REGINA – Demerio Houston will blow out 27 candles on his birthday cake on Labour Day Sunday and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers cornerback has an excellent idea for a wish.
“I’m excited,” began Houston Saturday afternoon just outside the team’s locker room at Mosaic Stadium. “This is my first (Labour Day Classic) and (Sunday) is my birthday so that’s also exciting – to play the game I love on my birthday.”
And his wish?
“My wishes are two interceptions and one of them to be a Pick-6,” he said with a grin. “But, also, to win the game. That’s most important.”
Yeah, that would work on a couple of levels.
The Blue Bombers are seeking their third straight Labour Day Classic win against their arch-rivals in the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday and, in the process, would also clinch a playoff spot while improving to 10-2.
They’ll face a Rider squad coming off a bye that was preceded by a victory over the B.C. Lions.
“It’s a lot of fun, for sure,” said quarterback Zach Collaros of the Labour Day Classic/Banjo Bowl doubleheader against the Riders. “We know what the home crowd brings here, and they make it tough to play in, but ultimately, it’s a great environment.”
“And then heading back to the Banjo Bowl in front of our home crowd is always an amazing experience. It’s probably the best back-to-back you have in this league, and we really look forward to it.”
Collaros carries a perfect 6-0 record in Labour Day Classics, having gone 3-0 as a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 1-0 in his season with Saskatchewan and 2-0 since becoming a Blue Bomber.
His six Labour Day Classic wins ties him for first among CFL pivots all-time with some legends in Bernie Faloney, Danny McManus, Darian Durant, and Bo Levi Mitchell.
“They all stick out,” Collaros said. “Obviously, the first one for me was a big one in my career – we opened Tim Hortons Field there in Hamilton. It was my first one playing in the Labour Day Classic and that was an awesome experience. Through the years they’ve all been really special, culminating with the previous two to this one and being part of this organization. Being on the winning side has been a lot of fun.”
More sub-plots and storylines for Blue Bombers fans to keep an eye on in our Game 12/Labour Day Classic Playbook…
MORE LDC MEMORIES:
Mike O’Shea has played with both Hamilton and Toronto on Labour Day, coached in it during his days as an Argonaut assistant and now heads into his eight as Blue Bombers boss.
He doesn’t do warm and fuzzy often, but he does love this league.
“I’ll never forget my first game in a Toronto uniform stepping on to a Labour Day field in Hamilton. Obviously, I heard it and felt it,” he said. “But, I mean, I really appreciated it.
“It lets you know the CFL is alive and well.”
A NEW FACE… AGAIN:
The Blue Bombers will be facing another fresher face behind centre in Roughrider QB Jake Dolegala, who began the season behind both Trevor Harris and Mason Fine but has been promoted to QB1 because of injuries.
This will mark the third time in 12 games the club has lined up across a newer QB, after facing Ottawa’s Dustin Crum – and losing in OT – then Tre Ford in a come-from-behind win over Edmonton.
Asked about the challenge of that, O’Shea offered this:
“I don’t know that they are (challenges). I mean, the system is the system, the weapons they have around are the weapons they have around them. They’re going to try to utilize their playmakers and get the ball in their hands. I don’t know that you need a full year’s worth of film to study a guy. You just watch the film, pick up on anything that may be different and go from there.
“Either side, offensively or defensively I don’t know if you change a bunch.
“He’s tall, he’s got a strong arm and can throw the ball down the field. He’s good. He led them to a win.”
The Blue Bombers have made two lineup changes, as we indicated in our Game Preview and one features the return of versatile DB Jamal Parker, who will made his 2023 debut.
“Terrific athlete. Very competitive,” said O’Shea. “Hard-nosed. His physical stature doesn’t tell the story – he’s a hard-nosed football player and he’s been patient waiting for his turn again. He’s played good football for us so we’re excited to have him back on the field.”
TALK IS CHEAP:
The Blue Bombers have practised with fake crowd noise pumped into their sessions all week, but there is no replicating the sounds on Labour Day Sunday, or a week later in the Banjo Bowl.
“Sticking as one is really the most important thing and trying to have everyone on the same page because when there is lot of noise it’s hard to hear the snap count, it’s hard to hear things in the huddle,” explained Kenny Lawler. “Sask is relying on that to get some mess ups and MAs (missed assignments) on us.
“We’ve just got to stay together and play as a unit. If we do that, that’s how we find success in a hostile environment.”
“You definitely try to eliminate (the noise) but, if anything, you try to be conscious of it because you’ve got to lock in a little bit more,” added Dalton Schoen. “You’ve got to be more in tune with the cadences and communication is sometimes non-verbal. So, it almost raises that level of focus.
“Our receiver group and our offence as a whole does a good job of working through that all week with the crowd noise being piped in and coming up with little signals to communicate – especially us as receivers because we’re so spread out and you’ve got to be in tune with Zach and his cadence. You’ve got to raise your level because you won’t be able to hear anything.”
And one more on this from our conversation earlier in the week with right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick. As he explained how to handle the noise, we asked him how he knows when the ball is going to be snapped.
“I don’t. It’s the hardest thing in the world because the guy (defensive end) is over there and I’m trying to look at the ball,” Hardrick explained. “He’s 300 pounds and I can’t see the ball. I’m trying to look at him and look at the ball… it’s just three hours of what you sign up for. I wouldn’t give a grade on it, but it’s what you sign up – the silent count.”
Blue Bombers defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat vs. Roughriders offensive tackles Eric Lofton and Colin Kelly.
The Riders line up Dolegala at QB and he’s as tall as a grain silo at 6-7, giving him the ability to easily scan the defence over the line of scrimmage. Winnipeg’s veteran ends will look to squeeze the pocket from the edges and bring the hammer down when they can get to Dolegala or gets hands up to take away throwing lanes.
Lofton is a familiar face, having spent last year with the Blue Bombers and making one start in Week 19 when the club had already clinched first place and opted to rest personnel.
WHAT A ‘W’ WOULD MEAN:
For Winnipeg: A win would be the Blue Bombers sixth straight and keep them atop the West Division with a 10-2 record. More importantly, it would clinch a playoff spot for a seventh straight season.
It would also be the club’s third straight win on the Labour Day Classic, the longest winning streak in this iconic game since Winnipeg won four straight from 1978-82 (the Blue Bombers did have a bye on Labour Day weekend in 1981).
For Saskatchewan: The Riders would move to 6-5 and could make some believers with a second straight win over a West Division powerhouse, having previously knocked off B.C. before their bye week.