31-DERFUL!

Bombers do their happy dance af­ter sweet win over Roughrid­ers

Winnipeg Sun - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL FRIESEN

The sta­dium was emp­tier than it’s been all sea­son, but there’s no deny­ing the Win­nipeg Blue Bombers are a team burst­ing with prom­ise.

With the CFL play­offs just four weeks away, the Bombers put an ex­cla­ma­tion point on a four-game run by pound­ing the Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers, 31-0, Satur­day, Win­nipeg’s first shutout in a dozen years.

While the size of the chilled and wind­blown crowd may sug­gest the level of faith in town re­mains luke­warm — they an­nounced 26,070 in at­ten­dance, but the turnout was con­sid­er­ably less — the Bombers are op­er­at­ing at a dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ture than we’ve seen all year.

“We are catch­ing fire right now,” is how mid­dle line­backer Adam Bighill put it.

No­body was hot­ter than Bighill.

Three quar­ter­back sacks, five ad­di­tional de­fen­sive tack­les, sev­eral in key sit­u­a­tions, and a gen­eral all-over­the-field pres­ence — and to think he was only a late, off-sea­son sign­ing.

Bighill was cradling his son, Adam, Jr., in his arms af­ter the game, prob­a­bly one of the few things he likes wrap­ping up more than op­pos­ing quar­ter­backs.

“I don’t think I’ve done three in a game in my pro­fes­sional ca­reer,” Bighill said of his sack car­nage. “It’s what I love to do: Pass-rush, get af­ter the quar­ter­back and make plays to help my team win.”

It’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine this de­fence with­out No. 4.

A month ago, it was al­most as hard to imag­ine this team in this po­si­tion.

Stag­ger­ing through the sec­ond half of the sea­son, the Bombers ap­peared as good as dead af­ter a third and fourth con­sec­u­tive loss, both to the Rid­ers in the an­nual home-and-home set.

But 5-7 has be­come 9-7, and if the play­offs started to­day Win­nipeg, in third and charg­ing, would be the scari­est team go­ing in.

“You let a good team like that start build­ing a snow­ball,” Rid­ers O-line­man Brendan Labatte said. “And it’ll get big in a hurry. And that’s what hap­pened.”

A meet­ing be­tween these two in the West semi­fi­nal is look­ing more and more likely, and Satur­day’s thump­ing fired a mes­sage Regina’s way.

Those two mid-sea­son losses? Erased.

“Most def­i­nitely,” Bombers O-line­man Jer­mar­cus Hardrick said. “But like we all know, we will see them again. And that’s the one that’s go­ing to mat­ter. This one here was big, but if we see Sask again it would be for the mar­bles.

“We’ll be ready. I don’t know if we sent a mes­sage, but we’ll be ready.”

So what’s turned this team around, from be­ing on the verge of also-ran sta­tus to ap­par­ent con­tender?

“There’s an el­e­ment of con­fi­dence there,” head coach Mike O’shea said. “And I think there’s an el­e­ment of, ‘Hey, it’s time. And why not us?’ ”

On Satur­day, the Bombers came out of the gate, grabbed

the Saskatchewan de­fense’s M.O. — the abil­ity to score — and clubbed the Rid­ers of­fence with it.

Barely five min­utes in, Bighill got his hands on Rid­ers re­ceiver Kyran Moore, who coughed up the ball right into the arms of Win­nipeg de­fender An­thony Gaitor. Touch­down, Bombers, 45 yards later.

On Saskatchewan’s next pos­ses­sion, Win­nipeg safety Taylor Lof­fler picked off Zach Col­laros for the first of two times, and two things were be­com­ing ap­par­ent: Col­laros was hav­ing a bru­tal day, and the Bomber de­fence was ready to rock.

“It was a sim­i­lar feel to the Ed­mon­ton game where you can feel right away how well your de­fence is play­ing,” Bomber quar­ter­back Matt Ni­chols said. “You kind of just want to let them go do their thing and not put them in any bad sit­u­a­tions.”

They did their thing to the tune of al­low­ing just 12 first downs and 170 net yards, while forc­ing four turnovers and col­lect­ing four quar­ter­back sacks.

Ni­chols and the of­fence did a lit­tle more than stay out of their way, his touch­down bomb to Darvin Adams cov­er­ing 72 yards be­fore the first quar­ter was up.

Adams, who’s let a few of these slip through his hands this sea­son, had blown by a sleep­ing Saskatchewan sec­ondary, and Ni­chols hit the bulls-eye in a swirling wind.

“That was a great ball he threw and that made it easy for me,” Adams said. “I just had to do my job – catch the ball and run. It was right in my hands. If I’d have dropped it then I would have been in trou­ble.”

It was more of the same in the sec­ond quar­ter, Lof­fler’s sec­ond in­ter­cep­tion pro­duc­ing a Justin Med­lock field goal.

That’s when the Bomber of­fence got sneaky.

On a sec­ond-and-short, backup quar­ter­back Chris Strev­eler made like he was go­ing to sneak it, freez­ing the Rid­ers de­fence enough to find We­ston Dressler for a 31-yard score, and it was 24-0.

Af­ter a Bighill sack, the Bombers were driv­ing when Strev­eler re­placed Ni­chols and pulled off a per­fect fake re­verse, tak­ing off up the mid­dle for 24 yards, to the Rid­ers’ one.

A play later he was in on a real sneak, and the slaugh­ter was com­plete by half­time.

“We all know Chris Strev­eler can run our of­fence,” O’shea said. “And he has some dif­fer­ent at­tributes, dif­fer­ent skill sets than Matt. Yeah, it’s good the way we’re utiliz­ing them. The num­ber of plays is per­fect.”

The de­fence con­tin­ued its per­fect day of work in the sec­ond half.

In­stead of yield­ing all kinds of yardage and points in garbage time, they tied up the trash bag and stuffed it in the bin.

“It feels great,” Lof­fler said of the shutout. “You don’t see that very of­ten.”

In the first half, the Rid­ers of­fence didn’t get past the Win­nipeg 47-yard line.

In the sec­ond, they got to the 40 once.

That the Bomber of­fence didn’t score in the sec­ond half, ei­ther, can’t be much of a con­cern.

It did move the ball enough to eat up the clock, play­ing safe ex­cept for an in­ter­cep­tion by Strev­eler, who played the fourth quar­ter.

“To have a game like this does a lot for the psy­che and the con­fi­dence,” run­ning back An­drew Harris said.

Those two things have come a long way for the Bombers in a month that also in­cluded big wins over Ed­mon­ton and Ottawa.

They look poised and hun­gry for more.

But like we all know, we will see them agian. And that’s the one that’s go­ing to mat­ter. This one here was big, but if we see Sask again it would be for all the mar­bles. Jer­mar­cus Hardrick

JOHN WOODS/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

JOHN WOODS/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

JOHN WOODS/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Blue Bombers quar­ter­back Matt Ni­chols throws as Roughrid­ers’ Cameron Judge ap­plies pres­sure yes­ter­day at In­vestors Group Field.

Blue Bombers

JOHN WOODS/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Blue Bombers’ Kevin Fogg (bot­tom) jumps on the loose ball fum­bled by Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers’ Caleb Holley yes­ter­day at In­vestors Group Field.

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