Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeat Elks to clinch playoff spot

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers punched their ticket to the playoffs with a 26-16 victory over the Edmonton Elks on Friday night at Commonwealth Stadium.

The reigning Grey Cup champions have now won seven straight with their best start since 1960.

The game was tied 16-16 entering the fourth quarter following a touchdown drive by Edmonton, but CFL passing leader Zach Collaros put Winnipeg on top for good with a five-yard touchdown pass to Rasheed Bailey.

Winnipeg’s stingy defence has yet to surrender a touchdown in the fourth quarter this season. The unit racked up four more sacks, and they now have 13 sacks in the last three games.

The Bombers suffered a major loss in the opening half when leading rusher Andrew Harris exited with an injury following a four-yard touchdown catch. But Brady Oliveira took over backfield duties and thrived with 105 yards on 16 carries.

Collaros finished 15-of-24 for 210 yards and two touchdowns along with an interception.

Starting in place of Trevor Harris, rookie quarterback Taylor Cornelius completed 17-of-29 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.

Kenny Lawler made his return after serving a one-game suspension and finished with 82 yards on three catches, increasing his league lead total to 785 yards.

Bombers kicker Ali Mourtada made four field goals, while Sean Whyte was successful on both of his attempts for Edmonton.

» Through the Lens: Blue Bombers at Elks
» Boxscore: Elks, Bombers by the numbers
» Watch: Elks tie the game after Ross TD, 2-point convert

Both defences started strong, with each unit forcing quick two-and-outs on their opening drives. The Bombers’ offence found themselves backed up in their own end later in the quarter, and a big sack on second down by linebacker Keishawn Bierria led the Bombers to concede a safety instead of punting from their own four-yard line.

The Bombers came up with a momentum-shifting play on special teams when DeAndre Alford returned a punt 41 yards after receiving a long lateral pass from returner Janarion Grant. Grant fielded the punt and quickly tossed it back across the field to set up a wide open Alford with room to run up the right side.

But Edmonton’s defence responded on the ensuing drive by intercepting Collaros to prevent a would-be touchdown. Defensive back Trumaine Washington jumped the route in front of Winnipeg’s Nic Demski in the end zone to secure his third pick of the season. Washington returned the interception 27 yards, but the Elks were unable to convert the turnover into points.

Winnipeg grabbed the lead on the following drive with a 37-yard field goal by Mourtada to close out the first quarter, but Edmonton went back on top early in the second with Whyte’s 34-yard field goal. Cornelius completed three straight passes on the scoring drive, and he added a nine-yard run that set up the kick.

Collaros and company appeared to be establishing a rhythm midway through the second quarter, but a timely sack by defensive lineman Thomas Costigan shut the promising drive down just outside of field goal range.

But the Bombers picked up where they left off on their next drive when Collaros scrambled to his right and fired a 47-yard deep ball to a diving Lawler, who beat Jonathon Mincy in tight coverage for his longest reception of the season.

Harris moved the ball down to the five-yard line on the next play with a six-yard run, and Collaros finished the drive by dumping it off to Harris for a four-yard touchdown. Harris exited the game with an injury after the play, and Mourtada kicked the extra point to give Winnipeg a 10-5 lead.

Edmonton responded with a strong drive that saw James Wilder Jr. step up with an 18 yard catch-and-run and a 14-yard rush, but Winnipeg held strong to force another field goal. Whyte sent the 25-yard kick through the uprights to cut Winnipeg’s lead back down to two points entering halftime.

The Bombers extended their lead early in the third quarter with a 27-yard field goal by Mourtada, which Lawler helped set up with a 25-yard catch. Mourtada put Winnipeg up 16-8 later in the quarter with a 43-yard field goal.

Cornelius completed his biggest throw of the game on the following drive, completing an accurate strike down the field to Greg Ellingson for a 36-yard pickup.

Shai Ross then finished the drive off on the next play with an 11-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Ross caught the quick play action pass and proceeded to bust through multiple Winnipeg defenders to bring the ball across the goal line.

Dakota Prukop punched in the ensuing two-point conversion with a QB sneak to tie the game at 16 points apiece.

Edmonton’s Aaron Grymes nearly shut down a big Bombers drive later in the quarter, but he was unable to secure an easy interception that had pick-six potential. Collaros capitalized on the second opportunity by connecting with Bailey for a 48-yard gain, beating Grymes with the throw.

Oliveira then gained 13 tough yards up the middle, and Collaros capped the drive off with a five-yard touchdown toss to Bailey. Mourtada’s extra point put the Bombers up 23-16 with under nine minutes left to play.

Edmonton was given a late opportunity after Mourtada missed a 44-yard field goal attempt with under two minutes remaining, but Winnipeg’s defensive front brought pressure and forced a turnover on downs.

Mourtada sealed the victory with a 24-yard field goal in the final minute.

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