It’s not anything really quantifiable, this idea of growth. And it’s certainly not as simple as lining the Winnipeg Blue Bombers up against a wall to measure how much they’ve sprouted up over the summer.
Oh sure, this five-game win streak that has put them in the West Division playoff discussion certainly represents a maturation, both physically and mentally. But it’s sometimes the small snippets that actually serve as the best hints of evidence of growth, not a big-picture look.
Case in point: how the Bombers responded in last Sunday’s Labour Day Classic after giving up a Kendial Lawrence 85-yard punt return touchdown inside the final minute.
“Nobody on our sideline felt that game was over,” said Dressler. “I can distinctly remember looking at the game clock and seeing 48 seconds left. We’ve got (Justin) Medlock in our back pocket and that situation is something we practice all week long: putting a drive together to get into field goal range or a touchdown to win the game. At that point, it’s about confidence and trusting the work you’ve done.
“I was part of a team last year (the 3-15 Saskatchewan Roughriders) that had that doubt and you could feel it a lot on the sidelines. Once it’s there, no matter how much you address it, it’s hard to get rid of it until you win. Winning is sometimes the best cure for those mind games.”
We bring this up on the eve of the Banjo Bowl as the Bombers attempt to stretch a five-game run into six with another win over the Riders. That would mark the first time this franchise has won six straight since the end of the 2002 and start of 2003 seasons – a run of nine consecutive – but also the first time a team has won six in a row in one season since that franchise-record 12 straight in 2001.
Those are some pretty meaty numbers, especially when held up against what has happened in these parts over the past four seasons. But even if the Bombers should stumble on Saturday, Keith Shologan insists the goal here isn’t just about keeping a streak alive, it’s about building something bigger.
“We’re trying to create a winning mentality,” said Shologan. “There are some teams around the league that are always about .500, that are always contenders for the playoffs and Grey Cup. And some teams aren’t.”
“The culture is great here, the locker room is phenomenal. We just need to learn how to win. We’re not there yet and we still have tons to prove.”
Still, 5-4 – and possibly getting 6-4 – seems like eons since the icky 1-4 start to this season. Again, the growth discussion…
“The first time we played Edmonton we had a drive at the very end to win the game,” said Shologan. “I’m used to being on teams where our offence goes out there and gets it done and not really having any other thought pattern. You looked around at our sideline and it was, ‘Ooof… I wonder if we’re going to get this?’ And we didn’t.”
“Last week we needed a drive to get us into field goal range to win the game. You looked around at our sideline and it was, ‘Ok… we’re going to get this done.’ That’s growth.”
“It’s tough to explain,” Shologan added. “Sometimes you either have that or you don’t. Sometimes you can tell by looking in people’s eyes. And the stats don’t measure it.
“Ultimately it’s about what the scoreboard says and the mentality of the guys on the team. We’re starting to build. It takes a long time. Look at a team like Calgary… they’ve been doing it since ’08 or since forever. They just consistently know going in that they’re going to win. We want to build that here.”
ROUGHRIDERS (1-9) at BLUE BOMBERS (6-4)
Kickoff: 3:00 p.m., Investors Group Field
Streaks: Saskatchewan: 6L; Winnipeg: 5W.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 10.5
Recent history: The Bombers ended an 11-year Labour Day Classic drought with a 28-25 win last week in Regina.
The Banjo Bowl: This will be the 13th edition of the Banjo Bowl, with the series tied 6-6. The Bombers have swept the Labour Day Classic/Banjo Bowl doubleheader just once – back in 2004 with the Banjo Bowl’s inception. The Riders have swept the series six times.
BACK TO BACK, TO BACK TO BACK, TO BACK TO BACK…
The Bombers complete their home-and-home/Labour Day Classic-Banjo Bowl matchup with the Riders Saturday afternoon. And while it’s a first for many of these players to face the same opponent in consecutive games, it’s a novelty they’ll have to get use to ASAP.
The Bombers will have two more doubleheaders in their final seven games as they have home-and-home series with both the B.C. Lions and Ottawa REDBLACKS to end the regular season. That might mean less film work from one week to the next, but it also could lead to some surprise wrinkles to break up a team’s tendencies.
Playing the same team over two weeks also means changing things like what the Bombers do schematically, but also adjusting cadences and signals for play calls.
“You never know what to expect,” said Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols. “I’ve been a part of a lot of back-to-backs where one game you’ll get a certain coverage, the next week it’s completely different. Or if they felt like they had some success they might come out and do the same thing. It’s really kind of a feeling out process because you never know how much teams are going to change in a short week.”
