WINNIPEG -- An elderly woman approached the coach of the Renegades as he stood on the sidewalk outside the Delta Winnipeg yesterday morning. "Are you Joe Paopao?" she asked him.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied.
"Even though I'm a Bombers fan, I just want to tell you that your team was awesome (Thursday) night," she said. "I think you're going to have a great season."
At first blush, it appears she may be right.
The Renegades put on an outstanding overall performance in their 2004 tone-setting season opener, a 37-25 final score that very much flattered the Blue Bombers.
The victory has to be considered the biggest in franchise history, as well as one of the most momentous by an Ottawa CFL team in at least two decades.
For starters, it was Game 1 in a crucial season and the start of a six-contest stretch against upper-tiered opponents. A loss would have put the Renegades in must-win mode against a strong Toronto Argos team next Thursday at Frank Clair Stadium, and failure to pull that one off would have had them downright desperate when the Grey Cup-champion Edmonton Eskimos pay a visit the following week.
Also, it was just their fourth win away from Ottawa, snapping an eight-game road losing streak. And it was against no less an opponent than the Bombers, who many pick to challenge for the Western Division title.
Just as important, it gives the Renegades some confidence and their fans reason to get excited.
Consider these areas of excellence:
The offence was consistent and relentless, both with and against the 41 km/h wind at Canad Inns Stadium. Quarterback Kerry Joseph had a terrific game. He missed on just seven attempts, using eight receivers while completing 19-of-26 throws for 307 yards. He threw one touchdown pass (a 74-yarder to Yo Murphy) and no interceptions, the latter not an insignificant stat as he led the league in that category last season.
Joseph also proved that when he wants to, he can be the best-running QB in the league. He wound up rushing five times for 50 yards, but went four for 45 in the final quarter, including three runs in an early drive that covered 28 yards that ended in his own, one-yard TD plunge that put Ottawa ahead by 18 and sealed the Bombers' fate.
The offensive line was very good -- especially guard Val St. Germain, centre George Hudson and first-time starter Alexandre Gauthier, as the Bombers have some strong inside defensive linemen. Including tackles Mike Abou-Mechrek and Chris Burns, the O-line allowed no sacks and helped running back Josh Ranek to a 92-yard night on 19 carries. Ranek also pulled in two passes for 63 yards, making him Ottawa's top receiver behind Murphy's five-catch, 117-yard showing.
ROBERTS HELD TO 31 YARDS
Defensively, the Renegades backed up earlier claims by new co-ordinator Gary Etcheverry that they will be fun to watch when they don't have the ball this season. Bombers QB Khari Jones had 430 yards in passing, but 153 of them came after Ottawa went up 34-16. The Renegades registered three sacks (Tim Fleiszer, Tony White and rookie John Turntine), two interceptions (Kelly Wiltshire and Anthony Malbrough, which was also a 55-yard TD) and should have had at least three more picks (Malbrough, Bo Rogers, Syniker Taylor).
They also held the defending rushing leader Charles Roberts to a mere 31 yards on eight carries.
The only criticism of the defence is the fact it took nine of Ottawa's 13 penalties, including four in a row during a Bombers second-quarter drive. The infractions helped Winnipeg get down to the Renegades' two-yard line, but no further. There, Ottawa forced fullback Randy Bowles to fumble and, after George McCullough's recovery, the Renegades went on an impressive drive of their own that resulted in a 25-yard field goal. The turn of events was a huge factor in the outcome.
STOKES A NON-FACTOR
Not to be overlooked was the superb play of the Renegades cover team. Keith Stokes, the amazing Bombers return specialist, managed just 15 yards on five punt returns and 36 yards on five kickoff returns.
As well, rookie kicker Sandro Sciortino ignored the gales to go a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals of 25, 25 and 34 yards.
"It was a big win," said Paopao, "but there are still a lot of areas where we can improve."
Fleiszer, an Ottawa star with three tackles and another two on special teams to go along with his sack, agreed with that assessment after watching game film yesterday morning.
"And I don't think we have the type of people that will be satisfied," said the Montreal native, who talked about repaying the coaching staff for the faith it entrusted in him with the responsibility of being a starter. "We want to continue to improve and be as good as we can be.
"This win means we are on the right track. It's one game out of 18 and there are going to be far more significant tests down the road, but we're headed in the right direction."
Just like the lady told Paopao.