Michael Bishop didn’t have a big smile on his face, but he was relieved to lead the Winnipeg Blue Bombers out of the CFL basement with a 29-24 win Saturday night over the Toronto Argonauts.
Bishop threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns as the Bombers barely hung on to halt a three-game losing streak and up their record to 4-8. Toronto is last in the CFL at 3-9.
“Thank God for giving me the opportunity to put up with all the negativity,” Bishop said of weeks of criticism that had been hanging over his head.
“People texting my cell phone with all kind of crazy stuff. I can handle it. When I’m out there on the field and I know that my teammates are battling with me, it’s a whole different ball game.”
It was a battle down the stretch. The Bombers led 17-6 at halftime and 29-9 after three quarters, but nearly squandered the advantage in a nerve-rattling fourth.
Argos linebacker Kyle Jones sparked the comeback, blocking a Mike Renaud punt. Andre Durie picked up the ball at Winnipeg’s three-yard line and ran in for the TD at 1:33.
Justin Medlock then hit a 78-yard single to close the gap 29-17 and Toronto quarterback Kerry Joseph, who replaced starter Cody Pickett late in the third quarter, pulled off a fake and ran in his TD at 8:12 to make it 29-24.
Despite catching two more breaks, the Argos couldn’t close the gap any further.
First, Bombers kick returner Jovon Johnson ran a punt back 57 yards for a TD, but the score was negated by a penalty. Bishop then completed a pass to Adarius Bowman, but he fumbled it and Toronto linebacker Willie Pile recovered.
The Argos couldn’t convert on either of their final two possessions, with Joseph’s last pass of the game knocked to the turf with 33 seconds left.
Winnipeg hosts Edmonton (6-6) on Friday.
“I’ve never wavered from this team and I’m not going to waver from this team and how we’re approaching things here,” Bombers head coach Mike Kelly said.
“We let things get a little bit away from us for a period tonight, but our guys persevered. And that’s what we have, are tough men that have no quit in them.”
Joseph, who lost his starting job to Pickett six games ago, said it took him a bit of time to shed some rust.
“Once we got into a rhythm we started moving the ball pretty well,” Joseph said. “You’ve just got to give Winnipeg credit, they made the plays when they had to.”
Toronto head coach Bart Andrus said he changed to Joseph to let Pickett get a different view from the sidelines, but didn’t return to him when Joseph started moving the team.
He expects to start Pickett when the Argos host Montreal on Saturday.
He’s not going to dwell on being at the bottom of the league and doesn’t think his players will, either.
“Confidence-wise, they showed they have the ability to play with confidence,” Andrus said.
“They have the ability to play and fight till the end of a game … but we have yet to have that game where we’re playing well in all three phases.”
Kickers accounted for all the points in the first quarter, with Renaud’s 56-yard single, Medlock’s 27-yard field goal and pair of Alexis Serna field goals from 53 and 32 yards. Serna’s longest this season is 54.
Medlock and Serna exchanged field goals early in the second quarter and then the Bombers put together their best TD drive in a long time.
Bishop confidently engineered a seven-play, 78-yard march that ended with Fred Reid’s TD catch to give Winnipeg a 17-6 lead at 12:18.
The league’s leading rusher, Reid finished with 16 carries for 60 yards. In Winnipeg’s three previous games, he’d been held to a total 131 yards on 34 carries.
Toronto’s first series in the third quarter ended with a fumble by running back Jamal Robertson. Bombers linebacker Ike Charlton recovered the ball at the Argos’ 40-yard line, but Winnipeg couldn’t convert after Serna missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt.
Toronto penalties, including roughing the passer and unnecessary roughness, helped propel Winnipeg to its second TD.
Bishop tossed the ball to Bowman for his third TD catch of the season and a 24-9 lead at 5:52.
Joseph was intercepted by Winnipeg defensive back Lenny Walls on his second play after replacing Pickett, but Winnipeg was again unable to turn the gift into any points.
Joseph completed 11 of 21 passes for 123 and two interceptions. Pickett was 13-of-22 for 98 yards.
The 2007 CFL most outstanding QB was intercepted a second time in the first minute of the fourth quarter by safety Ian Logan. The turnover sparked shoving and fighting on both sides. Four players were ejected for objectionable conduct: Bombers linebacker Siddeeq Shabazz and defensive lineman Dorian Smith and Argos offensive lineman Rob Murphy and linebacker Zeke Moreno.
Bomber receiver Otis Amey, playing in his first CFL game, led all receivers with 118 yards off six catches.