Jamaal Westerman (55) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the Calgary Stampeders at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Thursday, July 21, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
REGINA – There’s nothing to be gained – absolutely, positively, nothing – for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to take a peek in the rear-view mirror and revisit any or all of their past Labour Day Classic nightmares.
They’ve been ugly, after all, dating all the way back to 2004.
Actually, check that… ‘Ugly’ doesn’t even begin to describe the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ annual annihilation of their visitors on Labour Day Sunday.
‘Gory’ fits. So does ‘gruesome’… or just about any term used to describe the action in any horror flick where some innocent victim is mauled/slashed/devoured in the opening few frames just to set the tone of the carnage to come.
Just to hammer that point home, there’s this: in that 11-game Labour Day Classic win streak, the Riders have out-scored the Bombers 389 to 188 for an average margin of victory of 18.3.
So, in terms of entertainment value, especially for Bomber fans, the LDC has been like watching a lion bring down a three-legged antelope – doused in BBQ sauce, for good measure – and then having to endure seeing the beast both devour the thing and pick its teeth clean with the bones afterward.
But here’s the thing as the two prairie rivals get ready to line up for another Labour Day: most of these Bombers have no association with all that losing. Consider that 21 Bombers – exactly half of the 42-man roster – will be wearing blue and gold for the first time in the Classic, 12 of them starters.
“This is my first time hearing of (the 11-game losing streak),” said Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols with a shrug Saturday at the team’s hotel in the Saskatchewan capital. “It doesn’t matter to me. This is my first Labour Day Classic, Winnipeg vs. Saskatchewan. To me, I’m 0-0 and this team’s 0-0 and that’s all we’re worried about.”
“We don’t care about the past 11 teams. That means nothing to us.”
That’s not just a juicy answer, it’s a response that in many ways is the perfect reflection of this team right now. Over the last month or so this Bombers crew has slayed some serious dragons, from not winning in Edmonton in a decade, to ending a six-game home losing streak, to posting back-to-back W’s for the first time in two years.
So, what’s one more?
“None of the guys are thinking about whatever that stat is,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of the 11-game Labour Day skid. “We’re thinking about trying to get one win against a team they know will play us extremely tough. They’re going to be highly motivated, obviously, by their fan base. They’ve assembled a bunch of very good athletes here and we all know their coaching staff is quite capable and they’ve proven it before.”
“We certainly will not take this game lightly.”
The Bombers have been careful all week of buying into the conversation that, given their 1-8 record, the Riders are a gimme ‘W.’ The common refrain, instead, is to keep this four-game win streak rolling into the second half of the season.
Just for the record, the last time this franchise won five straight was the summer of 2011 when it raced out to a 7-1 start… only to lose to a 1-7 Riders squad. Oh, and that loss came on Labour Day.
But, again, that means little to the Bombers right now. They want to build on this across-the-board mojo they’ve got going, this about face since the 1-4 start.
“I just see that we’re putting it all together in games,” said O’Shea when asked what looks different now compared to the first month or so of the season.
“Nobody’s waiting for something to happen. They’re all trying to step up and make plays, which I think is excellent. There’s just a general belief in one another.”
BLUE BOMBERS (5-4) at ROUGHRIDERS (1-8)
Kickoff: 2 p.m. (CT), Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field
Streaks: Winnipeg: 4W; Saskatchewan: 5L
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 4.5
Recent history: The two clubs meet for the first time in 2016, the Bombers having come out on top in last year’s series 2-1, winning their season-opener in Saskatchewan, the Riders winning the Labour Day Classic and the Bombers answering again at home in the Banjo Bowl.
CLASSIC OR CLUNKER?
They still call it a ‘Classic’ here in Saskatchewan, but for those poor souls who have annually made the trek west from Manitoba, this weekend has been full of anguish, frustration and disappointment for more than a decade.
At some point, that math has to change. Doesn’t it?
