Winnipeg Blue Bombers #15 Matt Nichols during Winnipeg Blue Bombers vs. Visiting BC Lions at IG Field August 15, 2019 (Photo by: David Lipnowski)
Chris Streveler stood up in front of his locker – the one just to the right of the unoccupied stall usually manned by Matt Nichols – and stared into a row of cameras and reporters.
There was obvious concern in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback’s voice. And there was a heavy dose of empathy for Nichols, too, after the veteran pivot had left Thursday’s 32-16 win over the B.C. Lions with just over nine minutes remaining.
As he met the media, Streveler spoke first about his relationship with Nichols and how close the two have become since he first arrived in Winnipeg last spring. Theirs is a relationship that has evolved from rookie-vet/student-tutor to the kind of real friendship football often fosters. Yet, there’s the hard reality of the game, too. And depending on the status of Nichols – expect a health update when the team returns to practice on Monday – Streveler could again be pushed out into the middle of the stage under the bright spotlights.
“I think I’m ready,” began the second-year quarterback. “Everyone on this team does a great job of picking people up and having a next-man-up mentality. So, I’ve got a lot of great teammates, a lot of veteran leadership on this team that I know will make sure not only me, but any young guy having to step into a position, will be ready to rock n’ roll.”
This could be the storyline when the Bombers begin preparations for next Friday’s game in Edmonton and – depending on the extent of the injury to Nichols – for the weeks ahead for a club in first place in the West Division.
Streveler exploded onto the scene last year, guiding the Bombers to a 1-2 record when Nichols was injured near the end of training camp while becoming the first straight-from-college rookie to start a CFL game since Anthony Cavillo with the Las Vegas Posse in 1994. He also started the meaningless season finale in Edmonton, a game in which the Bombers rested a number of starters for the playoffs and ultimately fell 33-24.
Streveler proved to be adept, in particular, in running the short-yardage package in Paul LaPolice’s offence. He threw for 11 TDs against five interceptions while rushing for 441 yards and another 10 scores, becoming the first Bombers pivot since Matt Dunigan in 1993 to hit double-digit touchdown totals passing and rushing.
All of that work last year has Streveler better prepared to step in this year than at the start of 2018 when he started games with just a couple weeks of training camp reps under his belt.
“Any playing time helps you to be ready to play,” said Streveler. “The more reps you get, the more comfortable you get the more ready you are to go play. It’s not only those reps, but the reps I’ve taken throughout the season and everything, you just continue to learn and continue to grow and whenever you get an opportunity, no matter what it is, hopefully you’re ready.”
More on the Bombers’ seventh win of the season in our weekly post-game collection of notes and quotes we call ‘UPON FURTHER REVIEW’…
THE EARLY EXIT OF NICHOLS HAS OVERSHADOWED, TO SOME EXTENT… what was a huge night for Andrew Harris, who rushed 14 times for 73 yards and in the process, became the CFL’s all-time leader among Canadian players for yards from scrimmage – he’s now at 13,377 yards and counting – and also moved into 10th place on the league’s all-time rushing list with 8,477 yards.
Harris has typically been a bit stoic about these milestones while giving his shout-outs to teammates, coaches, family and those who have helped him along the way, but was very emotional when he was honoured with an in-game announcement.
Asked post-game to offer up more superlatives about Harris for the umpteenth time since he became a Bomber in 2016, head coach Mike O’Shea grinned and added: “I’ll stick to the script: he’s good. He’s got more to give, too, so he’s got a lot left for us.”
@andrewharris33 Outstanding achievement!!! Like wine, you’ve gotten better with age. Congrats🏈🍷!!
— Wally Buono (@CoachBrillo) August 16, 2019
“I can’t say enough about Andrew,” added Streveler. “He’s such a great leader for this team on a day-to-day basis. I remember being a rookie last year coming in and coach just highlighting the way he works on a day-to-day basis. It’s just awesome, man. He’s been doing it at such a high level for such a long time. He’s got kind of a crazy story being where he is right now and I couldn’t be happier for him and I know everyone on this team is super proud of him and we’re lucky to have him on our team.”
ONE THE CRITICAL MOMENTS IN THURSDAY’S WIN… was authored by defensive end Willie Jefferson, who intercepted a Mike Reilly pass in the third quarter with the Bombers ahead 15-13 and then subsequently returned it 30 yards to the B.C. 29-yard-line. Five plays later Nichols was sneaking in from the one and the Bombers had turned an early second-half deficit of 13-12 to a 22-13 advantage.
