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Cauz: Thoughts from a normal-feeling night in WPG

The final piece of my sports “normalcy” finally returned on Thursday night with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hosting the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

I am beyond thrilled to be writing an actual game review! Yes, I understand we are not back to full normal. The pre-game shots of the long lineup of fans outside of IG Field scream the heightened stadium protocols that must be required to get inside are a clear indication that we are not back in 2019. However, for the most part the game felt like a nice warm, familiar blanket.

Above all else what I was most excited for was just a chance to slip back into the familiar, to sit and watch a CFL game between two of the best teams in this league. So, for this column I want to highlight as many aspects from the Bombers 19-6 win that helped bring me back to a time where masks were for Halloween and no one knew what a COVID protocol was.

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Winnipegger Brady Oliveira got the start and went off for the Bombers, rushing for 126 yards as his team moved to 1-0 (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)

Anyone else break out into a big smile during the CFL on TSN theme music? I haven’t heard that tune in ages and it was like hearing a long forgotten favourite song on the car radio that you have to turn the volume up for. I understand why all the commentators have to mention how long it’s been since we’ve had a real-life game, I have talked about it on my radio show, but I am going to be so glad when we get to retire the number “620”, representing the number of days the CFL has been out of our lives. For Week 1, the delay between the last two times the Tiger-Cats and Bombers is a legitimate storyline. Here’s hoping by Week 2 we can put that in the rear view.

One of the big pre-game stories is this was the first start for Winnipeg product running back Brady Oliveira filling in for another Winnipeg product, Andrew Harris. I was floored to see the note that tonight’s game marks the first time that Harris has missed a game due to injury since he joined Winnipeg. I’m sure I knew that fact but that is a crazy stat for a guy who has 848 career carries and 300 receptions with the Blue Bombers.

No Week 1 CFL game is complete without the storyline of the angry player who is upset about where they were ranked in the TSN Top-50 list. This time it is Tabbies defensive tackle Ja’Gared Davis, who isn’t exactly thrilled to be ranked outside the Top-10.

One last note about the pre-game: The In Memoriam for the far too soon passing of TSN producer Tony D’Archi and commentator Chris Schultz was perfectly executed. It feels so strange to have the CFL back in our lives with those two gentlemen not a part of it.

 

Who says teams are going to be rusty? All right, I frequently wondered just how good the play would look in the first month. Well, Jeremiah Masoli proved how wrong I was, going 5-5 for 84 yards, finishing it off with a perfectly placed 37-yard pass to Jaelon Acklin, who never broke stride. You can’t even blame defensive back DeAundre Alford on this one, as he was step-for-step with Acklin. Here I was worried the offensive play would be an aesthetic nightmare and instead we’re treated to vintage Masoli with Brandon Banks coming up with two big catches.

On the other side it’s such a great sign to see Zach Collaros at his best, improvising like Robin Williams all over the field. His 49-yard pass to Nic Demski left everyone wondering how did he avoid going over the line of scrimmage and then his touchdown pass to Kenny Lawler was the result of another long scramble that allowed Lawler to get behind the coverage.

Wow, I did not expect the pass protection to be so good. With just over two minutes left in the first quarter we already had four plays of 25 yards or more. I’m so glad I was dead wrong about my prediction that we would be in store for several weeks of low scoring games. At this point I feel genuinely bad for the people I told to take the under in this game. The CFL is back baby!!! I am aware this is just one quarter old and I’m getting ahead of myself but I’m the guy who got choked up when they brought out the Grey Cup before the start of the game.

You want a return to the ways things were? May I present to you a Willie Jefferson interception. He had been relatively quiet in the first quarter but his thievery early in the second was a testament to his football IQ. Jefferson was lying in wait near the line of scrimmage reading Masoli’s eyes as the Tiger-Cat passer was trying to get rid of the ball with a rusher in his face. He knew what Masoli was going to do before Masoli knew and comes up with the easy turnover. At this moment it feels like 2019 and I’m still on a high from the Raptors winning the championship.

Forget memories of 2019, Zach Collaros is playing like it is 2015, his best individual season, on the Bombers’ touchdown drive right before the half. Collaros ran for about 50 yards behind the line of scrimmage on several plays and had a key 18-yard run on second and six. On the 28-yard touchdown strike to Kenny Lawler, Collaros (with a great deal of help from the offensive line) stood tall in the face of the Tiger-Cat blitz to again deliver a scoring play.

All right, the third quarter hasn’t exactly been a barn burner but at least everyone on CFL Twitter got to experience the predictable consternation that comes when a team concedes a safety. In this case it was Hamilton who gave up the pair and as usual one of our favourites, Derek Taylor, the voice for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, explained why mathematically this is always a poor decision.

The only other highlight was Mike O’Shea winning the challenge of an apparent Jaelon Acklin reception right at the end of the quarter. Hey, with both teams combining for eight two-and-outs, it was slim pickings. At this point I’ll take 100 Joel Whitford punts over 2020. At the very least all those punts allowed viewers to play the “Wait, was that really a no-yards penalty??” game. A tradition as old as time.

I will end this rambling game analysis column that really is just a love letter for the return of our game with this thought: One of the best features of the CFL is that every year there are always new heroes, often Canadian heroes that rise up for us to cheer for. On Thursday night, it was Brady Oliveira, who had to fill the massive cleats of Andrew Harris and he most certainly did that, running for 126 yards.

This game was all about the Winnipeg defence dominating Hamilton like they did in the Grey Cup and about a young kid from Winnipeg making his city proud. On a night where the first game of the season resembled the last game we watched, it was great to see the Canadian Football League kick off with a great Canadian story.

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