There’s been a lot of chatter in Bomberland over the past week about finishing drives and red zone productivity. We touched earlier in the week on how that represents a direct change in the narrative in these parts, but there’s no question the offence would kill to have some of the 13 field goals Justin Medlock has kicked over the last two games converted into touchdowns. Like, duh…
“I mean, I know you guys want to talk about red zone,” began Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice earlier in the week. “We had three plays in the red zone last week (from the opponents’ 20-yard line and in). We only had three. We kicked seven field goals. I think we take the field goal at the end of the game, right? And I think we take the field goal before the half, right? We drove the length of the field and, with 13 seconds left, had an opportunity to go the end zone with (Gerrard) Sheppard. So that’s a good drive. We were on 2nd and 20 once and we got 14 yards to kick a 52-yard field goal. So, those are three good field goals.
“Now, do we want more points? Sure. But it’s not like we were inside the 20-yard line for 18 plays and we came away with field goals. I thought we moved the ball from being backed up into field goal range and kicked field goals and that’s a good thing. But certainly in the red zone when you get your opportunities you’ve got to make your plays.”
MEMBERSHIP SHOULD HAVE ITS PRIVILEGES
The Bombers haven’t been at home since Aug. 3rd and even that game – that wacky lightning-delayed win over Hamilton that didn’t start until after 10 p.m. – was played in front of a smaller crowd as many exited rather than wait out Mother Nature.
Winnipeg is 1-3 at Investors Group Field; just 8-23 overall since the new building opened. The Banjo Bowl sold-out crowd represents a different dynamic, from the usual diehards who are there all the time to the new customers walking through the gates for the first time. That means a whole new opportunity to make a good impression, both to the faithful and to the new eyeballs.
“Unbelievable environment… I think the players who haven’t been around or are new to the CFL will really appreciate it when they step out onto the field,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “A lot of these guys have played in front of some pretty big crowds and some guys have never played in front of a crowd this size. The fan support is terrific, we think second to none in the CFL. It should help us out.”
- Matt Nichols makes the 25th start of his career and the sixth straight since July 28th. He is now 12-12 overall in his career, 7-5 as a Bomber and 3-1 in his four career starts vs. the Riders. This year, he has completed 71.2 per cent of his passes for 1,448 yards with seven TDs against one interception for a QB rating of 106.3
- Darian Durant has now started in 106 CFL games with a career record of 54-51-1. Even after last week’s loss, he is 11-4 in his career against the Bombers. The Riders are 0-8 in games he starts (Mitchell Gale was at the controls for their win over Ottawa). Durant has a 92.9 QB rating after completing 68.2 per cent of his passes for eight touchdowns and six interceptions.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#12 Ryan Smith, SB
One of the Bombers marquee free agent signings in the offseason, Smith spent the last six games on the injured list. He was brought in to be a reliable target who could make the tough catches in traffic and use his quickness to stretch defences vertically. He had 19 catches for 186 yards and a TD before the injury – and before the QB switch – and the Bombers are hoping he and Weston Dressler can crank up the receiving production even more from a unit that has been crushed by injuries.
“He’s got some fresh legs right now and he’s been working extremely hard to get back,” said Bombers QB Matt Nichols. “He was out there blowing past people on the last couple days of practice. He’s a guy that can really stretch defences and one of the best things he does is once he gets the ball in his hands, he can break tackles and make people miss in space, and that’s something that can really flip games in this league, when you can throw a five-yard pass to a guy who breaks four or five tackles and can rip off big gains. Those are the plays that flip the field and he’s a guy that brings that dynamic for us. He’s just a very smart football player and a guy I’m excited to play with.”
#35 Terrence Frederick, CB
He’s made only three starts since being signed in late June, but made an instant impression. The former Pittsburgh Steelers draft pick plays with a quiet confidence, and knows the Riders – who lit up the Bombers for almost 400 yards passing last week – will have his name circled on the depth chart as someone to attack.
“I want that,” said Frederick. “You can’t ever tell what someone on the other side of the ball might have planned. But I feel that they’re going to take some shots at me, especially with me being out for two weeks. I’m prepared for it.
“They’re very explosive receivers. It’s not just one of them, it’s the whole group.”
#88 Gerrard Sheppard, SB
A few eyebrows were raised around town this week when the Bombers announced that with the return of Ryan Smith to the receiving corps, it would be Clarence Denmark taking a seat and not Gerrard Sheppard.
Here’s O’Shea on what he likes about Sheppard:
“Big, physical, strong-handed guy. Stepped on the field for us in a special teams role the first time he got on the field and did a fantastic job. That game he was No. 1 on the team in our special teams scoring system.
