Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15), Travis Bond (60) and Jermarcus Hardrick (51) celebrate Nichols' touchdown against the B.C. Lions during the first half of CFL action in Winnipeg Saturday, October 8, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
EDMONTON – It’s been called a turning point and a watershed moment in the turnaround of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Given up for dead late last July, the Bombers made their last visit here to the Alberta capital at 1-4, with Matt Nichols making his first start at quarterback, rookie Taylor Loffler lining up for his first game at safety, and with the human eclipse, Travis Bond, sliding in between Stanley Bryant and Matthias Goossen at left guard for his Canadian Football League debut.
We know the who, the what, and the why behind that contest and what made it so pivotal, but there’s more to what it has meant to this team and the 19-6 run it has been on since.
That game wasn’t just a blip because it set a template for how this team would need to win games; it was bigger than that because it also marked the moment when a bond started to take hold in the locker room.
“The biggest thing is we’re closer now, we’re like a family,” said right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick when asked to compare the Bombers of July 2016 to now. “It’s like nothing can break us apart now.
“Back then, we were just getting to know each other. But now my kids call Matt (Nichols) ‘Uncle’. They call Goose (Matthias Goossen) ‘Uncle’, too. We go out to eat once a week and everyone brings their family.
“Last year a lot of us were in our first year here. We were doing our own thing. But again, now we all go out to eat together. We’re group messaging each other. When Matt takes us out to eat, his family comes. When Andrew (Harris) takes us out to eat, his family comes. Same with Goose, who brings his wife. It’s not weird… everybody has a good time. There’s no hierarchy. We all belong.
“We just trust each other more. That’s the greatest thing ever. Coming here and loving the guys you come to work with… that can be powerful.”
Look, pieces change in this business every week. That’s the nature of pro football. But there’s something to be said about a semblance of roster stability and continuity, which the Bombers have had since the last trip here.
And if you think all this ‘family’ and ‘togetherness’ stuff sounds hokey, well…
“If you think that’s corny, you haven’t played football or team sports,” reasoned Harris. “It means everything. You can have the best players in the world, but if they don’t have the confidence and trust in each other, it means nothing.
“Here’s the thing: when Matt and I took the O-line and running backs out for dinner on Sunday, our families were there and sometimes when you hang out with guys off the field, it kind of feels forced and awkward. But this was literally like hanging out with your brothers. That’s the best.
“I can’t compare this group to any other team other than my junior teams, and we were a complete brotherhood and won three national championships because of that. It’s the key building block.”
“We know each other. We’re comfortable with each other,” Harris added. “There’s a camaraderie that wasn’t there yet last time we were in Edmonton. The jokes now are funnier… there’s a confidence in this team and a trust in this team that is a lot different now.
“Ultimately, those are the two biggest things to be successful – confidence and trust – and we’ve got that locked down.”
The Bombers will need all of that and then some in the final third of their season which includes two trips west – Saturday in Edmonton and the finale in Calgary – as well as two home dates with the B.C. Lions and one against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and a trip to Toronto to face the Argonauts.
A win here Saturday would give them a six-point cushion on their nearest West Division rival and the season series against Edmonton (a loss by less than a touchdown would also give Winnipeg the season series after beating the Esks 33-26 in August).
But, as we all know, this bunch doesn’t look beyond anything than what’s right in front of them.
“We know if we do it right from Day 1 to Day 4 (of practice) to game day, everything will take care of itself,” said Hardrick. “That’s how (Coach) O’Shea has got us thinking right now: Come to work each day and win each period, win each play – worry about the now – and it’s helped. We’re really focused.”
THE 4-1-1: BLUE BOMBERS (9-3) at ESKIMOS (7-5)
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. CT, Saturday, The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium
Radio: CJOB: TV: TSN, ESPN 3
Streaks: Winnipeg: 2W; Edmonton: 5L
Vegas line: The Eskimos are favoured by 3 points. Betting note: The Bombers are 6-1 in their last seven against the spread.
Home/Road: The Bombers have the league’s second-best road record at 4-2 – Calgary is 5-1 – while the Eskimos are 4-2 at home.
Recent history: Winnipeg ended Edmonton’s seven-game winning streak with a 33-26 victory over the Eskimos at Investors Group Field back on August 17th. The Bombers have won two of the last three meetings with the Esks, but prior to that Edmonton had won seven straight head to head.
The weather in Edmonton on game day: Environment Canada: increasing cloudiness in the morning; wind northwest 20 km/h gusting to 40 with a high of 18 and overnight low of 7.
MARQUEE QB MATCHUP
The Bombers went eons between having one of their pivots billed in a game as a showdown between two marquee quarterbacks. Then again, while Edmonton’s Mike Reilly has long been considered one of the Canadian Football League’s elite, Matt Nichols continues to open eyes and drop jaws with the evolution of his game. Nichols, in fact, leads the CFL in their new QUAR rating at 90.2 – just ahead of Reilly at 84.1 – and headed into this week’s action, leads the league with 24 TDs.
Earlier in the week Darvin Adams referred to his quarterback as an ‘animal.’ He went further into detail upon arrival in Edmonton.
“It’s not the big plays that excite me about Matt, because that’s Matt – he can do that,” said Adams. “It’s the things that people don’t notice like coming in in the mornings before everybody gets to the stadium. It’s staying afterwards talking to coach about this and that. It’s throwing the ball out of bounds when he could force it into coverage.
