Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Nic Demski (10) celebrates a touchdown during second half CFL action in Regina. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders 23-8 on Sunday, September 5, 2021. (CFL PHOTO - Matt Smith)
The opening act of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers-Saskatchewan Roughriders annual doubleheader was – to borrow a phrase from the late, great wrestling commentator Ed Whalen – a ‘ring-a-ding-dong-dandy.’
And so, when it comes to what to expect for this Saturday’s sequel to the Labour Day Classic – the 17thannual Banjo Bowl at IG Field – well, we’ll leave that to Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall…
“We have to go into the game with the mindset that it’s going to be physical warfare,” said Hall. “We have to be more physical this week and Saskatchewan is going to be more physical. It’s going to be like two heavyweights throwing bombs. You’re going to get knocked down, but you’ve got to get back up and you’ve got to keep on throwing ‘em.”
With that pugilistic analogy serving as the backdrop, here are this week’s 3 Storylines for this juicy showdown between two Prairie rivals in the Banjo Bowl…
1. REPEAT AFTER THEE, REPEAT ON THREE
It’s not easy to win back-to-back contests against the same opponent in the Canadian Football League, and it’s especially so when the two clubs sport the best records in the land like the Bombers and Riders do.
Interestingly, in the 16-year history of the Labour Day Classic/Banjo Bowl dating back to 2004, there have actually been nine sweeps in the series – seven by the Riders (2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2018) and two by the Bombers (2004, 2016).
Worth noting is this is the second of four double headers the Bombers will have with the same opponent in this condensed CFL season. They’ve already faced Toronto twice – splitting the home and home series – and after this battle with the Riders will face the Edmonton Elks in consecutive weeks in October and then the Montreal Alouettes back to back in November.
Dating back to 2014 and Mike O’Shea’s first year as the head coach, the Bombers have been in 13 back-to-backs with opponents, splitting a series seven times, winning the doubleheader three times and losing both ends three times. Asked why it is difficult to sweep, O’Shea said:
“I don’t really have an answer for that. For one, the most important thing is we don’t look at it as the second game of a back-to-back. It doesn’t compute that way for us. Win or lose this game we look at one outcome and the reason why that outcome came about.
“Just like this past game we looked at the reasons why we were able to finish on top on the scoreboard. In any game we look at the reasons why the outcome was that. We don’t spend a lot of time looking at the game before or the next game going forward as to what those outcomes could be or what they were. I don’t really know how else to answer it.
“Whether you play a team back-to-back, or you play them in the first game of the season or the last game of the season you expect there to be some differences in the game plan and how they approach it, even if you win the first meeting of any two game series, you change things up and you add and subtract based on what you saw and what you think you’re going to see.”
2. PUNCH, COUNTER-PUNCH:
One of the intriguing subplots to any doubleheader like this is what to expect in the rematch. The Riders have already spoken this week about working to establish some sort of ground game behind running back William Powell to stop Winnipeg’s dominant front six/seven from getting after quarterback Cody Fajardo.
That is a bit of a double-edged sword, however, as potentially poor first down production only allows the Bombers D to bring even more pressure in second and long situations.
“(The Riders) are who they are,” said Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall earlier this week. “There are some things that they want to do that they didn’t do as well as they wanted or expected. They have a great football team over there, but our focus is on making sure we come out there prepared to play at a high level, at our level, and not wait to see how they’re going to play.
“A couple weeks ago we went into Toronto and we didn’t play very well. We didn’t play to the standards we had set for ourselves and when that happens, you get knocked in the mouth, you get humbled and your chances of being successful aren’t very good. We know Saskatchewan’s going to be better. But the focus is not on them, it’s making sure that we’re better when we go out there and play on Saturday.”
3. MORE BULLY BALL, IF YOU PLEASE:
The Bombers’ Labour Day Classic win was dictated by their work on both points of attack along the line of scrimmage.
Winnipeg rushed for 125 yards to Saskatchewan’s 65, generated three sacks to the Riders one and controlled the ball for almost 10 more minutes. Not detailed in the black and white of the final stats were the number of pressures on Riders QB Cody Fajardo, or how many times he was flushed from the pocket and then contained from rushing himself.
To that end, the back end of the doubleheader with the Argos is a good reference point here and has been a talking point all week. The Bombers followed a solid 20-7 win over Toronto here in Winnipeg with their worst performance of the year a week later in a 30-23 loss in the Big Smoke.
“It’s hard to beat any team twice, especially back-to-back,” said Bombers safety Brandon Alexander. “We said that earlier in the season with Toronto and you saw what happened there. So, we can’t let another thing like that happen again. We have to make sure we’re on our stuff and making sure that we have the same energy that we’ve been having for these games.
“You do all of the things you’re supposed to do in football well – all the small things – everything else is going to take care of itself. In the Toronto game we didn’t take of the small things. We’ve got to take care of the small things in order for us to have a chance to win this game.”