It was a game that had been rendered meaningless 24 hours before kickoff, but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers still wanted to put on a show for a packed house at IG Field.
Playing in front of a sellout crowd of 32,343 for the fourth straight game, the Bombers closed the home portion of their regular-season schedule with a 45-25 thumping of the last-place Edmonton Elks.
The Bombers, who had already clinched first place in the West Division thanks to a B.C. Lions loss on Friday night, improved their record to 13-4 and will host the West Final for the third straight year.
They’ll face either the Lions (12-6) or the Calgary Stampeders (6-11) in the West Final on Nov. 11 at IG Field, where yet another sellout is likely.
To have one more in our house is going to be awesome
Bombers QB Zach Collaros
“It was important to win this one,” Bombers’ quarterback Zach Collaros said.
“It wouldn’t have felt the same way if we would have gone out there and laid an egg and rolled over. There was never any doubt in my mind. Nobody even really talked about it. It was just ‘Hey, let’s go out there and do our thing.’”
The Bombers have won the West Division in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1960-62.
“It’s amazing for the organization,” Collaros said. “First team to do it since the 1960s, win the West three times in a row. As a history junkie, that’s really cool. I’m really excited for everybody in here because they put in so much time, the players, the coaches, our equipment staff, the training staff, everybody.
“To have one more in our house is going to be awesome.”
The Stampeders hammered the Lions 41-16 late Friday night to take B.C., out of contention for first place, and then clinched a playoff spot of their own when the Saskatchewan Roughriders lost 29-26 to the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday to fall to 6-12.
Calgary went 2-1 against Saskatchewan during the regular season and won the tiebreaker.
The Bombers will play in Calgary next Friday night, but the game will be meaningless to both teams, at least in terms of the standings.
There was nothing meaningless about the way the Bombers played on Saturday.
“You play to win,” middle linebacker Adam Bighill said. “You don’t play to come out here and be reserved, leave stuff in the tank. How we play for each other is all in, all the details, all the physicality, all the things we need. You flip one switch and the switch is on, that’s the only thing you get. It’s not a dial of which level you’re going to go to.”
The Bombers began Saturday’s game with their regular starters on the field and they were productive in building up a 24-17 lead in the first half.
If you don’t think they were still playing their hardest, despite their comfortable situation in the standings, we point to the rushing by Brady Oliveira in the first half, when he picked up 61 hard yards and scored two touchdowns.
We’ll also point to Bighill, who scooped up a fumble by Elks QB Tre Ford and scored a 26-yard touchdown, and later timed a hit perfectly to stop Edmonton short-yardage QB Taylor Cornelius in his tracks near the goal-line.
And Jackson Jeffcoat, who sacked Ford and forced that fumble, leading to a defensive touchdown.
“We take a lot of pride in being able to put on a great show for the fans,” Bighill said. “They’re amazing. For them to be here for four sellouts in a row is incredible. I don’t know if I’ve been a part of that before. For us to be able to make sure we honour that is important.”
The Bombers regular starters were still in the game into the third quarter, so give the 4-14 Elks credit for hanging in. The Bombers were not treating it like a glorified pre-season game, and Edmonton made them work for their yards.
The Bombers didn’t start bringing in their backups — including quarterback Dru Brown in place of Collaros, and running back Johnny Augustine in place of Oliveira — until the final minute of the third quarter, when they were leading 31-18.
With 72 ground yards on the night, 26-year-old Winnipegger Oliveira moved up on the CFL all-time list for rushing yards by a Canadian.
Oliveira now has 1,498 yards on the season, which is the second-best total ever for a Canadian. Only Jon Cornish of the Calgary Stampeders (1,813 yards in 2013) has had a better total for a Canadian.
“I’m a proud Winnipeg boy and a Canadian and it means a lot to me,” Oliveira said. “It means a lot to us to get in those record books.”
“It’s a total group effort. Us now being No. 2 all-time in the Canadian rushing list — I say ‘us’ because it’s truly an accomplishment from this entire offence — is special.”
