There’s a certain Groundhog Day/déjà vu feel to any Winnipeg Blue Bombers vs. Calgary Stampeders showdown.
Actually, maybe ‘showdown’ isn’t the right term here. ‘Beat down’ has been a better fit of late.
The two teams line up and, invariably, the script almost plays out the same way whether it’s in Cowtown or right here in River City. It happens whether the games are in heat of July or August, or when the leaves begin turning in September and October.
And, quite frankly, it was so old for Bombers fans eons ago.
Here are the numbers that are sure to make local fans shudder:
- The Stamps are unbeaten at Investors Group Field since its opening, with a perfect 4-0 record that includes wins last year of 36-8 and 25-23.
- Calgary has won seven straight in Winnipeg and, dating back to Week 2 of the 2009 season, are 14-1 against the Bombers, including a 36-22 victory on July 1st.
All of this came up prior to the meeting in Calgary back on Canada Day and was presented to Jamaal Westerman again this week as a theme leading up to Thursday’s game.
“But it’s a theme for who?” said Westerman. “It’s not for the players. It’s not for the coaching staff. And you can never judge what happened last year or the years before that to what might happen this year.
“There’s a stat for everything, for every record. It’s ‘Oh, you’re the best player who came out of school in his second year who is the third brother…’ There’s always something like that. All we can do is think about this year. And this year they ran all over us a few weeks back. We’re not happy about that. We want to come out with passion and win the game.
“We’re not worried about last year or the years before that.”
That, in part, is what makes this team such an intriguing study through the first four games of the season. They are 1-3, but remain steadfast in their belief there is enough talent in the room to compete with anyone. Yes, the force is strong with this bunch. An example: offensive tackle Pat Neufeld spoke yesterday of the three meetings against the Stamps this year and needing to win the next two in case there is a tiebreaker at the end of the season.
“For us, it’s not worrying about what happened in the past or thinking about what might happen in the future,” said Neufeld. “It’s living in the moment and not letting the moment get too big.
“It’s still early in the season, and with us playing Calgary three times, it’s critical for us to get this win in case of the tiebreaker situation. We think we’re just as good as they are. We played them pretty tough last year.”
Still, there are some other frightening numbers that feed into this Groundhog Day angle. Consider that since the 2005 season, the Stamps have not lost in the week following a bye, rattling off 13 straight wins with an average margin of victory of 15.3 points.
And yet, trot that out to the Bombers for discussion and it’s clear it means diddly-squat. What happened last year, or in 2012 or a snowy day in Calgary back in November of 2014 – the Bombers’ lone win in this streak – is of no consequence when the ball is put on the tee Thursday.
“To me it’s always about who is the best team on that day,” said veteran cornerback Chris Randle. “You can take into account the past, but how is that going to help us in this game? We don’t have the past; we don’t have the future. All we have is now.
“That’s how you have to prepare for it.”
FIRST DOWNS, TOUCHDOWNS, O MOJO
There’s no sense complicating things here: the Bomber offence, to a man, has to be much better than it was last week against Edmonton and especially in the Canada Day loss in Calgary. That means more production on first down, it means jumpstarting the run game and – most importantly – it means breaking through that seemingly invisible barrier and crossing into the end zone.
Some stats from the last game against the Stamps to hammer that home: The Bombers trailed 36-7 after three quarters and, after racking up three first downs on the game’s very first possession – which led to that botched fake field goal attempt – Winnipeg had only six first downs in their next nine possessions for a total of just 95 yards.
And last week against Edmonton, offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice said the club had just 13 first down plays in the opening 30 minutes for a grand total of 15 yards. Changing that doesn’t have to come with an effective ground game, but it sure as heck wouldn’t hurt.
“We need to be consistent on first down to get more plays and get more opportunities,” said LaPolice this week. “The more drives we put together can get us in the score zone and we need to make plays. We had one touchdown in the score zone, we only had one trip in the score zone.
“I want to run the football. We look at touches for Andrew Harris because, first and 10, it might be just as easy for us to throw him the ball than do a running play. We always try to measure his touches and he is a mismatch against linebackers at times so we like to get him some touches in the pass game. But I’d certainly like, for everyone’s sake, to get the run game going, too, so we can lean on some people.”
STOPPING THE MESSAM TRAIN
We touched on this earlier in the week on bluebombers.com, but it bears repeating here again: Stamps’ running back/bulldozer Jerome Messam has often rolled over the Bombers like a tank plowing through a field of daisies.
Messam has a 6.6-yard career average vs. Winnipeg, a full 1.5 yards per carry higher than his career number against all other opponents.
“The main thing is being able to gang tackle,” said Bombers linebacker Ian Wild, who is tied for the CFL lead in tackles with B.C.’s Adam Bighill at 29. “A running back who is 260 pounds… that’s not normal for this league. You can’t have one-on-one tackles with him, we’ve got to have multiple guys to the ball. He runs hard, he doesn’t go down easy, and it’s hard to get him down with one guy. And if one guy does tackle him, he’s usually going to drag him for two or three yards. We’ve got to limit that.
“Calgary looks to run the ball to open up the passing game. They understand this is a passing league, but they’ve always been known to load the box and get the run game going first so that it can open up guys downfield.”
BO KNOWS FOOTBALL
He doesn’t wing it like Jeff Garcia or make magic out of a broken play like Doug Flutie. All Bo Levi Mitchell does, it seems, is win. He’s got a gunslinger swagger to him and he’s regularly waltzed through the saloon doors against the Bombers and promptly kicked the snot out of the whole house.
