TORONTO – It feels different. Smells different. And, although he’s had just a teeny-tiny sample size, Clarence Denmark will tell you being around the Winnipeg Blue Bombers these days tastes a little different, too.
A couple of wins in a row – the first since the summer of 2014 – means the Bombers have given up swallowing the bitterness of defeat in recent weeks. And Denmark, for one, could get used to this after a whole lot of misery in years past.
“It’s the chemistry,” began the veteran receiver when asked to explain what feels different about the team he rejoined less than two weeks ago. “The guys are starting to gel and I’ve seen that in the locker room when I first got here.”
“The locker room is a lot tighter than I’ve ever seen and when I got out there and got the chance to play with the guys I could see it carried on to the field. That’s a good thing.”
“It’s about getting the right people in the room and you never really know until it happens. But you can feel it when it does.”
The Bombers have exorcised a few demons in recent weeks, ending a six-game home losing skid, winning a pair of consecutive games for the first time in two years, and taking care of a decade-long drought in Edmonton that dated back to Milt Stegall’s 100-yard miracle in 2006.
And those results are like feeding fuel to a furnace.
“Right now this team has a lot of confidence,” said quarterback Matt Nichols. “The main thing to me is just the belief we’re supposed to go out and win football games. I’ve talked about it since I got here; I felt like we had the talent to win football games and we lost a lot of close ones last year. Now I think the guys have got some experience and realize it’s just a mindset starting from play one and expecting to win. We’ve done a good job of embracing that and I think it’s shown in the past couple of weeks.
“At the same time, we can’t be happy with two wins. We’ve got to win a lot more to be where we want to be.”
That’s clear. Nobody earns a playoff berth in August. But one can slip away in the summer months, too.
To that end, the Bombers have an opportunity to really gain some traction in the West Division discussion over the next month or so. After Friday’s game in Toronto the club has its first bye week, before road trips to Montreal and Regina for the annual Labour Day Classic. That’s followed by a stretch that sees them play five of their final eight at home and have their second bye at the 16-game mark.
What’s been critical in the recent two-game streak has been the play of all the fresh faces thrust into the lineup because of injury and the work of Nichols since he replaced Drew Willy. Everyone, it seems, has benefitted from living in the moment.
“He’s played great for us,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of Nichols. “We’ve scored a lot of points and taken care of the football. He’s a big reason, that’s for sure.
“We’ve got good play out of the rest of the team, too, they’ve all stepped up and we’ve gotten very good play out of the guys who have waited patiently to play football. It’s come around.”
BLUE BOMBERS (3-4) at ARGONAUTS (4-2)
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. BMO Field
Streaks: Winnipeg: 2W; Toronto: 2W
Vegas line: The Argos are favoured by 4.
Recent history: The Argos have won six of the last seven and 10 of the last 12 meetings with Winnipeg. That stretch includes three straight Argo wins in Toronto.
WILLY VS RAY? TRY NICHOLS VS KILGORE
It’s not exactly the marquee quarterback matchup many would have expected just a few weeks ago. In fact, with Drew Willy giving way to Matt Nichols and Ricky Ray in sick bay, the Bombers and Argonauts will have close to $900,000 in quarterback investments watching from the sidelines Friday night.
We know what Matt Nichols serves up now as this will be his 10th start as a Bomber dating back to the trade that brought him to Winnipeg last September. But Kilgore is making just his second CFL start after leading the Argos to a win in Ottawa in his debut. So, who is this guy? Good question.
Kilgore is a 26-year-old Californian who exited Middle Tennessee State as the program’s all-time leader in TD passes (53) and had a stint with the New Orleans Saints before coming north to Canada. But, interestingly, when it came to prepping for Kilgore this week Bombers coach Mike O’Shea said they have instead scouted the Argos offensive system rather than spend hours working through old MTSU highlights. The reason here is simple: Argos head coach Scott Milanovich is a former QB, as is offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, and instead of asking Kilgore to win a game, will marry their system to a ball-control/pick-your-spots approach that will alleviate the pressure on their young pivot.
“They’re going to ask him to do the things he does well within their system,” said O’Shea. “I don’t think they’re going to change a lot… Scott and Marcus are going to stick to what they believe is going to allow them to win games and put whatever quarterback is going to be starting for them in the best position. It’s really system based, it’s not about the differences Logan Kilgore has.
“I believe they feel they have everything they need in their system, no matter who is back there.”
The danger here for the Bombers is obvious – they aren’t facing a future Hall of Famer in Ray, but an unknown. But Ray was an unknown once, too, and the Bombers certainly can’t afford to back off on Kilgore.
“We’ve been watching film on him,” said Bombers defensive back Bruce Johnson. “He has a pretty good arm, he makes good decisions. But even though he’s a back-up we’ve got to come in like we’re facing Ricky Ray or any first-string quarterback. We’re not going to let up on anybody because they’re not going to let up on us.”
STEADY STUBLER AND THE BOATMEN D CREW
Argo defensive coordinator Rich Stubler has seemingly been around since the days of leather helmets, and his philosophies remain based on one critical principle: make offences earn their yards and be stingy as hell in the red zone. Toronto has allowed the second-fewest points in the CFL through the first third of the season (23.3 to B.C.’s 22.5) while ranking fourth in yardage allowed per game at 366.8.
Nichols said, in basic terms, that a Stubler defence is similar to a zone in basketball with a lot of moving pieces. And they do it very, very well.
