Ricky Ray and Jason Barnes were good when they had to be.
Ray threw three TD passes — including a 37-yard strike to Jason Barnes with 2:06 remaining — to rally the Toronto Argonauts past the hard-luck Winnipeg Blue Bombers 25-22 on Wednesday night.
Toronto (2-2) needed Ray’s heroics to pull out the win over the injury-plagued Bombers (0-4), who lost receiver Terrence Edwards, safety Ian Logan and defensive lineman Brandon Collier in the first half. The defending East Division champions have lost 10 starters — including quarterback Buck Pierce — to various ailments this year.
After missing a wide-open Barnes earlier in the drive, Ray hit the streaking receiver for Barnes’ first TD catch of the season before 22,485 spectators on a glorious evening with the Rogers Centre roof open. And the Barnes’ score woke the crowd from its second-half slumber as the only previous scoring in the final two quarters were three Justin Palardy field goals that put Winnipeg ahead 22-18.
“The whole second half we couldn’t get into a rhythm, we just weren’t putting any drives together,” Ray said. “We ran the same play a couple of times earlier in the game and they were doing a good job defending it so we put him on a little up-and-go move and just missed that.
“To be able to have a second chance with him coming across the field wide open was a big play for us.”
Barnes, whose four catches for 72 yards all came in the second half, scored on a play that Argos head coach Scott Milanovich drew up just last week specifically for Winnipeg. Ray, who was 23-of-35 passing for 325 yards with one interception, said he was saving the call for just the right time.
“We wanted to save it for the score zone,” Ray said. “Coach Milanovich saw it on film. When they bring a guy down and have a back go to the flat out of the backfield their defensive backs tried to switch it, so we had JB stutter like he was going to block and then go run his route to the other hash. And sure enough, they switched it and he got wide open.
“It was a great design and great call.”
A 45-yard kickoff return by Demond Washington put Winnipeg at its own 52-yard line with 1:55 remaining but quarterback Alex Brink came up a yard short on a third-and-10 run. The Bombers got the ball back at their 14-yard line with 37 seconds remaining, however Brink couldn’t put Palardy in position to force overtime.
“Well, it wasn’t pretty but I’m proud of the way we hung in there,” said Milanovich. “Our defence didn’t play well in the first half but in the second half played extremely well and kept us in that football game.
“Ricky was unflappable. We don’t play well the entire second half . . . and he just has the poise to stand in there, make a good play fake and deliver a dime to Jason Barnes for the touchdown. Those are the things we expect from him.”
Milanovich said the improved defensive effort came after defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones dressed down his unit at halftime.
“Chris was very upset at halftime at how well they ran the ball and he challenged them,” Milanovich said. “He got after them as much as I’ve ever seen a coach get after somebody and he challenged them and our guys stepped up and did a much better job.”
Toronto’s kick-cover teams also played much better against Winnipeg after giving up long missed field goal returns for touchdowns in two straight contests.
The loss tarnished a solid effort from both Palardy — he had five field goals — and Winnipeg’s defence. The Bombers will literally limp back to Manitoba and prepare for their first home game of the season next week against Edmonton.
Adding insult to injury, Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice couldn’t effectively communicate with his coaches upstairs the entire game due to a broken headset.
“We kept it close most of the game but turned it over at the wrong times,” LaPolice said tersely. “We had some young guys who hadn’t played much before.”
Logan, whose injury wasn’t immediately revealed, could only shake his head in disbelief at Winnipeg’s every-growing list of walking wounded.
“It’s definitely up there,” Logan said. “It’s strange to see so many.
“We came out of training camp with so few but now....”
Both teams were playing on a short turnaround. Winnipeg came in following a 42-10 loss to Edmonton on Friday while Toronto dropped a 36-27 defeat in Hamilton on Saturday. And it showed, especially on offence as neither club was able to mount a consistent attack.
Toronto dodged a huge bullet late in the third when Dustin Doe returned an interception 33 yards to the home side’s 15-yard line. But after two incompletions the Bombers had to settle for Palardy’s 22-yard field goal that cut the Argos’ lead to 18-16 at 11:59.
Cory Boyd and Chad Owens — who had his first receiving TD since 2010 but also lost two fumbles — scored for Toronto. Newcomer Swayze Waters, replacing injured veteran Noel Prefontaine (hip), booted the converts, a field goal and single.
Brink, starting in place of Pierce (foot), had Winnipeg’s touchdown. Palardy also added the convert.
Brink was just 9-of-34 passing for 185 yards and two interceptions and was continually pressured by the Argos, who posted three sacks. Brink, who will start against Edmonton, said the Bombers’ offence simply didn’t get it done.
“The game was so back and forth . . . we had our opportunities but I have to find a way to make it count,” he said. “Give our guys credit, our defence kept us in it and special teams gave us position.”
NOTES — Boyd has scored touchdowns in all four of Toronto’s games so far this season . . . Pierce has missed 16 of the 40 games Winnipeg has played since he joined the squad in 2010 . . . This game was the Argos’ 100th at Rogers Centre. Toronto came in with a 109-89-1 mark . . . . This is the first of three matchups this season between Toronto and Winnipeg . . . This is the last of four straight road games to open the season for Winnipeg, which will host Edmonton on July 26. . . . Toronto’s scratches were receiver Maurice Mann, tailback Chad Kackert, linebacker Marcus Ball and defensive tackle Joseph Cohen. Receiver Kurt Adams, fullback Jordan Matechuk, defensive end Rodney Fritz and offensive lineman Chris Kowalczuk didn’t dress for Winnipeg.