Oliveira also moved past Willard Reaves (1,471 yards in 1987) for the eighth-best season total in Blue Bombers history. Only Robert Mimbs (1,769 yards in 1991), Reaves (1,733 yards in 1984), Charles Roberts (1,624 in 2005, 1,609 in 2006, 1,554 in 2003, 1,522 in 2004) and Mack Herron (1,527 yards in 1972) have put up more yards than Oliveira has this season.
Oliveira also caught one pass for 17 yards and now has 1,980 yards from scrimmage this season (including 482 receiving yards). The Bombers all-time record for yards from scrimmage was set by Mimbs in 1991 (2,207 yards).
Reveiver Nic Demski also hit a milestone, hauling in five passes for 27 yards, to go over 1,000 yards in a season for the first time in his career. He now has 1,006 yards on the season.
Oliveira and Demski, who both went to Oak Park High School, are the first Canadian teammates — one running back and one receiver — to go over 1,000 yards in the same season, in CFL history.
The two players were shown together on the scoreboard, standing on the sidelines after being replaced by backups, and received a huge ovation from the crowd.
“I’ll remember that forever,” Oliveira said. “Just hearing them and having a moment like that with a best friend of mine, us making history, that’s amazing. This league has been around for years and years and no one has ever done that but us, so that’s special.”
Demski had to admit he was thrilled to get to 1,000 yards, finally, in his seventh CFL season, and to have a chance to share that special moment with Oliveira.
“It feels really good, it really does feel like a monkey off my back,” Demski said. “It was a grind to get it done but I got it done and now I can just focus on playoffs.
“It’s special to share that with Brady. The crowd applause and knowing how much it means to this city for two Winnipeg guys to do it together, I’m definitely taking that in. It’s a crazy thing that just happened.”
Collaros had a quiet game, completing 13 of 16 pass attempts for 125 yards, and throwing a touchdown pass to receiver Rasheed Bailey in the third quarter.
The Bombers passing game looked spotty at times, with leading receiver Dalton Schoen out of the lineup with an ankle injury, but it picked up in the second half. Kenny Lawler wound up reeling in six passes for 98 yards and Bailey had three catches, for 24 yards and two touchdowns.
On his first drive, Brown led the Bombers on a five-play, 64-yard drive that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver/running back Greg McCrae. The biggest chunk of that drive came on a 37-yard pass from Brown to Lawler.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Elks got some renewed life when newcomer Deontez Alexander had a 98-yard return for a touchdown. It was Alexander’s second CFL game, and he provided the Elks with their first return touchdown of any kind since 2015.
The Bombers offence, despite resting stars, continued to pour it on, however, with Brown leading a seven-play, 73-yard drive, and finding Bailey in the end zone for his second touchdown of the half and rounding out the scoring.
Brown finished the game with seven completions on seven attempts, for 94 yards and two touchdowns. He has proven repeatedly this season that he is a more than capable backup to Collaros.
The Bombers defence, with mostly starters in the game, was a bit loose at times, allowing the Elks to put some points on the board, but Edmonton finished with only 322 total yards, many of them coming in garbage time.
Bombers clinch first place in the West as Lions lose to Stampeders
Runs, catches, touchdowns, tackles — versatile Brady Oliveira doing it all for Blue Bombers
There was no bigger play than Bighill’s scoop and score, although he almost seemed more pumped up by his goal-line hit on Cornelius despite the fact that the Elks’ quarterback scored on the very next play.
“Those are fun plays because it often comes down to you and him,” Bighill said. “When he left his feet, I had a great bead on him and I was able to put a lot of power through him. I had great visibility on making a play and those ones are fun.”
The high score made for an entertaining game, and the crowd sure seemed to enjoy it, singing and dancing until the final whistle after watching the Bombers pick up their eighth home win of the season.
They’ll get one more chance to put their voices to good use, on Nov. 11, and the Bombers will look for one more win, in order to get to the Grey Cup for a fourth straight season.