“It’s the same stuff he’s always done,” said Nichols. “I had Coach Stubler in Edmonton with me and I got to pick his brain a little bit back then. His philosophy never changes… you kinda know what you’re going to get with him, but they do it extremely well and they have a lot of veteran guys like Keon Raymond that can get everyone in the right spots and working together well. They’re a team that makes you work for everything and when you watch the film, there’s not a lot of touchdowns scored on them.
“We need to take care of the football, get field position and put up points when we have opportunities. It’s kind of a chess match. I’ve played a number of games against Coach Stubler and they’ve always been tough.”
FIRST COMMANDMENT IN FOOTBALL: PROTECT THY PIGSKIN
A juicy nugget courtesy of CFL stats guru Steve Daniel: the Bombers have posted consecutive turnover free games for the first time since July 18, 2006. That’s not insignificant, given the consecutive wins.
But with the Bomber defence tightening and the special teams winning the field-position war, it’s resulted in a predictable but time-worn formula for success.
Still, it starts with the man behind centre and Matt Nichols’ numbers – four touchdowns, zero picks – are mammoth.
“First and foremost he’s protected the ball,” said Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice earlier this week. “He’s been efficient with the football, led us on drives, created first downs and put points on the board.”
And when CJOB’s play-by-play ace Bob Irving pointed out the no interceptions in the last two games stat, LaPolice clearly didn’t want to jinx things.
“Easy, Bob,” he said with a chuckle.
-Matt Nichols makes his 22nd career CFL start and third in a row since July 28th. He is now 9-12 overall and 4-5 as a Bomber since stepping behind centre in Edmonton late last month. He’s completed 73.8 per cent of his passes this year with four TDs against zero interceptions and has a QB rating of 113.6.
-Logan Kilgore is the new man at the controls in Toronto after another injury has shelved future hall of famer Ricky Ray. His first start was a ‘W’ as he led the Argos to a 23-20 win in Ottawa by completing 25 of 42 attempts for 322 yards with one TD strike against two interceptions. His total numbers this year include a 57.1 completion percentage and a passer rating of 62.1.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#93 Justin Cole, DE
The Bombers have run three different starters at the defensive end spot opposite Jamaal Westerman – Shayon Green, Adrian Hubbard and Justin Cole. Hubbard had his moment in the win in Hamilton last month, but has since been released and has landed in Saskatchewan. Green has been steady, but Cole has flashed an ability to get after the QB – he had two sacks last week – and maybe draw some attention away from Westerman.
#57 Manase Foketi, RT
He’s a big man at 6-5, 326 pounds and the Bombers have been chasing him for a couple of years. He slides in at right tackle, replacing Jermarcus Hardrick who was filling in for Pat Neufeld on the Bombers revamped O-line. If Foketi can have the same instant impact as Travis Bond did at left guard, Winnipeg might be able to continue to push the pile at the line of scrimmage and give Nichols time to set up in the pocket.
#50 Kyle Knox, LB
Knox made his CFL debut last week in the win over Hamilton and proved a player doesn’t have to take a ton of snaps at his regular position to have an impact. Knox was a beast on special teams, showcasing some lightning-quick speed in getting down the field on kick coverage and picking up two special-teams tackles. Coaches have loved this guy since rookie camp and, if he can stay healthy, he may force his way into the linebacker rotation.
#23 Kevin Fogg, DB/KR
He’s started every game, both at corner and now inside at defensive halfback. And he’s proven to be a dangerous kick returner, even with having two touchdowns called back by penalty. His versatility in the secondary and special-teams skills already has some whispering he could be a rookie-of-the-year candidate.
The Bombers have made just one change to their 46-man roster (including two-man reserve) with Manase Foketi replacing Jermarcus Hardrick at right tackle.
Bombers defensive tackles Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings vs. Argos centre Sean McEwen and guards Corey Watman and Tyler Holmes. This will be just the second start for McEwen in the middle, but he will be flanked by Watman and Holmes while the tackles are manned by two solid vets in Josh Bourke and Chris Van Zeyl.
The Argos will likely try to keep things simple for QB Logan Kilgore with a short passing game and by working to establish the run game with Brandon Whitaker.
Lining up opposite is Cummings, the ex-Argo, along with Shologan with Jake Thomas also getting reps.
SCOUTING THE NEW VENUE
This will be the first game for the Bombers at BMO Field, the new home of the Argos. The club has done its best to get some intel on the new building, which opened in 2007 as a soccer-only facility. Bombers equipment ace Brad Fotty has packed a giant crate of different cleat options for the players as they try to get a feel for the playing surface.
One quirky fact about BMO: the end zones measure just 18 yards.
- Winnipeg is 30-9 (.769) when having less turnovers than its opponent since 2010, but just 8-68 (.105) when the turnover ratio is even or less. In their 38 wins since 2010, the Bombers have a turnover ratio of +75.
- The Argos, who had last week off, are 7-1 coming off a bye since 2012.
- The 37-11 win by the Bombers last week was their largest margin of victory since September of 2010.
- Nichols will be the fourth different starting quarterback for the Bombers in their last four meetings with Toronto, following Dominique Davis, Robert Marve and Drew Willy
- Winnipeg’s time of possession in the last two games is averaging 34 minutes and 19 seconds. In the first five games it was just 27:36.
“It’s about having that ‘next-man up’ attitude. If you’re on this field, you’re a competitor. Nobody likes to lose. Coaches weed those kinds of players out because they are like cancers to the team.
“Everybody has to have a winning mindset. And if you see your brother slacking we have to pick him up.” – Bombers defensive back Kevin Fogg.