“It’s a rivalry game, so the records don’t really matter,” said Bombers linebacker Ian Wild. “We’ve just got to come out and play physical, just like they are. They’ve got some good players on their team, they just haven’t been able to piece it together yet. We’ve got to prevent them from doing that against us.”
Every team at every level has a rivalry game. Wild played his college ball at Mercyhurst and their rival was Gannon University. But rivalry games can also be dangerous for players who get caught up in the emotion and occasionally forget their assignments.
That, in itself, is a tough balance to manage.
“You’ve got to play hard, but you’ve also got to stay focused,” said Wild. “It’s about making sure you do your assignment right. Physically we’ll be prepared. But mentally we’ve got to stay sharp.”
“They’re going to hit you in the mouth,” said O’Shea of the Riders. “They’re a tough team. They play extremely physical and they’ve built a fast roster that is going to fly around and they’re going to do it right to the very end. We’ve seen them hold good teams right to the very end.”
MAURICE LEGGETT AND HIS BAND OF THIEVES
The Bombers have forced 18 turnovers in the last three games, six in each of the wins. According to CFL stats guru Steve Daniel, that marks the first time in 27 years (since Edmonton in 1989) that a team has created at least six turnovers in three games and the most by any team across a three-game stretch since Toronto forced 19 during August-September of 2006.
Winnipeg has 33 takeaways in nine games (18 interceptions, five by Leggett; 12 fumbles and three on downs) and at this pace would force 66 – the most by any CFL club since Montreal in 2002 (67).
“We have an identity and if we stay within our identity and keep playing then everything will fall into place,” said Leggett. “We’re tough, physical and we’re greedy. We’re a greedy team… we want all the points, we want all the turnovers.”
WILL THE REAL THE RIDERS ‘D’ PLEASE STAND UP?
The trademark of any Chris Jones’ led defence is the pressure they bring, usually early and often. And yet here the Riders are halfway through a season with just 12 quarterback sacks – last in the CFL. They are also last in turnovers (12), last against the run (101.6 yards per game) and last in yards allowed per game (409.9).
Yes, there’s been a lot of turnover on the Saskatchewan defence, but…
“Coach Jones is doing the types of things he’s always done… maybe toned back a little bit because of the experience. But he has athletes out there. He likes to have big, long, fast guys that are hard to throw around,” said Nichols.
“They’ve gone through a little bit of growing pains but they’re a team that, when you watch film, is tough to score against and they do a good job, especially in the red zone. For us it’s been one of our focuses: to get touchdowns instead of field goals. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
- Matt Nichols makes the 24th start of his career and the fifth in a row since July 28th. He is now 11-12 overall in his career and 6-5 as a Bomber since stepping behind centre in Edmonton in late July. He’s completed 71.7 per cent of his passes this year with six TDs, one interception and has a QB rating of 106.8.
- Darian Durant has 105 career CFL starts under his belt and is 54-50-1, including an impressive 11-3 record against the Bombers and a perfect 6-0 in the Labour Day Classic. The Riders are 0-7 in games he starts (Mitchell Gale was at the controls for their win over Ottawa). Durant has a 93.4 QB rating after completing 66.5 per cent of his passes for seven touchdowns and four interceptions.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#31 Maurice Leggett, LB
He’s been a turnover/touchdown machine for the Bombers through the first half of the season, picking off a league-leading five passes and returning three of them for scores. That’s the most interception-for-return touchdowns by a Bombers defender since Dick Thornton had three in 1963.
#55 Jamaal Westerman, DE
Westerman leads the Bombers with five quarterback sacks through the first nine games, slightly down from the pace he set last year en route to 17. But, consider this: he’s played in 27 CFL games over a season and a half now and has 22 sacks. That is production with a capital ‘P.’
#14 Quincy McDuffie, WR/KR
The Bombers receiving corps has undergone another change this week, with Weston Dressler returning and Thomas Mayo bumped to the practice roster. Somewhat lost during the four-game win streak has been the offensive pass production given the revolving door at this position. What McDuffie brings, in addition to his return skills, is a vertical threat the club has lacked since the injury to Darvin Adams.
