It took two possessions for the defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offence to find its stride after a nearly two-year break induced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Their formidable defence needed just one series to shake off the rust.
Coming off an impressive win in the CFL’s return, the Blue Bombers play host Friday night to a Toronto Argonauts team that posted an encouraging win of its own.
A mere 620 days after hoisting the Grey Cup following its 2019 title win over Hamilton, Winnipeg finally got to raise its championship banner prior to commencing the 2021 season with a rematch against the Tiger-Cats last Thursday in front of the largest crowd in Canada since the pandemic crippled the globe.
Any bit of motivation fostered by the unveiling of the banner in the midst of nearly 30,000 raucous fans quickly disappeared, however.
The offence totalled all of six yards on its first two possessions while the defence conceded an eight-play, 89-yard drive culminating in a touchdown its first time on the field.
After stumbling out of the gate, though, the defending champs regrouped and went on win 19-6.
“Everyone got the nerves out after a couple plays,” Brady Oliveira said, “and we just went out and played ball.”
The defence, which allowed 14, 13 and 12 points in its three 2019 playoff games, buckled down and yielded just 191 yards while forcing three turnovers and registering a safety in the Tiger-Cats’ final 13 possessions.
“I thought they recovered well and played a solid game,” defensive coordinator Richie Hall said in a conference call on Tuesday. “Our whole thing is we want to get better each week.”
The offence also got on track, totalling 366 yards while receiving a huge boost from Oliveira.
The Winnipeg native rushed for 126 yards on 22 carries while also catching one pass for 21 yards as the ground game didn’t miss a beat with star running back Andrew Harris sidelined with a calf injury.
Harris, the CFL’s leading rusher each of the last three seasons, is progressing, according to Winnipeg coach Mike O’Shea, but hasn’t practiced all week. Neither has Willie Jefferson – the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player – because of an ankle and head injury.
Zach Collaros was effective directing the offense in the opener after he surprisingly led Winnipeg to the 2019 title, as the former Argonaut threw for 217 yards with a pair of touchdown passes to Kenny Lawler Jr.
The current Argonaut quarterback, meanwhile, put together the best offensive performance of the league’s opening weekend.
Getting the start due to Nick Arbuckle’s nagging hamstring injury, McLeod Bethel-Thompson completed 26 of 37 passes for 354 yards – the most of any QB in Week 1 – with two touchdowns in rallying Toronto to a 23-20 road win over the Calgary Stampeders on Saturday.
After tying the score on a two-point conversion following a 27-yard touchdown pass to Kurleigh Gittens Jr. midway through the fourth quarter, Bethel-Thompson led the Argonauts on a 10-play drive to set up Boris Bede’s 32-yard game-winning field goal with 37 seconds remaining.
“He battled back and played well when we needed him to,” coach Ryan Dinwiddie said. “He was clutch at the end and made some plays with his legs, scrambling and extending plays, so we’re going to go with McLeod again.”
Bethel-Thompson now tries to lead the Argonauts to their first 2-0 start since 2015.
Toronto, however, has lost its last four games at Winnipeg, and the Blue Bombers have won 12 of their last 13 contests at IG Field – the franchise’s best home stretch since 1993-94.