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September 17, 2021

3 Storylines: WPG at EDM

EDMONTON – It was over many, many years – decades even – that whenever yours truly typed in an ‘Edmonton’ place line at the top of a Winnipeg Blue Bombers game story, what invariably followed were the gory details of another loss for the blue and gold.

Consider that over a stretch from 1990 to 2015 the Bombers were just 5-22-1 in the Alberta capital – including a loss in the 1993 Grey Cup played here, in the 2002 West Final and, gulp, the most lopsided defeat in CFL playoff history in a 68-7 butt kicking in the 1996 West Semi-final. We bring this up today not as some sort of sadistic opening of old wounds, but as part of the set up the Blue Bombers matchup with the Elks  Saturday at Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.

And here’s why: dating back to late July in 2016 and that fateful victory in which Matt Nichols took over from Drew Willy at quarterback, Andrew Harris scored his first TD as a Bomber and the franchise reversed a 1-4 start with what was the start of a seven game winning streak en route to the playoffs, the club has won four of its last five visits here.

And worth noting: the lone setback in Edmonton over that span came in the regular season finale in 2018, with the Elks out of the playoffs and the Bombers resting Nichols and Justin Medlock for the playoffs, while Harris took only three snaps. There’s more: since that win in July of 2018, the Bombers are 48-25 – second only to Calgary’s 53-20-1 over that span – have posted four straight double digit win seasons, captured the 2019 Grey Cup and are rolling along at 5-1 to start 2021.

Yes, follow a team around for long enough and you can chronicle the reversing of trends, like Alberta once being a graveyard for Bomber squads over the years to now being the site of some significant franchise victories. With that all-over-the-map intro serving as background, here are this week’s 3 Storylines for Saturday’s Bombers vs Elks showdown in Edmonton…

1. ‘NOW PLAYING QUARTERBACK FOR THE EDMONTON ELKS…’:

The Bombers had been quizzed earlier this week on facing Edmonton QB Trevor Harris three times in the next four games and the prospects of defending against the CFL’s leading passer. And then came Thursday’s bombshell that the veteran pivot had been moved to the six-game injured list with a neck injury.

Needless to say, but we’ll say it anyway, that changes things significantly for both teams.

The Elks’ QB depth chart now features Taylor Cornelius as the starter – Saturday will be his first start in the CFL – with journeyman Dakota Prukop as the No. 2. Cornelius did work with Elks head coach Jaime Elizondo in the XFL and he does have a superb collection of talent around him in running back James Wilder, Jr. – the CFL’s leading rusher – and game-breaking receivers Derel Walker and Greg Ellingson.

You don’t have to be Bud Grant to anticipate the Elks trying to pound the ball with Wilder – that was likely part of the game plan even before Harris was injured – and for Edmonton to try and get Cornelius into a groove with a shorter passing game to get the ball out of his hands quickly, much the same way Calgary did last month with Jake Maier. How the Bombers counter what the Elks do offensively will be one of the juicy subplots to Saturday.

2. KEEP BRINGING THAT SMOKE, D:

There is a lot of highway still to travel between now and the Grey Cup playoffs, even in this condensed CFL season. Still, as the Bombers hit the halfway mark of the 14-game campaign Saturday night, they have the chance to go 6-1 for the first time since starting out 7-1 in 2011.

The offence is getting better with each game and the defence, save for one iffy outing in a 30-23 loss in Toronto last month, has been stifling opponents at a historic rate. Consider the following defensive statistics the Bombers currently lead the league in, courtesy the CFL’s stats gurus:

  • Fewest points per game (12.7)
  • Touchdowns allowed (6)
  • Turnover ratio (+12)
  • Two-and-outs forced (32)
  • Turnovers forced (17)
  • Lowest passing efficiency against (73.7)

As well, the 12.7 points per game the Bombers are allowing is the fewest since Ottawa in 1966 (12.6). The Bombers club record, FYI, is 11.4 points per game, set in 1958. Those are gaudy numbers and are the foundation for what will be the continuing run against West Division opponents. The Bombers are in the middle of an eight game stretch against the West, having knocked off Calgary and then Saskatchewan twice. Coming up – three vs. the Eskimos and two vs. the B.C. Lions.

3. KICKER AUDITION, ACT II:

Blue Bombers all-time leading scorer Troy Westwood put it perfectly on CJOB’s Banjo Bowl pre-game show when he suggested replacing Justin Medlock was akin to following Elvis on stage. Some numbers, both for context and to back up Westwood’s tough-act-to-follow analogy:

Marc Liegghio (5-of-8) and Tyler Crapigna (3-of-5) have combined to connect on 61.5 percent of their field goal tries through six games, ranking them 8th in the CFL (Hamilton’s Michael Domagala and Taylor Bertolet are a combined 50 percent). On that note, the league-wide percentage in field goals so far this year is at 76.4 percent, down from 84.3 percent in 2019.

Those five misses by Liegghio and Crapigna are just one short of the six Medlock missed the entire 2019 season, as the future hall of famer went 37 of 43. Just as incredible, Medlock was 14 of 15 in the three playoff wins in frigid and occasionally horrible conditions in Calgary, Regina and then Calgary again in the 107th Grey Cup.

All of this isn’t meant to simply reinforce the difficulty in replacing a legend like Medlock, but also to stress the opportunity here. Ali Mourtada becomes the third kicker to audition for the placekicking gig after Crapigna and Liegghio. He could make a favourable first impression by connecting on his convert opportunities – Liegghio is 5-of-8 in that category, too – and then help up the team’s overall field goal percentage.

Bottom line is this: a championship-calibre team needs clarity at this position. It could still be Liegghio or Crapigna that provides that with some consistent kicking, but Mourtada will get the next swing at the gig.