September 8, 2023


It’s not about retribution or exacting some sort of revenge. No, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have bigger plans for the Banjo Bowl in the wake of the overtime loss in the Labour Day Classic that featured a headbutt felt across the Prairies.

And those plans are simple: it’s time to get their game right again.

“This is not a payback game. This is not a revenge game or anything like that,” said defensive end Willie Jefferson Friday. “This is just another game for us to come home in front of our crowd, play a great game of football – offence, defence, and special teams – and beat up on another Western opponent. It just so happens to be Saskatchewan back-to-back. It always does feel a little bit better when we beat up on Saskatchewan at home… wish we could have got the ‘W’ last week.

“(It’s about) two points and we didn’t play our best game when we had the opportunity to because we left a lot of plays on the field offensive-wise, we left a lot of plays on the field defensive wise, we left a lot of plays on the field special-teams wise.”

So, as much as the head butt by Riders defensive end Pete Robertson on Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros last Sunday – and his subsequent one-game suspension – appeared to have dumped gasoline on a rivalry game which is already always raging, that particular narrative instead seems to be fizzling out.

Collaros confirmed Friday, in fact, that Robertson reached out to him this week.

“We spoke and it was good,” said Collaros.  Like I said earlier in the week, I don’t think Pete’s a dirty player. He just apologized and said, ‘I kinda just blacked out in that moment there.’

“Things happen and I said to him what I said earlier in the week – what I said (after the game) wasn’t really trying to take a shot at him or him losing money (with a suspension), but it more of a big-picture thing and how I feel the league needs to crack down on some of that stuff.”

Indeed, after Collaros met with the media on Wednesday following the club’s first practice – and after the news of the Robertson suspension – the talking points since have all been more reflective.

“I think it’s been handled extremely well,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “You meet the day after, and you go through the film and it can be quiet. I mean, nobody’s happy with what they’re seeing, and everybody is on the edge of their seat because they know one play’s coming up that they’d like to have back.

“And then you get out on the field with them, they’re running around, and it’s a little tight maybe for the first part of practice and then everything’s fine. It’s the same for the coaches. You’re thinking about stuff all night long for a couple of nights and then the players come back in, they get back together, and everything is OK.

“They work so bloody. You witness it every day. So, you know you’re in good hands as a coaching staff.”

Credit the Riders for their work last weekend, but the Blue Bombers left a ton of plays on the field in all three phases. Missed tackles, dropped passes, sloppy coverage on special teams… all of it. Critical over the past few years, and this season in particular, is how the club deals with losses.

“It’s all about taking a negative, learning how to get better and turning it into a positive,” said slotback Nic Demski. “There’s always going to be stuff to learn from, things to work on and get better at. You can’t dwell on losses too much.

“We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror, focus on us and say, ‘How can we be better? How can we go out there and make more plays and less mistakes?’ We did a good job this week of focussing on the right things. We’re going to come out here with a lot of energy, the fans will provide that in this environment and we’re going to have a lot of fun this week.

“When you’re a professional football player – when you’re a professional in any field – you’ve got to hold yourself accountable. If you point fingers or make excuses you’re never going to get better, you’re never going to go anywhere. Holding yourself accountable and owning your mistakes and bad plays… that’s when you start seeing growth.

“We did everything we had to do in that respect this week. Now it’s about going out there and laying it all on the line.”

More sub-plots and storylines for Blue Bombers fans to keep an eye on in our Banjo Bowl Playbook

KEY MATCHUP: The Blue Bombers defensive front vs. Riders offensive line.

We were more specific in this matchup last week, listing the impending battle between ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat and the Riders two offensive tackles in Eric Lofton and Colin Kelly.

The Blue Bombers were able to get pressure on Dolegala and sacked him three times – twice by Adam Bighill and the third by Evan Holm – as the Riders did a solid job of limiting the damage by Winnipeg’s two ends, even after Kelly exited the game due to injury.