“He’s one of the elites in the game,” said Bombers safety Macho Harris. “He gets the ball to his playmakers. He’s calm, cool and collected back there. He just doesn’t seem to get rattled back there and that’s one of his strengths. He controls the flow of the game.
“We’ve got to get pressure on him. Any quarterback who has guys in his face before he throws the ball… nobody likes that at all. If we can get pressure on him and get him to have happy feet, we can get him out of his routine and that’s key.”
- Drew Willy of the Bombers is 12-20 as a starter in the CFL and 1-2 in his career against the Stamps. His 1,239 passing yards and 72.2 completion percentage both rank second in the CFL, but his 97.5 QB rating is sixth among CFL starters.
- Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell is an incredible 29-7-1 as a starter, including a 6-1 mark against Winnipeg. Just to put those totals into perspective, only two other QBs in CFL history had a better record through their first 37 starts – Edmonton’s Jackie Parker and Bomber legend Ken Ploen, both hall of famers, were 30-7 to start their careers.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
- #2 Khalil Bass, linebacker
All this focus on stopping Jerome Messam puts the Bombers middle linebacker in the spotlight. Ideally, Calgary’s massive tailback could be stopped behind the line of scrimmage, but if he gets past the front four it’s up to the next level of defenders – Bass, Ian Wild and Moe Leggett – to play the roadblock.
- #9 Justin Medlock, kicker
The CFL’s all-time most accurate kicker – with an 86.4 percent success rate – Medlock has been a perfect five for five from inside 40-yards this year and is two for four from the 40-49 yards and one for three from 50-plus. The Bombers margin for success is thin and they need Medlock to be money from the 40 and in, but also a difference maker from long distances.
- #5 Drew Willy, quarterback
He’s been good all week at practice, but now needs to translate that work into the games. He’s hit on six passes of 30 or more yards – by comparison Calgary’s Mitchell has eight passes of 30 yards or more, in one fewer game. Willy is adjusting to a new playbook and new personnel, but this offence also needs to stretch defences more and flash some big-play potential.
#91 Adrian Hubbard, DE
The former Alabama starter has earned more work at the end spot and if he can put together more of the game-changing plays like he did in Hamilton – his sack on Jeremiah Masoli, forced fumble, and fumble recovery were critical in the win – then the Bomber defence could have another force up front.
RING OF HONOUR
The Bombers will add Gerry James’ name to the Ring of Honour Thursday and he joins Chris Walby and Ken Ploen in this special club. James, who played for the Bombers from 1952-62, was an amazing two-sport star who made the club as a 17-year-old and later suited up for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
His story can be found here.
James will be signing autographs at the Duraco Tailgate In The Plaza on Thursday, beginning at 6:15 p.m. As well, copies of his biography, ‘Kid Dynamite’, written by Ron Smith will be available for a special price of $20.
The Bombers have made three changes to their 46-man roster (including two-man reserve), adding DE Trent Corney, SB Thomas Mayo and WR/KR Quincy McDuffie. Coming off are SB Ryan Smith (lower body), DE Shayon Green and WR S.J. Haidara. Smith has been placed on the six-game injured list, but head coach Mike O’Shea indicated on Wednesday his stay there might not be that long.
Mayo replaces Smith in the starting offence while Adrian Hubbard has grabbed the starting defensive end spot opposite Jamaal Westerman away from Green.
“There’s not more pressure. It’s more on me to ignore stuff, that’s really what it comes down to. I’m just trying to be more locked in to the things I can control.” – Bombers QB Drew Willy when asked about the commentary/criticism about his game and whether that means more pressure or having to block out the outside noise.
- All four road teams won their games in the CFL last week – Ottawa in Toronto, Hamilton in Montreal, B.C. at Saskatchewan and Edmonton here in Winnipeg. Dating back to 1946, visiting teams haven’t dominated like they have through the first four weeks of the CFL season.
- Home teams are just 3-12-1 through the first chunk of games, for a paltry .219 winning percentage.
- Calgary QB Bo Levi Mitchell has four 300-yard performances and 12 TD passes in his seven starts against Winnipeg.
- The Stamps have had four different quarterbacks start games against the Bombers dating back to 2008 – Bo Levi Mitchell, Kevin Glenn, Drew Tate and Henry Burris. Over that same span, the Bombers have started 14 different pivots against Calgary – Drew Willy, Matt Nichols, Robert Marve, Brian Brohm, Max Hall, Justin Goltz, Joey Elliott, Alex Brink, Buck Pierce, Steven Jyles, Michael Bishop, Stefan LeFors, Kevin Glenn and Ryan Dinwiddie.
- The Bombers have lost five straight at home and haven’t had a six-game skid at home since the 1996-97.
- Thursday’s contest features two Canadian tailbacks in the Bombers’ Andrew Harris and Jerome Messam of the Stamps. Harris has 434 yards from scrimmage through four games – 178 rushing, 256 receiving – and Messam has 217, 185 rushing and 32 receiving. They also have an association dating back to their days in B.C. with the Lions.
“We were roommates together, kinda came up through the ranks together and competed in the same backfield,” said Harris. “I’m happy he’s found a great home in Calgary and is doing well.
“Whenever you’re going against Jerome it’s bragging rights, absolutely. Last game he sent me a text and we always banter back and forth a little bit. The biggest thing is winning the football game and getting your team into good situations to score, whether that’s getting yardage or not.
“From a personal side of things, you want to compete and beat out the other guy for sure.”