Canadian football the big winner as Bombers beat Tiger-Cats in CFL season opener

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It’s hard to imagine a Canadian Football League game in early August has ever meant more to so many people than the one played at IG Field in Winnipeg Thursday night.

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Yes, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats played on the field, with all the usual physicality, athletic talent, strategic play calling and exuberance that you would expect from a pro football game on display.

Yes, the 2019 Grey Cup banner was raised as the Bombers celebrated their 11th championship overall, and first since 1990, giving a whole new generation of fans their first taste of that winning feeling.

Yes, there were 29,376 fully vaccinated fans in the stands (4,000 short of a sellout), deliciously soaking in all the wonderful atmosphere of a football game on a summer evening, enjoying hot dogs and beer, frequenting the Rum Hut and making sure they were heard around south Winnipeg. We even saw the wave make an appearance.

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But while the Bombers beat the Ticats 19-6 on the field in a Grey Cup rematch — the first game for both teams in 620 days — the real winner on this night was Canadian football itself.

It’s back, finally, after missing a full season, and part of another, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While everyone remained hopeful this day would come, there were many doubters.

The entire scene, the entire celebration of a Canadian institution, the entire game itself just seemed like one big bonus to the base source of inspiration — the fact that a CFL game was played, with fans who have done their part to try to end this horrible pandemic, cheering it all on.

On the field were two teams that had not played in almost two years, that had been through three-week training camps but had not taken part in drills involving tackling or hitting.

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They had not had the benefit of pre-season games to get ready.

But these are professional football players, men who have been playing the game most of their lives, men who wanted more than anything to come back to the CFL, even as the cancelled season forced them to think about moving on to other ventures.

If there was a lot of rust on these players, it didn’t show. They put it all out on the field and the fans soaked up every minute.

A few months ago those fans had no idea when they might see football again in Canada, or when they might be able to congregate in such numbers again for any sporting event.

You could just feel that they were bursting with desire to scream at the top of their lungs for every special moment — the pre-game warmup, the Grey Cup banner unveiling, the player introductions, the opening kickoff, the first big defensive play.

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And, of course, the first Bombers touchdown drive.

That was a thing of beauty, executed by quarterback Zach Collaros, who twice used his feet to extend plays, got the Bombers into scoring position with a 49-yard pass to Nic Demski and then found Kenny Lawler in the end zone from 25 yards out.

That made the score 7-6 for the Bombers.

Earlier, Hamilton opened the scoring on a seven-play, 89-yard drive on the team’s first possession, with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli hitting receiver Jaelon Acklin with a 37-yard pass for a touchdown just five minutes into the game. The two-point convert attempt failed.

Hamilton had a great opportunity early in the second quarter, getting the ball down to the Bombers 23-yard line, with a first down, but defensive end Willie Jefferson intercepted Masoli on the next play to snuff out the drive.

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Before the end of the first half, Collaros led the Bombers on surgical 11-play, 104-yard drive that culminated with a 28-yard pass to Lawler in the end zone for his second touchdown of the game.

It was 14-6 for Winnipeg at the half and the already rowdy crowd was loving every minute of it.

The Bombers defence earned the only points of the third quarter — a safety, conceded by Ticats punter Taylor Bertolet after Hamilton was hemmed inside their own 10-yard-line on two consecutive possessions.

The Bombers felt the loss of star kicker Justin Medlock, who is not playing football this year, on more than one occasion. Three times, Bombers coach Mike O’Shea chose not to not let Tyler Crapigna try field goals of over 45 yards, instead letting newcomer Marc Liegghio punt for field position.

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Crapigna did finally make a field goal from 15 yards out to put the Bombers up 19-6 in the fourth quarter.

Collaros looked impressive in just his fifth game with the Bombers, remaining unbeaten after winning all four of his starts last year.

He used his feet regularly to extend plays, either by running for first downs or by scrambling around long enough to find an open receiver.

He completed 18 of 28 pass attempts for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

Lawler finished with four catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns.

And rookie Brady Oliveira, a second-year player from Winnipeg who was making his first start in his hometown, had a terrific debut, running 22 times for 126 yards and catching one pass for 21 yards.

Meanwhile, the Bombers defence did a great job of keeping Masoli, CFL reigning most outstanding player Brandon Banks and the Tiger-Cats in check.

Masoli completed 24 of 41 passes for 242 yards and one touchdown, plus two interceptions, while Banks had sevent catches for 73 yards but never seemed like a huge threat.

The Grey Cup favourite Tiger-Cats could manage just a measly six points.

Middle linebacker Adam Bighill had seven tackles to lead the defence while defensive end Willie Jefferson and rookie linebacker Jontrell Rocquemore had interceptions.

Overall, it would not qualify as the most exciting CFL game ever played.

But for fans of Canadian football, it was a thing of beauty.

Twyman@postmedia.com

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