But this week the Riders O-line will feature a couple of changes, with first year CFLer Brandon Council replacing Kelly at right tackle and Logan Bandy stepping in for an injured Evan Johnson at left guard.

“Their quarterback had a helluva game,” said Blue Bombers defensive tackle Ricky Walker. “They did some things, and he got the ball out his had quick that stopped us from rushing him.

“He’s 6-7, so he can see across the line and he’s not in a rush to roll out. He’s good. He’s confident he can stay in there and make his throws. He’ll step up if he has to, but he definitely showed poise out there. Give him credit.”

“It was him being smart and knowing that he can’t hold the ball long, that he has to get the ball to his receivers early,” added Jefferson. “That he has to throw the ball wide and outside and that he can’t throw it late and inside because our guys will take it away. It’s their gameplan with him being a young quarterback. He needs to make a quick read and get it out and the best way to do that is the short out routes and quick hitch routes.”

WELCOME BACK: Two changes to the Blue Bombers depth chart with WR Jeremy Murphy replacing FB Konner Burtenshaw, and with LB Malik Clements on for RB/WR Greg McCrae.

Getting Clements back bolsters the team’s front six as well as the kick cover units. Most importantly, Clements is itching to simply get back on the field.

“Excited is probably an understatement to what I’m feeling right now,” he said. “Obviously, a big game… Banjo Bowl… and I didn’t get the chance to play in it last year (due to injury) so I’m definitely looking forward to it. It’s always high energy at home games, but the Banjo Bowl is unmatched.

“It was really miserable (sitting out due to injury) because you’re not out here playing or working with the guys. You’ve got to be patient and heal. At the end of the day, I had to control what I could control and that’s just getting healthy and when my time was up, be ready.

“We have playmakers on special teams it’s just as a group we’ve got to get the little things cleaned up and so I think we’re adjusted and we’re going to come out strong.”

NOTABLE: Demski is already at 786 yards receiving this year through his 11 games played – a career high.
“You want to do everything you can to win,” he said. “My whole thing is to put the team ahead of myself for that. But I am human, and I have been keeping some track of my numbers. I know I’ve reached a new career high and that feels good. It would feel a lot better with a ‘W’ instead of a loss and so that’s what I’m focussed on.”

NEG LIST PEEK: CFL teams unveiled the names of 10 players from their 45-man negotiation lists on Friday. That list gives fans a look at which teams have the rights to players currently in the NCAA, NFL, or free agents.

The Blue Bombers list features D-linemen Levi Bell (Texas State), Quinton Bell (Prairie View) and Kuony Deng (California), receivers Oliver Martin (Nebraska) and Ontaria Wilson (Florida State) and four QBs.

-Ian Book — Notre Dame product who was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 2021, picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2022 and waived 12 days ago.

-Carter Bradley – Set school records in passing yards (3,326), completions (276) and touchdowns 928) at South Alabama last year as a junior.

-Darren Grainger – Georgia State QB who is in his third year as the school’s starter. Was 16 of 20 for 193 yards and two TDs in their season-opening win over Rhode Island.

-Mark Gronokowski – Current starter at South Dakota State. He was First-Team All Missouri Valley Football Conference last year and the MVP of the FCS Championship game in a win over North Dakota State.

-Garrett Shrader – Now with the Syracuse Orange after beginning his collegiate career at Mississippi State. He was 18-of-24 with four TDs and one interception in a 65-0 win over Colgate last weekend.


-For Winnipeg: Forget any notion of revenge or payback as the most important takeaway from a win would be that the club would clinch a playoff spot for a seventh straight season. The rest is gravy.

-For Saskatchewan: A Riders victory would be their third straight and improve the club to 7-5 and with those two of those victories coming against the Blue Bombers and a third against the B.C. Lions it would move them into the CFL’s elite discussion. It would also move them to within two points of the idle 8-4 Lions, who currently hold down second spot in the West Division.