“We’ve seen that before. We’ve been on the other end of that,” said O’Shea, referencing Jefferson’s Pick-6 in last year’s Banjo Bowl as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. “He certainly doesn’t cease to amaze you. He’s very athletic, he’s very smart and I think most importantly, man, does he love playing football. He just enjoys it thoroughly.
“Plus he had a nice sack… I thought the guys were getting after Mike up front pretty well and that certainly helps the game. Willie’s game, overall, was very impressive.”
AND LESS THAN TWO MINUTES AFTER… the Nichols QB sneak score came another critical moment for the Bombers, this time courtesy the special teams. With the Lions backed up to their 24-yard line following a Jake Thomas sack and an incompletion, Bombers defensive back Marcus Sayles got a mitt on a Josh Bartel punt and then scooped and scored.
So within a few minutes, a 13-12 Lions lead was suddenly a 28-13 Bombers advantage.
“It was just an overload to the boundary side of the field and they just couldn’t block as many people, we sent three-four guys on that side, and I was just able to get credit for it,” said Sayles. “I just looked around for (the ball) and then it was right in my hands, so I was able to just scoop it. I’ve had success blocking punts before, so I was used to it.”
Yes, for the record, that was the third blocked kick for Sayles as a Bomber – two punts and a convert attempt – and this has been an aspect of his game dating back to his college days, where he set a University of West Georgia team record with 13 blocks.
THE INJURY TO CODY SPELLER… who was a scratch after getting dinged in the win over Calgary, meant that rookie Drew Desjarlais got his first start at left guard. Desjarlais was the Bombers first pick, fourth overall, in the 2019 CFL Draft.
“It felt natural. It’s just football when you get out there,” said Desjarlais. “I was honoured to have that first CFL start. I was super pumped up, as I am for every game, but it was just time to go to work and prove why I’m here. After that first snap, it was just football.
“It was definitely different to get out here in front of a bunch of fans. It was exciting. But when you’ve got a great group of guys, 11 other guys on offence, rooting for you, it’s a great feeling.”
Desjarlais lined up between left tackle Stanley Bryant and centre Michael Couture and said those two vets helped him immensely.
“Those guys,” added Desjarlais with a grin, “took care of me for sure.”
ANOTHER BOMBERS PLAYER WHO COULDN’T STOP SMILING… in the post-game was linebacker Thiadric Hansen, the Bombers German-born Global player. Hansen had already made more contributions than any other CFL player this season and not only took some snaps on defence Thursday, but made plays.
Hansen had a sack and a forced fumble on Mike Reilly in the second half, and drew high praise from O’Shea afterward.
“All he’s done since he’s gotten here is ask to be coached, ask for specifics, gone out on his own and worked on them, stayed after practice, gone in early, watched more film,” O’Shea said. “So, you get him playing special teams and then he catches up to the speed of linebacker play. Then you say, ‘Why don’t you try to get him coming off the edge?’ and he grabs whoever he can grab and works on his hands. He’s with Willie (Jefferson), he’s with Jackson (Jeffcoat), he’s with Drake (Nevis) – whoever it is – that will give him time to work on his hands. Sure enough, he comes off the edge and caused a fumble.
“That’s one of those abilities – coachability. He just takes whatever you can give him and he tries to apply it as quickly as possible, which is very impressive. Couple that with what we know about him, how strong he is, how strong his core is… he’s generally the hammer, not the nail. He’s a tough kid. Boy, we’re happy to have him.”
We told you about Hansen’s story in training camp and he’s the kind of guy who is clearly enjoying every moment of his pro football experience after almost walking away from the game before the Bombers grabbed him in the CFL’s inaugural Global player draft.
“You can’t let your team down in these situations,” said Hansen afterward. “They’ve all prepared me, they’ve all helped me out, so I wanted to show them I knew my stuff. I don’t see myself as a Global player. I’m just a guy. I’m just competing with everybody, not just the Global players, to become a starter.
“But,” he added, “I do feel there is a weight on my shoulders to help other guys to come to Canada because we’ve got a lot of potential over there. They’re just raw, like myself.”
AND, FINALLY… the Bombers have arrived at the midway point with a 7-2 record, but there’s a sense this club hasn’t yet come close to its ceiling.
That was something O’Shea alluded to when asked to assess his team at the halfway mark.
“We’ve done OK, and there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “We ask them to enjoy it after every win – enjoy their teammates, enjoy the success they’ve had – because the week of work is just that, it’s good hard work, so they should enjoy it when they can.
“But I also feel we need to keep on improving and I believe they know that, too. When we watch the film tomorrow they’ll know that, they’ll know there’s a lot of room for improvement and they should be excited about that. They should be excited that we’re not playing our best football. They will. They’ll want to play better as we go forward.”