“He’s a pro, he learns his stuff and is always ready to go whatever you ask him to do. He enjoys whatever role you give him and tries to own it. He’s got all the attributes you want in a receiver, especially a guy you want around the box. He’s made some tough yards after the catch and made some key first downs for us in the last game.”
#93 Justin Cole, DE
There have been some real flashes from Cole, from the interception against Montreal to the two sacks against Hamilton. What the Bombers need is continued consistency from his spot, both against the run and the pass – especially with Jamaal Westerman, Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings being locks at the other three spots on the defensive line.
The Bombers have made two changes to their 46-man roster (including two-man reserve), adding receiver Ryan Smith and linebacker Nick Temple. Kyle Knox and Clarence Denmark won’t dress, while CB CJ Roberts (who was injured in last week’s win in Regina) has been moved to the six-game injured list and LB Sam Hurl to the one game.
The Riders have made three adjustments to their 46, bringing aboard WR Armanti Edwards, CB Raye Hartmann and LB Marvin Golding.
RING OF HONOUR
Dieter Brock, the Bombers’ all-time passing leader and a member of the Winnipeg Football Club and Canadian Football Hall of Fame, will be the latest addition to the Ring of Honour. He joins Chris Walby, Ken Ploen, Gerry James and Milt Stegall as the club introduces a new name for each home game this year.
Brock, whose story can be found here, will be signing autographs beginning at 12:45 in the Tailgate at the Plaza presented by Duraco Windows.
Rumours abound about the future of Drew Willy with the Bombers, especially in light of the injury to Ricky Ray in Toronto. Willy and Montreal QB Kevin Glenn have both had their names linked to the Argos over the past few days.
That subject came up Friday in Matt Nichols’ media availability when he was asked if the speculation had seeped into the dressing room.
“This team has done a great job of blocking out the noise,” said Nichols. “We didn’t listen to anyone when we were 1-4 and we’re not listening to anyone now. Drew and I have a great working relationship. He does a great job of helping me, making sure I’m going through all my reads and those types of things. He does a great job every time I come to the sidelines of telling me what he’s seeing or ‘Remember this on this play…’ He’s a guy that has been tremendous in helping me and helping this team win.
“After the (Labour Day) game, he came up to me laughing and excited. I wasn’t even really too excited yet because it was such a roller-coaster of emotions that I didn’t even have time to process it yet. To see him so excited to win that game last week is just awesome. Everyone on this team is in it to win football games, not matter what their role. I think he’s done a great job of helping this team win by helping me each and every day.
“We don’t expect him to go anywhere. I’ve been a part of this league for a long time and you need two quarterbacks to win in this league. I don’t expect him to go anywhere and if he did it would be a big loss for me.”
Bombers kick-cover units vs. Roughriders returners Kendial Lawrence and Nic Demski.
The Bombers had been limiting punt returns to just six yards, on average, prior to last week’s win in Regina. But Lawrence’s 85-yard score bloated that number to 7.6 yards now. And it’s not sitting well with the Bomber special teams foot soliders.
“They’re pissed off,” said O’Shea. “They see simple solutions on film that they’ve been doing consistently since training camp. So they’re not pleased. But they also recognize these are corrections that can be made. They don’t feel out-gunned at all.”
- The Bombers will start the same quarterback, Matt Nichols, in back-to-back Banjo Bowls for the first time since Kevin Glenn back in 2008. In fact, Glenn started the first four games for the Bombers, 2004-08, but since then the club has had Michael Bishop (2009), Steven Jyles (2010), Buck Pierce (2011), Joey Elliott (2012), Justin Goltz (2013), Drew Willy (2014) and Nichols (2015) take the first snap from centre.
- Ouch: The Riders have lost their last six games and are now 5-29 in their last 34 games, using eight different quarterbacks over that span.
- The Riders have not led in a game since Aug. 4 at Calgary. That’s a stretch of four games without a lead, a first dating back to 1979.
- Riders WR Caleb Holley had a coming-out game last week, pulling in 10 passes for 121 yards, including 86 YAC yards and 10 second-down conversion catches.
“You can just feel the energy around the city and there’s a lot of people very excited about this game. The fans are excited to see a winning football team. Hopefully we can continue to do that for them.
“I came in here…it was kind of a whirlwind week for me last year at this time. This is one of the best stadiums in the league, if not the best, especially when it’s packed. I remember coming in here last year and at the end of the game thinking it was one of the best football experiences I had ever had. Khalil (Bass) had a pick-six at the end of the game… we were ahead, but it was the clincher. The whole place erupted and it was one of the better moments I’ve had in the CFL. Hopefully we can have a few more moments like that (Saturday).”
– Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols.