Marquay McDaniel (16) of the Calgary Stampeders and Maurice Leggett (31) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Thursday, July 21, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
CALGARY – They know what some are thinking, saying out loud, or writing about them at this very moment. And it goes, more or less, like this:
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers – winners of seven straight – are more curiosity than contender right now and they are going to get it absolutely handed to them by the mighty Calgary Stampeders Saturday afternoon at McMahon Stadium.
After all, they’ve beaten the Hamilton Tiger-Cats without Zach Collaros; the Toronto Argonauts (twice) without Ricky Ray and the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders – both last in their divisions.
That win in Edmonton that started the whole streak back in late July?
Must have been a fluke.
And yet inside the Bomber locker room, no offence to the rest of us, that means both zero and diddlysquat.
“Win or lose, we’re very confident in us,” said Bombers linebacker Maurice Leggett. “We feel like we’re not respected at all. It doesn’t matter if we come up on top, we still don’t feel like we’re respected.”
“We haven’t done anything, we haven’t won any championships and that’s our goal. We’re not worried about anything else but that.”
The questions have come at the Bombers all week about the Stampeders gaudy 10-1-1 record, about their dominance at home, about the brilliance of Bo Levi Mitchell, about the superb job first-year head coach Dave Dickenson has done, about the influence of new defensive coordinator DeVone Claybrooks, about…
Through it all they’ve managed to show the proper amount of respect for their opponent – after all, two of the Stamps wins this season were dominant decisions over the Bombers – but you also get the sense there’s been a change with this crew since those July meetings.
This team isn’t just hoping to win any more, nor is it fixated on extending the win streak to eight, or using it as a measuring stick to see where they stack up against the CFL’s elite.
Instead, this bunch has eyes on making some real noise in November. And Saturday is next up on that road.
“I just think about each and every week,” said quarterback Matt Nichols, when asked if he had the same ‘no-respect’ feeling as Leggett. “I know that I’m going to be playing against a tough opponent and it’s no different this week.
“I’m a guy that doesn’t think too much about the past or the future. I’m thinking about this game. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone. I’m trying to go out and play a very good game for my teammates and help this team win.”
Hey, look – who’s kidding who here… the Bombers know this isn’t going to be easy. Winning never is.
But one of the many reasons the narrative has changed in Bomberland is the veterans have been through so much losing that they wanted to change the script. And with an influx of fresh, new, hungry talent to augment that, the Bombers have changed from simply being the free space on the CFL bingo card.
“Some of the guys, the veterans that have been here the past couple of years, we were tired of going down the same old road,” said Leggett when asked what sparked the change after a 1-4 start. “The leaders stepped up and you saw in the locker room that some of the guys that you wouldn’t think of as leaders, they stepped up as well. We just bonded a lot better.”
Again, though, pretty much across the CFL the Bombers remain more curiosity than contender. And so, would a win on Saturday change that thinking?
“No,” said Nichols. “It’s something we talked about as a team. When we were 1-4 we weren’t listening to people tell us how bad we were. Now that we’ve won seven in a row we’re not listening to people tell us how good we are.
“It’s one of those things… again, every single week it’s going to be a tough battle in this league. It’s never easy to win and, obviously, this is going to be a tough one. This team is 10-1-1 for a reason: they’re a very good football team.
“We feel like if we go out and play a clean game and don’t make dumb mistakes and do the things we’re coached to do, we feel like we can beat anyone.”
BLUE BOMBERS (8-4) at STAMPEDERS (10-1-1)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. (CT), McMahon Stadium
Streaks: Winnipeg: 7W; Calgary: 9W (unbeaten in 11)
Vegas line: The Stampeders are favoured by 9.5
Recent history: It’s ugly for the Bombers: they dropped two previous meetings this season to the Stamps – 36-22 in Calgary on Canada Day and 33-18 at home on July 21st, the last loss before their current seven-game win streak.
BO KNOWS FOOTBALL
We’re not saying Bo Levi Mitchell is already a lock for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to call the dudes who sculpt the player busts at the shrine and give them the green light to go ahead and start on things.
The Stampeders pivot has had less than 50 career starts, but his numbers are positively jaw dropping. Get this: Mitchell is now 39-7-1 as a starter, for an 84.04 winning percentage. That’s better than Doug Flutie (94-32, .746), Dave Dickenson (54-21-1, .717), Warren Moon (41-17-1, .703) and Tom Wilkinson (79-33-6, .695).
Critical for any team to limit Mitchell’s effectiveness is to keep him on the sideline. Interestingly, for all their success the Bombers have the third-worst time of possession in the CFL (29:11), but that can be a misleading stat if the defence and special teams are consistently giving the team solid field position.
“Right now he continues to prove he’s one of the best, if not THE best, quarterback in the league at moving the offence and putting up points and any time you can keep a guy like that off the field it’s good for you,” said Nichols. “We talk each and every week as an offence about how we want to keep our defence fresh and keep their offence off the field – they can’t score points if they’re off the field.
