It's not as if quarterback Tracy Ham and slotback Chris Armstrong had disappeared as one of the Canadian Football League's more feared passing combinations. But in Saturday's 43-7 drubbing of Winnipeg at Memorial Stadium, Ham and Armstrong reprised an act that Baltimore fans took for granted last year.
By teaming up for two touchdowns against Winnipeg, Ham and Armstrong brought back memories of 1994, when Armstrong caught at least two Ham passes for scores in five games. On Saturday night, when sloppy field conditions, dropped passes and untimely penalties delayed the Stallions' rout of the Blue Bombers, Ham and Armstrong restored order.
With Baltimore leading by an uncomfortable 15-7 margin late in the first half, Ham and Armstrong teamed up for a 27-yard touchdown, in which Armstrong beat defensive back Darrius Watson on an out pattern at the goal line, then gathered in Ham's pass in the front corner of the end zone. Then, early in the fourth quarter, Ham and Armstrong hooked up for an 18-yard touchdown that snapped the Stallions' third-quarter offensive slump and put Winnipeg in a 30-7 hole. Ballgame.
Armstrong wound up with four catches for 92 yards. And he created openings for others. Slotback Reggie Perry and wide receiver Shannon Culver each had a touchdown reception -- Culver's came from backup quarterback Shawn Jones in the fourth quarter -- while combining for six catches and 114 yards.
"They [Winnipeg's defensive backs] doubled Chris several times, and that allowed other guys like Reggie and Shannon to come open. We've got too much talent on offense to cover our players that way," said Ham, who completed passes to seven different receivers while piling up 270 yards and three touchdown passes.
Winnipeg's defense was overmatched from the outset. The Stallions' 12 penalties and numerous dropped passes -- even the sure-handed Armstrong dropped one, and Robert Clark mishandled three, including what would have been a first-half touchdown pass -- did more to stall their attack than the Blue Bombers, who are a far cry from the team that played in the Grey Cup game in 1992 and 1993.
The Blue Bombers, with quarterback Sam Garza struggling as the replacement for the departed Matt Dunigan, with their best receiver, Gerald Wilcox, out with a hip injury and with a defense relying on three rookies in the secondary, fell to 1-3 for the first time since 1980. They appear destined for the bottom of the eight-team Northern Division.
Not even a rash of mistakes could keep the Stallions' offense from dominating.
The line, which featured center Mike Withycombe and left guard John James starting together for the second straight week, protected Ham superbly and opened holes efficiently for running back Mike Pringle. He rushed for 97 yards, and would have approached the 200-yard mark had his 70-yard touchdown run in the second quarter not been called back by a holding violation.
For the third straight game, Baltimore did not turn over the ball, as the Stallions (3-1) won their third consecutive game and remained in a first-place tie in the Southern Division with Birmingham, where Baltimore opens a three-game, nine-day road trip on Saturday.
Baltimore's defense, which has yet to play a bad game, carried the heaviest hammer against Winnipeg. The Stallions dominated up front, holding Winnipeg to just 11 rushing yards and 14 first downs, and rush ends Elfrid Payton and Grant Carter took turns harassing Garza, who was relieved by Reggie Slack in the fourth quarter.
Payton set up Baltimore's second touchdown by sacking Garza and forcing a fumble that the Stallions quickly converted into a 14-0 lead. He had three of Baltimore's five sacks. Carter, who played the best game of his rookie season, had two defensive tackles, a special teams tackle, a sack and a fumble recovery. He also knocked down two passes.
The Stallions' only defensive breakdown came on a 60-yard scoring play from Garza to Jamie Holland in the second quarter.
"We shouldn't even have given up seven points," said middle linebacker O. J. Brigance. "We made some mistakes, but the pass rush was great. Payton did a great job on his side, Grant Carter did a great job on his side, and we got a consistent pass rush up the middle."
"There's always things you can work on, but when you hold a team to seven points, that's very, very good defensive football," said Baltimore coach Don Matthews, who has watched the Stallions give up only 13 points in their past six quarters.
Matthews complained about the field, which was reduced to a quagmire by a steady downpour during the first half. The rain left standing water in the middle of the field.
One player clearly unaffected by the muddy going was Chris Wright, who is taking the CFL by storm. All Wright did was produce 284 all-purpose yards, including 182 on 11 punt returns. Had Brigance not been flagged for an illegal block in the third quarter, when Wright returned a missed field goal 50 yards from the Baltimore end zone, Wright would have broken Pringle's team record of 289 all-purpose yards.
"Wright is so valuable on special teams," Matthews said. "He's the home run hitter we didn't have last year. He's remarkable."
NOTES: The Stallions' kicking team continued to perform well. Kicker Carlos Huerta, who missed a 35-yard field-goal try in the third quarter to end his streak of 10 straight, came back to kick field goals of 20 and 28 yards. He is 13-for-16 on the season. . . . Punter Josh Miller was outstanding, punting nine times for an average of 51.8 yards. His 80-yard punt in the first half resulted in a single.