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Blue stroll over watered-down Esks

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were able to evade a potential thunderstorm, despite early forecasts threatening a delay to their pre-season opener at Investors Group Field Friday. Just as Mother Nature provided no obstacle, neither did the Bombers’ opponent, with Winnipeg rolling to a 33-13 win over a watered-down Edmonton Eskimos team.

The Bombers dressed 73 players, including all of their projected starters that were healthy, while the Eskimos, who were playing in their second and final exhibition game, had 19 key players out of the lineup, with many of their stars watching from the sidelines.

Still, Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea saw no reason to rain on his team’s parade, giving full credit to his troops for an disciplined and sturdy effort in what the first taste of live-action for the Bombers in 2018.

"I think we did put it in perspective, and it doesn’t matter what anyone says: winning is not always easy. I know how much work these guys put in through training camp, and how much time the coaches put in, making sure the guys are ready," O’Shea said. "And to discount that and say it’s not worth smiling about, or being happy about, enjoying it with your teammates… that would be a shame."

Despite the talent-scale dipping in Winnipeg’s favour, it was the visitors who set the tone early.

After the Eskimos’ defence forced a two-and-out on the opening drive, including forcing Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols from the game following a crushing hit on the first play, Edmonton added insult to injury by returning the ensuing punt for a touchdown. Jordan Robinson darted 58 yards for the score just 1:48 into the first quarter.

Nichols appeared to injure an arm on the first series, after Patrick Neufeld, who was shuffled to right tackle from right guard after an injury to Jermarcus Hardrick, was beat on the play.

"I was speed-rushed by the guy, and I just didn’t set up far enough to him and he kind of got the edge on me," explained Neufeld. "Matt is a tough guy and he stood in there and we got him back in the game."

Nichols wouldn't be out for long, returning on the Bombers’ next drive. But it wouldn’t be until Winnipeg’s third series that he would find his groove, converting strong field position created by an interception from Bombers defensive back Steven Clarke into a 7-7 game.

Beginning from the Eskimos’ 40-yard line, Nichols completed passes to Andrew Harris (10 yards) and Drew Wolitarsky (eight yards) to push the Bombers close to the red zone. After Harris got the Bombers a first down on a six-yard run, Nichols connected with Adarius Bowman from 15 yards out to even the score.

"I felt I saw the game well, made some good throws," said Nichols, who downplayed the early injury. "I was happy that we were able to capitalize after the turnover, which is something we wanted to improve on this year."

The Bombers took the lead shortly after, holding onto it the rest of the game.

Despite starting from their own four-yard line, Nichols, who was hit on five different occasions, pushed the ball downfield, getting to within striking distance once more. A 31-yard pass to Bowman put the Bombers at the Edmonton 22. But that’s as close as they would get, with the drive ending with a 38-yard field goal from Justin Medlock.

Nichols couldn’t muster much after that, throwing an interception on his next drive before leading Winnipeg to another Medlock field goal — this one from 45 yards out — on what would be his final series. Nichols finished the game seven-for-13 passing for 107 yards, with one touchdown and one interception — and a 13-7 Bombers lead.

The Bombers’ first-team defence, a unit that has been a sore spot in recent years, did their part to combat a slow offensive effort through much of the first two quarters. By the end of the second, the Eskimos’ offence, led by quarterbacks Zach Kline and Danny O’Brien, were limited to just two first downs. By the end of the game, Edmonton had just 165 yards of offence, with only 64 on the ground.

"As a defence we want to be there no matter the situation," said Bombers cornerback Chris Randle. "We want to be the staple of our team, that’s our goal, that’s our mindset. Regardless if the offence is doing well or not, we want to be able to be in a position to win the game because of our execution."

Edmonton earned just three more points in the first half after the punt-return touchdown, with Sean Whyte connecting on a 47-yard boot that cut the Bombers’ lead to 13-10 with five minutes remaining before the break.

Following a brief appearance from Alex Ross, the projected No. 2 behind Nichols, Winnipeg inserted Chris Streveler at quarterback.

Streveler, who is fresh out of a standout career at the University of South Dakota, wasted little time making an impression in his first game of professional football.

On his first drive, the 23-year old showed off his arm, connecting on all three of his passes to Wolitarsky (11 yards), Johnny Augustine (seven yards) and Darvin Adams (11 yards). Augustine, who had runs of five and 13 yards earlier in the drive, capped off the series with an 18-yard run up the middle to give Winnipeg a 20-10 edge at halftime.

Augustine, who went undrafted in 2017 and was picked up by the Bombers just before training camp, paced all running backs with 81 yards on eight carries, proving to be nice depth piece behind Harris, who had five carries for 15 yards.

"Some days are tough, not every day is going to be great," Augustine said. "This is amazing."

If there were any doubts as to whether Streveler is in contention for the backup job, there isn’t anymore. After another stop by the defence, this time with many of Winnipeg’s backups now in, Streveler added points on the first two drives of the third quarter.

On the first, Streveler connected with running back Jahad Thomas and recent draft picks Rashaun Simonise, No. 12, and Daniel Petermann, No. 26, on short passes.

The biggest play, however, came with his feet, as Streveler scrambled 13 yards on second-and-long to keep the drive alive. He eventually fell just short of the end zone and Felix Menard-Briere, who was in for Medlock, kicked a 24-yard field goal to put the home side up 23-13.

After Whyte cut the Bombers’ lead back to 10 points, 23-13, with a 51-yard field goal, Streveler followed up with his best play of the night. On first and 10 on his own 30, Streveler dropped back in the pocket and unleashed a dart downfield. The ball landed in the arms of Myles White, who made a fantastic play in the Edmonton end, evading tackles and running the remaining 48 yards to the end zone. That gave the Bombers a 29-13 lead — Menard-Briere missed the one-point convert — with 3:21 left in the third quarter.

At the time of the 80-yard touchdown, Streveler was seven for seven for 129 yards and the score. He finished the night 10-for-10 passing for 140 yards and a touchdown. Ross, who saw minimal time in the second half, ended his day one for eight for eight yards.

"We’ve been practising for two weeks now, so to say that one game is going to make a tremendous leap for anybody, I don’t know if that’s the case," Streveler said.

"You just want to get better every single day and come and do your best and learn and compete."

Menard-Briere provided the rest of the points, adding a rouge on a 61-yard punt and capping off the Bombers’ final drive of the game with a 43-yard field goal.

The Bombers finished with 420 yards of offence.

The Bombers wrap up the pre-season next Friday when they travel to Vancouver to play the B.C. Lions.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @jeffkhamilton

Read more by Jeff Hamilton.


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