Saturday was a tale of two opening offensive drives.
In Toronto, the Argonauts quickly made their way up BMO Field, with Chad Kelly positioning his team at the Montreal Alouettes’ seven-yard line. As he lined up for his fifth play of the drive a touchdown felt imminent, in key with the way that the vast majority of the Argos’ games had gone this year, a canvas filled with 16 masterful strokes.
Then Marc-Antoine Dequoy jumped into the picture, snagged Kelly’s pass for Tommy Nield and ran it 101 yards in the other direction for a touchdown. Just 3:02 into the game, the team that had bullied its opponents all year long had been punched in the nose.
A few hours later in Winnipeg, we saw something much different. Zach Collaros led the Blue Bombers’ offence out onto IG Field after the BC Lions had to settle for a field goal. After a week of will-he, won’t-he-play with receivers Dalton Schoen (he didn’t), Nic Demski and Rasheed Bailey (they did), the Bombers looked to tailback Brady Oliveira for their initial offensive impression.
Oliveira had his hands on the ball for nine of the 10 plays that the team needed to get to the end zone. When it appeared that a determined Lions’ defence might make it a goal line stand situation, seemingly the rest of the Bombers’ offence got behind their guy and made sure he broke the plane. It was their first points on the board in what proved to be their fourth consecutive trip to the Grey Cup game.
2023 CFL PLAYOFFS
» Defensive clinic leads Bombers to fourth straight GC appearance
» Home Sweet Home: Bombers continue dominance at IG Field
» Through The Lens: Lions at Blue Bombers Western Final images
THE PRAIRIE PUSH™️
— CFL (@CFL) November 11, 2023
“You’ve got to dig deep,” Oliveira said of that heavy usage early on.
“In games like that when the team is is relying on you, my teammates are relying on me, my coaches are relying on me, the fans are relying on me. You’ve got to tap into a different mode and don’t be denied and just keep on fighting.”
When it got congested around the goal line, Oliveira knew what to do.
“I know there’s never going to be a standstill,” he said. “That’s why I always keep my legs turning because I know if I keep my momentum going forward, I’m going to have the big boys and the receivers get into the pile and push me forward. As long as I keep my legs going and help them out a little bit, I know we’re good. That’s exactly what happened on that touchdown.”
Games aren’t won or lost on any one play, let alone ones that happen in the first quarter. Teams can set a tone, though and send a message to their opponents. The Bombers’ message was a physical one: if you want to derail this dynasty-in-the-making, you’ll have to be tougher than this.
“We pushed them around and ran the ball very, very well right off the bat,” Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea said.
“I don’t know if it sends a message. They’re pro athletes on the other side. I don’t think anybody gets intimidated. I think they just go to the sideline and go, ‘OK where are we short, or what happened?’ But on our side,” the coach chuckled, “on our side we were pretty fired up.
“You’ve got a bunch of guys standing there watching, you know, not sitting on the bench just watching Brady churn out yards and the blocking opens up and he’s not really getting contact until the second level third level at times and you know it’s on.”
The Bombers head into their fourth straight Grey Cup appearance — a feat that the team won’t want to celebrate itself but one that deserves some recognition — having made an emphatic statement in their Western Final win. Oliveira and the offence got things rolling, with him nearing the 100-rushing-yard mark in the second quarter, opening an 18-3 lead.
When the Lions wisely adjusted and slowed Oliviera’s pace, we saw the team’s all-around strengths step in and carry them. The defence sacked Adams nine times and forced him into three interceptions, part of a five-turnover day. Special teamer Nick Hallett got in front of a Stefan Flintoft punt in the second quarter, blocking it, recovering it and getting willed into the end zone by his teammates. The Bombers’ impressive performance doesn’t guarantee them anything in the 110th Grey Cup next Sunday in Hamilton, but it should show football fans across the country exactly what this team is capable of.
The talk of this group being too old or past its prime that surfaced at points in this season should be packed into a time capsule. These Bombers are still for real and are coming to Hamilton to take back the trophy that they were heartbreakingly separated from last year.
Saturday’s win wasn’t a cakewalk. It was down to a five-point game in the fourth quarter before the defence completed its suffocation of the Lions. It felt like more than a five-point game at times, but it was there for the Lions to take with the right opportunistic play or Winnipeg miscue.
“I think they learned that a long, lone time ago. We’re talking years,” O’Shea said of his team’s poise. “The young guys do a good job of following the vets’ lead and the vets always teach and they’re always getting these young guys going and letting them know what time it is.”
The Bombers head back to the league’s biggest stage once again and they know what time it is.