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August 13, 2016

Upon Further Review: WPG at TOR

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They are the critical moments that can define every game and, ultimately, every team.

And so it was Friday night in Toronto with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers trailing the Argonauts 10-3 in the second quarter and – after a modest two-game win streak – the very real sense that momentum had abandoned the visitors.

A sloppy opening quarter by the Bombers was exacerbated by an interception by quarterback Matt Nichols early in the second – his first of the season – that set the Argos up at Winnipeg’s 32-yard line. Toronto was on the verge of going up at least by 10 and the ‘here-we-go-again’ chorus was being heard by Bomber Nation who, unfortunately, has become accustomed to seeing its squad shrink from these situations.

Except, for a change, the opposite happened.

Kevin Fogg picked off Logan Kilgore on the very next play – one of six turnovers the Bombers defence would force Friday – and after a Nichols-to-Clarence Denmark completion and two hard Andrew Harris runs, Justin Medlock hit from 45 yards out to cut the Argo lead to 10-6.

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In fact, the Bombers would crank out 31 unanswered points before a late garbage-time TD by the Argos en route to their third straight victory.

“Earlier in the season I think everyone would have reacted differently to that situation,” said Harris, who was superb in rushing 19 times for 123 yards and a touchdown. “This team is coming together in a big way, the last two weeks in particular where the guys have had some team functions and hung out together.

“That’s made a big difference in the trust with this team in the locker room. Guys that trust each other, fight for each other. It’s just made everything so much fun in the locker room right now.”

Andrew Harris

What’s changed? The simple answer would be to suggest that by adding veteran pieces in the winter like Harris, Keith Shologan, Euclid Cummings, Ryan Smith, Weston Dressler and Macho Harris, the expectations in the room are different.

But that’s what has been so compelling about this team over the last few weeks. They have reeled off three straight with important cogs like Dressler, Smith, Macho Harris, Darvin Adams, Chris Randle, Johnny Adams and Patrick Neufeld on the injured list and Drew Willy watching from the sidelines.

And in their places, it’s been the new faces like Fogg, Terrence Frederick, Taylor Loffler, C.J. Roberts, Travis Bond, Manase Foketi and Thomas Mayo stepping in and stepping up for the club.

“It’s guys just coming together and playing ball,” said Cummings, the ex-Argo. “We had six takeaways. That’s what is building as our brand and our identity. We’re not perfect, but we will get better every week.”

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More on the win in Toronto – giving the club its first three-game win streak since opening the 2014 season 3-0 – with our weekly post-game collection of notes, quotes and anecdotes we call ‘Upon Further Review’:

THE CANADIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE DOESN’T HAVE A… ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ Award – Major League Baseball does – but, if it did, an early-season candidate would be Bombers receiver Clarence Denmark.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Clarence Denmark (89) catches a pass in front of Toronto Argonauts defensive back Thomas Gordon (30) then scoring a touch down during second half CFL football action in Toronto on Saturday, July 12, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteNow, it could be said Denmark isn’t really coming back from anything – he did have 57 catches for 718 yards last year – but his last five-six months have been all over the map.

Bomber fans are well aware of the story now, but it bears revisiting: released in March after the club invested in Smith and Dressler, Denmark signed with Saskatchewan but was cut during their camp. He was home in Jacksonville when the Bombers receiving corps, already down Smith, lost Dressler, Adams and Quincy McDuffie in Edmonton last month and the Bombers called with a chance to return.

Denmark was sensational in Toronto, pulling in seven passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, he now has three TDs in two games – equally his total from all of last year.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Denmark. “You can’t draw it up like that. Nobody thought this would have happened, not even me. But I just wanted to come out and just play well because a lot of people had trust in me to be out there on the field.

“Once you’re away from something for awhile and you get another shot, you’ve just got to give it all you’ve got.”

Asked if he could appreciate how cool the story he’s writing is, Denmark grinned.

“I do. I haven’t had a lot of time to take it in,” he said. “I’m glad we have a bye week and I can actually soak it in and just realize what’s actually happening. But this is a great feeling.”

FYI: Denmark now has 14 catches for 264 yards and the three TDs in two games.

A COMMON QUESTION BEING ASKED… after the game Friday was if, given the three-game win streak, the bye week was actually coming at a bad time.

“You kind of want to keep going,” said Bombers coach Mike O’Shea. “The players need it, though. It’s very difficult to run this hot. We’re grinding them, we’re pushing them, we’re pretty demanding so they need a mental break and a physical break.

But they’ll make sure they’re doing what they need to do in the bye week.”

MATT NICHOLS IS GETTING A LOT OF KUDOS… for being at the controls of the Bomber turnaround, and rightly so. But the balance in the Winnipeg offence has also been noticeable. Nichols completed 60 per cent of his passes for 246 yards with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) passes the ball against the Toronto Argonauts during first half CFL football action in Toronto on Saturday, July 12, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denettetwo TD passes to Denmark, but Harris also hit the 100-yard rushing mark for the second time this season.

There have been only five 100-yard rushing performances so far in 2016 with two each by Harris and fellow Canadian Jerome Messam of Calgary, along with one from B.C.’s Anthony Allen.

“It’s great. Put that on Andrew, he made some incredible runs,” said Nichols. “There were a lot of times when I hand off, go through my fake and look back and it looks like a two-yard gain and all of a sudden he’s breaking through for a 14-yard gain. Credit to him and our offensive line… I can’t say enough good stuff about them. I think the only time I touched the ground tonight was on a QB sneak. The guys up front did a great job.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries up there and guys keep stepping in and doing a great job for us and that was a great pass rush team and they really didn’t get too much pressure on me.”

THE MAN DID A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING… Friday night in Toronto, finishing with two interceptions, a sack, four tackles, a fumble recovery and 118 yards in kick returns. And, in the process, Kevin Fogg might have discovered a new pre-game ritual.

Here’s Fogg when he was asked what he had for breakfast afterward:

“I went to ‘Over Easy’, a place that Khalil (Bass) told me to go to,” said Fogg. “I had the steak and eggs and I think that’s going to be my new tradition.”