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November 4, 2019

West Semi-Final FYI

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros (8) hands off to Andrew Harris (33) during the first half of CFL action against the Calgary Stampeders in Winnipeg Friday, October 25, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Calgary Stampeders have served up a smorgasbord of tasty moments in their three meetings this year. Make it four, if we rewind further to last November’s Western Final.

And there’s little doubt this Sunday’s Western Semi-Final at McMahon Stadium will be overflowing with more of the same, especially given these two clubs have posted the two best records in the Canadian Football League over the last four years.

The Bombers and Stamps met three times this year – the home team won in all three instances – by a grand total of seven points. And in those three games, five different quarterbacks earned starts: Matt Nichols, Chris Streveler and Zach Collaros for the Bombers; Nick Arbuckle and Bo Levi Mitchell for the Stamps.

It’s early in the week, but we thought we’d take a look at four key numbers/questions/issues that figure to be important and evolving stories leading up to Sunday’s game.


WESTERN SEMI-FINAL: 4 DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

1. THE HARRIS EFFECT

Somewhat lost on the weekend and with the Bombers having a bye in the last week of the regular season is the fact Andrew Harris captured his third-straight CFL rushing title with 1,380 yards – just 10 less than the career high he set last year and accomplished in two less games and 287 yards more than the next best rusher in Saskatchewan’s William Powell.

The fact that Harris is the first running back in Bombers history to win three straight rushing crowns is certainly worth celebrating. It’s just another accomplishment in a season that has been jam-packed with them.

But in terms of the playoffs and matchups, what often gets forgotten is just how prolific he is as a receiver and that’s a factor that could be critical on Sunday if the Stamps work to limit his effectiveness as a runner.

Over his last four years as a Bomber, Harris has 300 receptions – an average of 75 per season – and in his last 10 games vs. the Stamps (including last year’s West Final), he has 58 receptions.

A critical number here: the Bombers are 17-2 in games in which Harris has had 20 or more touches dating back to 2016, and 26-26 in games in which he has had less than 20.

What will be interesting to track is how Harris gets his touches. The Stamps have kept him to under five yards per carry in five of the last 10 games, but the potential coverage matchups he could get as a receiver could be a tasty option for offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice.

2. A 1-2 QB PUNCH?

The last two Winnipeg-Calgary contests featured two dramatically different quarterback performances from the Bombers’ quarterback position. In the 37-33 loss in Calgary back on October 19th, Chris Streveler pushed, pulled and dragged defenders for 85 yards on 15 carries and he took beating in doing so. He also completed 18 of 27 passes, albeit for just 137 yards, with a touchdown to Kenny Lawler and two interceptions – the second on a last-play Hail Mary.

But with Streveler on the shelf in the rematch six days later in Winnipeg, Zach Collaros completed 22 of 28 passes for 221 yards with touchdowns to Lawler and Darvin Adams – the latter a roll-right, roll-left, drop-back-forever-and-chuck-it-to-the-corner-of-the-end-zone play-of-the-year candidate. And with that performance, Collaros not only gave Bomber Nation hope he could breathe life into the passing attack, he also flashed the kind of veteran savvy – especially in leading a late drive that led to the game-winning field goal – that could be critical now that the season is in sudden victory/loss mode.

If Streveler is good to go, the idea of using him in packages to augment what Collaros does well just offers another layer for which defensive coordinators would have to gameplan.

Just to be clear here for some who are asking: it’s impossible for the Bombers to have the two QBs on the field at the same time in a formation, unless the club was to dress Streveler at another position, which is highly unlikely.

3. THE BO FACTOR

Let’s be perfectly blunt here: Bo Levi Mitchell has spent his entire career feasting on the Bombers. He has an 11-3 record in regular season games against the Bombers (12-3 if last year’s Western Final is included). And get this: in his two games versus Winnipeg this year, he completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 687 yards with seven touchdowns and just one interception.

The Bombers defence has thrown just about every look possible at him, from blitzing to dropping a ton into coverage, but it’s difficult to disguise coverages against a quarterback so prolific and experienced as Mitchell.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Bombers’ defence will just knuckle under and hope their compadres on offence can win a track meet against Calgary. And while it might be moot given the fact the Stamps were without some starters in their regular season finale win over B.C. on the weekend, the Lions’ defence could possibly have offered some looks for Winnipeg.

Mitchell was 20-of-38 in that game for 283 yards with one TD and one interception and his 52.6 completion percentage on Saturday night was easily his worst total of the season.

4. A SPECIAL TEAMS DIFFERENCE MAKER?

It’s cliché to say Janarion Grant has a chance to bust a game open whenever he gets his mitts on the ball, but hey, it definitely fits here. So, let’s trot it out here again for effect: Janarion Grant has a chance to bust a game open whenever he gets his mitts on the ball.

Grant played in only 11 games this season, but led the CFL with three kick-return touchdowns – two of them on punts in his league debut against Calgary back in August. It’s worth noting that Grant also returned a missed convert for two critical points in the 29-28 win over the Stamps in their final meeting.

Field position always matters in football, but especially so in playoff games. Grant might not score against the Stamps, but he can help flip the field and that could be massive in determining who is in Regina for the West Final on November 17th.