A banged up Buck Pierce and a defence that played like it had something to prove have put a little swagger back in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Playing with extra padding in his flak jacket to protect tender ribs, Pierce threw touchdown passes to Greg Carr and Terrence Edwards and the Bombers won a showdown for first place in the CFL East Division with a 25-23 victory over the Montreal Alouettes on Sunday afternoon.
Fred Reid also ran in a TD as Winnipeg (8-3) moved four points clear of second place Montreal (6-5).
They did it with some big plays early on and with tight defence throughout, holding quarterback Anthony Calvillo to 22 completions on 39 attempts for 258 yards and forcing a turnover on downs on Montreal's final possession.
After back to back crushing losses to the rival Saskatchewan Roughriders, the nickname Swaggerville may be applied once again to the Winnipeg defence.
"We fixed the flat and the bus is up and running again," said defensive back Jovon Johnson.
'It's a huge win in a place where we don't win often' —Bombers coach Paul LaPolice
"It's a huge win in a place where we don't win often," added coach Paul LaPolice. "They're a good team and a good organization and we played a good game.
"Sometimes they made some plays because their receivers are big and we don't have the biggest defensive backs, but the big thing was that we forced them to kick threes [field goals] all game."
Calvillo threw TD passes to Brian Bratton and Jamel Richardson, while Sean Whyte added three field goals for Montreal, which was coming off a big win over Hamilton.
However, the two-time defending Grey Cup champions have lost five of their last eight games and must travel to 7-4 Edmonton to play on Friday night before facing the Bombers again the following week in Winnipeg.
'Not even close'
Calvillo was clearly off his game, overthrowing or throwing behind receivers several times. He was also forced to toss the ball away a handful of times because the Bombers left no one open.
"I give them credit, but my performance was not up to par — not even close," said Calvillo. "I wasn't as consistent or as accurate as I need to be and that's disappointing.
"To come up short knowing you didn't give your best is tough to swallow right now."
The Alouettes had won eight of the previous 10 meetings with Winnipeg, including a 3-0 record last season.
But their aggressive defence was burned early and forced to adjust after Winnipeg forged a 14-0 first quarter lead, to the dismay of most of the 24,642 who turned out on a near-perfect cool and sunny afternoon for football.
Pierce's first pass went 92 yards to the Montreal nine as Cory Watson shook off tackles from Jeff Hecht and Billy Parker before he was finally brought down. Two plays later, Pierce hit Carr for a touchdown 5:16 into the game.
A 37-yard pass to Edwards was followed by a 47-yard TD run up the middle by Reid after Ibrahim Khan opened a gaping hole with a block at 12:44.
The Alouettes lost slotback S.J. Green to a rib injury but managed to chip away at the lead in the second quarter. After Whyte's field goals of 39 and 26 yards, Brandon London recovered a Tim Brown fumble on a kickoff at the Bombers 26.
Calvillo then found Bratton for a 13-yard TD pass.
Montreal tied it at 14-14 with a single, but Pierce led a final drive to set up Palardy's 46-yard field goal with three seconds left in the half.
The third quarter was particularly uneventful until Pierce hit a wide open Edwards for a 39-yard TD strike on the final play.
The final quarter saw Eric Deslauriers fumble but rookie Hecht get the ball back for Montreal on the next play with his first interception at the Winnipeg 20. They settled for Whyte's 15-yard kick to make it an 8-point game.
Calvillo finally mounted a sustained drive — 11-plays and 85 yards capped by an 11-yard TD pass to Jamel Richardson — but the two point convert attempt failed.
Questionable to play
Pierce was questionable to play after absorbing a nasty hit last week, but he stayed in the entire game and completed 20 of 29 passes for 312 yards and ran three times for another 24.
"I'm glad I seem fine," Pierce said when asked about his health after the game. "I know my body and what I can do.
"It was another game for me where I had to suck it up and go out and play and perform. I've done that my whole career. A lot of people look at it as a negative, but I care so much about every opportunity I get. I want to a be sure I take advantage of it. If I'm healthy enough to go out there, I'm going to play."
The opening quarter saw the Bombers' attack either stuffed for little gain or busting huge plays, but Pierce said that was expected.
"We were licking our chops all week," he said. "They play an aggressive style of defence. We knew we would have opportunities to make the big plays when we had the chance and we did.
"A lot of people were counting us out, but we're a good football team. This was a tough, tough win in a lot of ways. It shows a lot of character and growth and strength from this group."
CFL receiving leader Richardson did not get his first catch until the fourth quarter, but then caught four for 65 yards. Watson led the Bombers with three catches for 103.
The four Bombers who missed the team flight on Saturday and had to catch a later plane were all in the lineup. LaPolice said defensive back Deon Beasley left his photo ID at home, while defensive back Jerry-Ralph Jules and defensive linemen Fernand Kashama and Kenny Mainor had trouble with their car.
All were to be fined, but the coach said it wasn't a major issue.
"I don't want people to think this team is out to lunch," he said. "One car didn't get out there."
Montreal coach Marc Trestman said Green is a question mark for the next game, but he may have defensive back Dwight Anderson back from injury.
Middle linebacker Shea Emry was a surprise scratch for Montreal. He was due to return after missing two games with concussion symptoms. Winnipeg was without star linebacker Joe Lobendahn, out for the year with a knee injury.
Als receiver Kerry Watkins caught his 500th career pass, second in team history behind Ben Cahoon's 1,017.