By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Kenny Lawler may have caught two touchdown passes, but running back Brady Oliveira felt he really scored big after the Blue Bombers defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 19-6 Thursday in the 2021 CFL season-opener.
Filling in for fellow Winnipeg native and injured star Andrew Harris (calf), Oliveira turned heads in his professional debut by rushing 22 times for 126 yards.
“Lived out a childhood dream,” Oliveira, 23, said. “Me being from Winnipeg, I used to come to games here as a kid, sit in the stands and watch a game, and now that I’m able to experience it and go out there and soak it all in.
“I had so much fun out there tonight. It was truly amazing, a game I will remember for the rest of my life and this is only the beginning right now.”
Even Hamilton defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis had praise for Oliveira, who suffered a season-ending broken ankle early in the 2019 season.
“He had a great game, man,” Davis said. “For his first professional game in the CFL, he really held his own. Ran hard, fought. He had a quality game. I gave him kudos and respect after the game and I told him, ‘Keep pushing, man, you can be a real star in this league.’”
With 29,376 fans in attendance, the game marked the largest crowd at a sporting event in Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the world last year and cancelled the 2020 CFL season. This season is shortened from 18 to 14 games.
The fully vaccinated fans at IG Field were pumped for the rematch of the last league game held 620 days earlier, a 33-12 Grey Cup victory for the Bombers over the Ticats on Nov. 24, 2019, in Calgary that ended Winnipeg’s 28-season championship drought.
Prior to kickoff, the Bombers played a video of highlights from their championship run – the franchise’s first title since 1990 – and unveiled their Grey Cup banner while RCMP officers held the trophy on the field.
It was a bonus celebration for jubilant fans, who were allowed to fill the stands after showing proof of their double vaccinations and didn’t have to wear masks.
“It’s just super fun and it’s been a long time coming,” said Adam Johnson, 41, who was sporting a Bombers jersey and no mask in a crowded concourse at halftime. “When they announced about a month ago that they were going to go full capacity, no masks, I think a lot of people jumped on it.”
The crowd was short of the stadium’s 33,234 capacity.
Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros completed 18-of-28 pass attempts for 217 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“To be able to come together and get things done tonight for the city of Winnipeg, and for the fans to be able to celebrate what we accomplished in 2019 tonight, it’s amazing that we’re here tonight and that we got here,” Collaros said.
Hamilton pivot Jeremiah Masoli was playing in his first game since late July 2019, when he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in a Week 7 game against the Bombers. He was 24-of-41 for 242 yards, one TD and two interceptions.
Winnipeg’s scoring came from Lawler’s TD catches of 25 and 28 yards. New Bombers placekicker Tyler Crapigna, signed last month after being released by the Montreal Alouettes, made his two convert attempts and connected on a 15-yard field goal. Hamilton also conceded a safety.
Ticats receiver Jaelon Acklin had a 37-yard TD reception. A two-point convert attempt was no good.
“We just flat out weren’t good enough,” Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer said. “Too sloppy. We didn’t string together enough first downs. We took penalties in the special teams. We didn’t get off the field on second down. That’s a recipe for a loss.”
Winnipeg led 7-6 after the first quarter and 14-6 at halftime.
Hamilton scored on its first possession after Masoli connected with Acklin in the end zone at 4:43. The 89-yard drive was aided by a 23-yard catch by Brandon Banks, the reigning CFL most outstanding player. Masoli couldn’t connect with Marcus Tucker for a two-point convert pass.
Lawler caught his first TD in the end zone at 12:09 of the first quarter. Receiver Nic Demski had boosted the 79-yard drive with a 49-yard catch-and-run gain.
Lawler then hung onto a 28-yard pass in the end zone at 13:41 of the second quarter.
“Kenny’s just an amazing talent in general,” Collaros said.
Hamilton conceded a safety at 6:58 of the third as Winnipeg’s defenders turned up the heat and boosted the lead to 16-6.
Crapigna capped off an 11-play, 71-yard drive with his field goal at 7:40 of the fourth quarter.