“Those are the things that really show leadership and the quality of quarterback that he is.”
These two pivots have a relationship that dates back to their days in Edmonton as Eskimos teammates, and the Bombers respect for Reilly goes deep.
They also know rattling him is virtually impossible.
“I don’t know that he gets uncomfortable,” said Mike O’Shea earlier this week. “You’ve seen the rugged style of his game and I think that is just part of it. I don’t think he really feels uncomfortable back there. He’ll adapt to whatever situation comes at him and he’ll stand in there and throw the ball to make sure his team has success. I certainly know we’ll try (to make him uncomfortable), but he’s not a guy that gets intimidated.”
The Eskimos were a walking X-ray when these two clubs met last month, minus – among others – Adarius Bowman and Brandon Zylstra and defensive tackle Almondo Sewell, prompting Odell Willis to state the result would have been different if his team had been healthy.
Not only are those guys back now, but they’re also coming off a bye week.
“Every team deals with injuries and guys that are nicked up,” said Nichols. “I think the guys they did have playing were part of them winning seven in a row. I don’t think talent-wise there was a drop off in the guys they had in, it was just guys in some spots that didn’t have a ton of experience.”
COMING RIGHT AT THEM
Bombers defensive back Brian Walker knows how this works: The club lines up veterans Chris Randle and T.J. Heath on one side of their secondary, while Walker and fellow CFL rookie Brandon Alexander man the other. And that means a lot of attention from opposition quarterbacks.
“They’re one of the best receiving groups in the CFL, without a doubt,” said Walker. “They have great chemistry with Reilly. When we played them earlier in the year, their receivers put on a great performance and we know we’ll have to be at our best.
“When Brandon and I were first in the lineup, they were attacking the field side (their side) a lot. Everybody noticed that. But I feel like the chemistry has gotten a lot better with me and B.A. and we’re solidified. We’re just trying to get up to pace with Chris and T.J. for everybody on our defence. We think we’ve improved.”
- Matt Nichols starts for the Bombers and is now 19-6 since taking the No. 1 QB chores late last July. Nichols is the CFL’s top-rated quarterback with a QUAR rating of 90.2. He has thrown for 3,606 yards and 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
- Edmonton counters with Mike Reilly, who leads the CFL with 3,949 yards passing with 20 TDs and 10 interceptions. His quarterback rating is 84.1, second to Nichols.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#84 Ryan Lankford, receiver: He’ll get a lot more offensive snaps with Weston Dressler out with an upper-body injury. He’s also the CFL’s leading kickoff returner, so Saturday night could be busy. But with many fans bemoaning the exit of T.J. Thorpe – he walked away last week after being unhappy on the practice roster – Lankford has a chance to solidify a spot in the receiving corps.
#1 Darvin Adams, receiver: Was named one of the CFL’s Top Performers for his work in last week’s win over Ottawa, a game in which he pulled in seven passes for 195 yards and a TD. He is fourth in the CFL in receiving yardage with 961, a career high.
#31 Maurice Leggett, linebacker: He has been a beast since returning to the lineup after missing two games due to injury. He has interceptions in consecutive games and a punt-return TD against Saskatchewan in the Banjo Bowl.
#16 Taylor Loffler, safety: The Eskimos receiving corps will be a heckuva lot different than the crew they fielded in Winnipeg last month with the return of Adarius Bowman and Brandon Zylstra from injury and Derrell Walker from the NFL.
It was in the game late last July that Loffler made his first CFL start en route to be named a league all-star. He’ll be busy again manning the middle of the Bombers air defence.
“They’re all great ball players,” said Loffler of the Eskimo receiving corps. “They all have great height and so you have to work on looking for those 50-50 balls and try to minimize those.”
The Bombers’ 46-man roster for Saturday’s game features just one change, with DB Robert Porter being added for the injured Weston Dressler.
The Esks have arguably the best D-line in the CFL, especially when adding ends Odell Willis and John Chick to this crew, but get superb push from Sewell and Cummings, who spend last year with the Bombers, from the inside.
In fact, Sewell might just be the best D-tackle in the land.
“He’s as tough a defensive lineman as you’ll face in the league,” said O’Shea of Sewell. “He’s strong. He’s got a lot of intensity and grit. I think it’s fun. I think it’s a great matchups when your O-line is preparing to go against a guy like him. It brings out the best in everybody, right? He’s certainly talented.”
- Nichols was dynamite when these two clubs met in August, completing 32 of 40 passes for a career high 390 yards. The Bombers recorded 38 first downs in that game, the most by any CFL club since Edmonton had 40 in a game in 2004.
It was the second-highest first-down total by a Bombers club since they had 41 in a game against Ottawa in 1981. It also marked the first time in two years any CFL team went a whole game without having a two-an-out on offence.
- The last five Bomber wins have all been wire-to-wire victories in which they did not trail at any point in the game.
- Odell Willis told reporters here Friday he is always chattering at his opponents and will be in the ear of Nichols all game. The Bomber QB was asked how much he hears him during a game.
“I never hear him,” said Nichols, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I was around him for a long time and so I developed this superpower to block out anything he says. You guys want the secret? It’s tough. You’ve got to spend hours and hours in the locker room and out on the field with him to develop that.
“I’m sure there will be talking out there but that’s all it is: talk.”