answering for the Bombers was rookie pivot Robert Marve who entered the game with just under four minutes left and wasted no time making an impact. On his first pass, he stepped back and delivered a bomb to Donavon Kemp for a 48-yard gain. The two would connect three plays later when Kemp hauled in a 7-yard touchdown to cut the Toronto lead to 24-22 with 2:22 left. A two-point conversion to tie would fail.
Not to be outdone, Pachall stepped into a pass and delivered a strike to Stroud for a 29-yard gain and some breathing room before running out the clock.
The Argos will return home to host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Varsity Stadium while the Bombers will head to Calgary to close out their pre-season schedule next week.