#7 Weston Dressler, WR
It’s a cool story, to be sure, that Dressler comes back to the starting lineup just in time for the Labour Day Classic against his old squad. Dressler was in the midst of the most productive stretch in his career when he was injured back on July 28th, having pulled in 18 passes for 129 yards in less than six quarters of work. If he can recreate some of that magic, the Bombers offence gets a big-time boost.
“It’s huge,” said Nichols. “I mean, the guy’s a future hall of famer and is just a difference maker on the field. He draws more attention, opens up other guys, he can win one-on-one battles. He’s a guy that, if he’s on your roster, you want him in the game. We’re happy to have him back.”
Meanwhile, when Dressler was told that Rob Bagg, the Riders’ receiver who lives in Dressler’s house in Regina during the season, wants to win Sunday to have bragging rights, the Bomber receiver grinned.
“Rob’s like a brother to me,” said Dressler. “And any time you’re doing something against your brother you want to win. If we find a way to win, I’ll let him know about it all winter.”
The Bombers have made four changes to their 46-man roster (including two-man reserve) adding WR Weston Dressler, linebacker/DB Teague Sherman, DT Brandon Tennant and CB Terrence Frederick. Coming off are DT Sam Scott (released), WR Thomas Mayo, OL Manase Foketi and DT Jake Thomas (injured).
Winnipeg is not dressing Ryan Smith, who declared himself healthy this week. Two of the many factors that played a part in this: the risk of adding two players from the same position group coming off the injured list and the salary cap. If Smith had dressed this week, his full salary during his stay on the six-game injured list would count against the cap. And because he won’t suit up until next week, his salary while on the injured list is exempt from the cap.
“Every given week there’s a pile of reasons that go into setting up a roster and we just thought it was best this week to sit him down and hold him out again,” said O’Shea. “Do I think he’s ready to go? Absolutely. It’s just the way it played out this week.”
Asked if he has to take money into account when setting the roster, O’Shea added: “I don’t, (GM) Kyle (Walters) does. There are so many reasons that go into setting a roster week by week… who your opponent is… all those things factor into it.”
Bomber defensive halfbacks Kevin Fogg and Bruce Johnson and safety Taylor Loffler vs. Riders slotbacks Naaman Roosevelt and Ricky Collins, Jr.
Fogg and Loffler are rookie-of-the-year candidates and Johnson will be suiting up for his 41st game as a Bomber – every one of them as a starter.
But they’ll be lining up against two deadly pass catchers in Roosevelt and Collins, Jr.
Roosevelt has been spectacular in the Riders’ 1-8 start with 62 receptions for 877 yards and one TD while Collins is 24-399-1. Add in ex-Manitoba Bison Nic Demski and Riders QB Darian Durant has some tasty targets to feed in the middle of the field.
- The Riders are just 4-23 in their 27 games since the start of the 2015 season.
- Saskatchewan has used a league-high 79 players through the first nine games, by far the most in the CFL. By comparison, the Bombers have dressed 62 different players.
- The Kansas City Chiefs have released LB/DE Andy Mulumba. The Bombers first pick, second overall, in the 2013 draft has been in the NFL for the past three years, all with the Green Bay Packers before joining the Chiefs. Asked if he had talked to his agent, O’Shea said: “I’m sure Kyle’s on top of that.”
- Andrew Harris has 14 career 100-yard rushing games in his career, and in those contests the Bombers and B.C. Lions, his previous team, are 12-2. Winnipeg is 5-1 this year when Harris has at least 40 yards along the ground. In Winnipeg’s last four games the offence has averaged 349 yards net, with Harris accounting for 30.3 per cent of that total.
- The Bombers are allowing just six yards against in punt returns, the fewest in the CFL.
“It’s an amazing part of the CFL. There’s the season opener and CFL fans just can’t wait. Then there’s the Labour Day Classic, playoffs and Grey Cup. And the Labour Day Classic is hard to describe how awesome this weekend is for the CFL.” – Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea.