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Bombers live up to hype with season-opening road win over Lions

VANCOUVER — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers lived up to the hype in their CFL season opener on Saturday night at B.C. Place.

The Bombers rode brilliant performances from running back Andrew Harris, safety Jeff Hecht and receiver Drew Wolitarsky en route to a 33-23 win over Mike Reilly and the B.C. Lions.

“Obviously there were some mistakes here and there on all sides of the ball but overall we kept fighting,” said quarterback Matt Nichols, who threw for 184 yards and three touchdowns.

“We played some good complementary football. All sides picked each other up.

“That’s what’s this team is all about, having each other’s backs. We did that tonight in a historically tough place to win. To come in and beat a good football team, Week 1, obviously that’s the start we wanted to get off to.”

It was an entertaining game with several momentum swings.

Lions star quarterback Mike Reilly, playing for the first time since inking a huge free-agent contract in the off-season, was his usual self, throwing for 324 yards and a touchdown.

But he also threw two interceptions — both to journeyman safety Hecht, who beat out Derek Jones for the starting job in training camp — and the Bombers defence protected the end zone well.

“It felt awesome,” Hecht said. “We won. I played great.

“It was the best game of my pro career on defence, that’s for sure. When I got the starting job, my intention was to come out here and be an impact player. Sometimes you’ve got to be a playmaker and that’s a goal of mine this year for sure.

That bend-don’t-break performance by the defence allowed the Bombers offence to go to work, with Harris rushing for a 148 yards and Wolitarsky nabbing four passes for 43 yards and two touchdowns.

It was a banner night for the Bombers revamped offensive line, which includes three new members — guards Cody Speller and Geoff Gray and centre Michael Couture.

The Lions were only able to sack Nichols twice and the offensive line opened huge holes for Harris.

“We struggled at times but we were able to accumulate some first downs after we got warmed up there,” Harris said.

“I’m real proud of the offensive line. They handled what B.C. was brining in the blitz game and the run game, there were some nice holes there for me. Overall, real proud of my offence.”

The Lions opened the scoring on a Sergio Castillo field goal after Reilly moved the offence from B.C.’s own two-yard-line to the Bombers 11 in just two plays — both long passes to Bryan Burnham.

The Bombers bounced back in the second quarter after Charles Nelson set them up with a 25-yard punt return that moved them into Lions’ territory.

Nichols came very close to getting intercepted on a pass attempt to Darvin Adams in the end zone, but the Bombers receiver broke up the play and two plays later he caught a five-yard TD pass. Nichols showed some scrambling ability to get out of trouble and buy time for Adams to get open.

After cornerback Chandler Fenner was called for pass interference at the Winnipeg 25, the Bombers defence stiffened again and the Lions settled for a 40-yard Castillo field goal.

The Bombers marched right back down the field on their next possession and Nichols capped a 75-yard drive with a 15-yard pass to Wolitarsky at the back of the end zone to make it 14-6.

The lead lasted only seconds.

Brandon Rutley took Justin Medlock’s kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown and Reilly hit Duron Carter — who made a one-handed catch — for the two-point convert to tie the score.

Both teams got one more chance with the football and the Lions capitalized as time ran out. After Fenner was again called for pass interference, Castillo hit a 45-yarder for a 17-14 B.C. lead.

The Bombers defence was good in the red zone but gave up 207 yards — all through the air — and took four penalties for 51 yards in the half.

The Bombers opened the second half with a big play of their own as Hecht picked off Reilly on a tipped ball and returned it 51 yards to the Lions seven-yard line.

“The interception by Jeff Hecht coming out of halftime kind of sparked the whole thing,” Nichols said. “Momentum is a dangerous thing and I think we did a great job of capitalizing on that momentum and answering back when a couple of negative things were happening for us.”

Two plays after the pick Nichols scrambled out of trouble again and hit Wolitarsky for his second touchdown of the game.

“I think you can already see it paying off,” Nichols said of his off-season commitment to becoming a more mobile quarterback. “Obviously they weren’t big take-off runs or anything but that’s not necessarily what I’m going for. It’s just those types of plays where initial reads aren’t there. Extend the play and get a couple of touchdowns that maybe last year we wouldn’t have gotten.”

Reilly wasted no time in giving the Lions the lead back. He led them on a surgical 76-yard drive, hitting Duron Carter and Burnham for big gains before finding Lemar Durant in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown.

However, the Bombers wound up with a silver lining as Marcus Sayles blocked the convert attempt, Brandon Alexander recovered and he lateralled to Fenner, who took it 80 yards the other way for two points.

Instead of it being 24-21 for the Lions, it was 23-23.

“Three-point swing … it’s a good play,” Bombers coach Mike O’Shea said. “They’re smart guys and they know there’s no consequence really to pitching it. They’ve got to keep that ball alive. It was well-executed.”

The Bombers finally got a defensive stop on the next series and drove 72 yards before settling for a Justin Medlock 30-yard field goal.

The defence stopped the Lions again on the next series and the Bombers offence went right back to work with Nichols leading a 66-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown plunge by backup Chris Streveler.

Wolitarsky came within inches of getting his third touchdown but was stopped inside the one-yard line after a 13-yard catch.

The Bombers have a bye in Week 2 and are back in action on June 27 with their home opener against the Edmonton Eskimos.

“This game had everything,” O’Shea said. “We’ll scoot out of here with the two points but we’ve got a lot of work to do to clean it all up. It certainly wasn’t the cleanest game you would have looked for.”