WINNIPEG—A sold-out crowd of 33,500 fans packed Investors Group Field Thursday for the facility's regular-season debut, and they almost managed to urge the underdog Blue Bombers to victory over the Montreal Alouettes. The crowd roared throughout the evening, knocking the Alouettes somewhat off their game, and the Bombers held a nine-point lead inside the fourth quarter.
In the end, though, all the noise in the world couldn't quite keep the Alouettes down, as a 14-0 fourth quarter featuring a long S.J. Green touchdown and two field goals and a punt single from Sean Whyte gave Montreal a 38-33 victory and spoiled the Bombers' opening of their new home.
Losing like that was a tough pill to swallow for the Bombers' players. Veteran offensive tackle Glenn January said this one particularly hurt given how special this game was.
"This is not in any way, shape or form the way you want to start a season, especially not to christen a new facility," he said. "I hate losing, and maybe I'm in the wrong profession because you have to learn how to lose, but hopefully we won't have too many more nights like this down the road."
January said the fans delivered the greatest atmosphere the team could have asked for. "It was electric, it was fantastic," he said. "Our fans are absolutely the best in the league and I think they compete for the best in North America. They do a great job of coming out and supporting us."
January said the Bombers' fans are going to be crucial to the team's success this year. "There's no question in my mind they're our biggest asset," he said. "We're very fortunate to have them on their side. This is really a place that nobody wants to come and visit, and it has nothing to do with the nightlife or restaurant selection, it has to do with the fans that make their lives a living hell whenever they step between the sidelines."
Defensive end Alex Hall said the team was fired up to give those passionate fans a win.
"We wanted to bring energy, we wanted to give the fans a good show," he said. "I just feel bad for the fans and for the city as a whole."
Hall said the fans' energy was a crucial part of what got the Bombers so close, helping them recover from a 14-0 lead Montreal took within the first five minutes off a Chris Jennings touchdown run and a 78-yard punt return touchdown from Tyron Carrier.
"The fans, even at the old stadium, brought a lot of energy, but definitely tonight, with the new stadium, the new atmosphere, it was loud, a lot of ruckus," he said. "We definitely appreciate the fans coming out."
Winnipeg fans were also renowned for bringing the noise at the old Canad Inns Stadium, but details of the new field's construction, including closed-off end zones and covers over the side stands, help to further reflect noise towards the field. Hall said that was noticeable.
"It was a little louder, you can definitely tell," he said.
That noise certainly helped the Bombers on defence, as they were able to sack Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo four times and intercept him once while holding him to a 57.1 per cent completion rate. Calvillo still threw for 264 yards and a touchdown, though, and he was crucial in the Alouettes' late comeback, finding Green on a 42-yard touchdown bomb at 4:43 of the fourth quarter to pull Montreal within two points, then leading two late drives (one aided by a controversial 49-yard pass interference call on Jovon Johnson) to set up Whyte's vital field goals. Hall, who had one sack and three tackles on the night, said the team was happy to get some hits on Calvillo, but it obviously wasn't enough to stop him.
"Of course we want to do more of that," Hall said. "He's a good player. We've just got to put pressure on him."
Calvillo's seen a lot over his 20 years in the CFL, and he said this was anything but an easy game for his team, despite the Alouettes being widely predicted to have a much stronger season than the Bombers.
"Some things, you cannot take for granted," he said. "You're on the road in the CFL playing against a team in a brand-new stadium. Emotions were riding very high, but the veteran leadership really took over. We didn't give up in that third quarter when we were down, we kept fighting and fighting, but man, to come back and win like this, it's exciting."
The game was full of back-and-forth swings, as the Alouettes dominated the early going and led 23-13 at the half, with 183 yards of net offence and 12 first downs to Winnipeg's 104 and four. The Bombers fought back hard in the third quarter, though, scoring 20 points in that frame to Montreal's one to take the lead. Head coach Tim Burke said that comeback said good things about the team's mental toughness.
"I think we just settled down and played a little more mature than we did in the past," he said. "That maturity allowed us to come back."
That comeback didn't last, though, which frustrated Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce.
"We were definitely in position midway through the fourth and we let it get away," he said.
Pierce said the team wishes they could have done more for the fans who came out to support them.
"It was a great atmosphere: I'm so proud of our fans and everything they do for us," he said. "We wanted to send them out of here on a better note, and we'll be better next time. ... We'll be better, I'll be better, and we'll move on."