“When I watch him it’s almost like he’s acting lazy back there, like it’s easy. I know from experience how hard it is, but he does make the position look easy. He’s been doing a great job for the last few years and he’s got a lot of games under his belt now and feels very comfortable and like he’s going to go out and play a great game every single week. That’s the model you want to be as a professional quarterback, to be consistent, and that’s where I’m trying to get to.”
The CFL drew attention to this earlier in the week and it certainly bears repeating: the combined 16-game win streak between these two teams – Calgary has won nine straight, the Bombers seven – is the longest in league history.
That’s saying something.
Here are the Top 5 unbeaten streaks since 1981:
TEAM YEAR(s) RECORD
Edmonton 1981-82 14-0-1
B.C. 2004-05 14-0-0
Winnipeg 2001 12-0-0
Calgary 1992-93 11-0-0
Calgary 2016 10-0-1
Interestingly, the Stampeders streak isn’t really surprising anyone, even though there were some at the start of the season who predicted they’d come back of the pack in the West Division. The Bombers streak, on the other hand, means they have completely turned around their season after the 1-4 start.
“Absolutely I see a different team,” said the Stamps’ Mitchell during a conference call earlier this week. “I see a team that’s playing with confidence, they’re playing with speed and they’re playing behind Matt and have trust and confidence in him that he’ll put up points. They’re running the same system we are. And when I say that, I mean we rely on our defence to get us good field position, we rely on our special teams to change field position and when they do, our offence’s job is to take advantage of that and put points on the board.”
MORE TURNOVERS, PLEASE
The Bombers have been gluttonous in their hunger for forcing turnovers and lead the entire CFL with a turnover ratio at +25, with Calgary second at +15.
More tasty turnover totals, courtesy of Steve Daniel at the CFL:
- The Bombers last led the CFL in Turnover Ratio in 2003 at +21 and before that in 1990 (+20).
- Winnipeg’s all-time turnover ratio record stands at +29 set in 1987 when they finished with a 12-6 record;
- Over their last six games, the Bombers are +23 with 28 takeaways and only five turnovers of their own.
- Winnipeg has scored 86 of their 194 total points off opponent turnovers over the last 6 games (44%).
- The Bombers have also scored 110 points off turnovers, tops in the CFL.
The Stampeders, meanwhile, have turned the ball over just 13 times this season, fewest in the CFL.
“Who’s more disciplined, that’s what it’s going to come down to,” said Leggett, who leads the CFL with six interceptions, three of them for touchdowns. “It’s going to be a physical battle out there and it’s going to be hard-nosed football.”
- Matt Nichols makes the 27th start of his career and the eighth in a row since July 28th. He is now 14-12 overall in his career and 9-5 as a Bomber. He has completed 71.0 per cent of his passes for 1,927 yards with eight TDs against just one interception for a QB rating of 103.9.
- Bo Levi Mitchell is an astonishing 38-7-1, including 7-1 against Winnipeg. Mitchell has 10 games this season where he has eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark (the CFL record is 14, set by Doug Flutie in 1991). He is currently on pace for 5,904 yards passing and would need to average 344 in the final six games to reach the 6,000-yard mark.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#52 Eric Martin, DE
Justin Cole is nicked up this week, meaning the Bombers will likely use a combination of Shayon Green, Eric Martin and, possibly, Trent Corney at the defensive end spot opposite Jamaal Westerman. (Corney will also get snaps spelling off Westerman).
This is significant because Cole has a long, athletic body type that makes it difficult for quarterbacks and running backs to get outside without him in pursuit or in their grill. Green and Martin are different body types – stouter and thicker – which will help in the battle to bring down Jerome Messam, but will make for a spot to keep an eye on all afternoon.
#32 Timothy Flanders, RB
Flanders was solid in his first CFL start, finishing with 102 yards along the ground while filling in for Andrew Harris. The Bombers are going to need to have production from Flanders along the ground just so that the Stamps ferocious front four aren’t able to pin its collective ears back and come at Nichols all afternoon.
#Rory Kohlert, WR
He’s a veteran Canadian who has proven in his career to be a reliable pass catcher. But since pulling in four passes for 40 yards in the win over Edmonton in late July that started this streak, Kohlert has just five receptions for 44 yards in the last six games.
#13, TJ Heath, DB
Heath will make his Bomber debut against the Stamps after being part of the package in the Drew Willy trade to Toronto. Even if he is a CFL rookie, he’s a 29-year-old pro who is second to new teammate Leggett with five interceptions.
He is dressing as a designated import and was getting a lot of work this week in the Bombers ‘Dime’ – extra defensive back – package.
The Stamps have started just four different quarterbacks in games against the Bombers dating back to 2008: Henry Burris (7 GP), Drew Tate (1 GP), Kevin Glenn (3 GP) and Mitchell (8 GP) who have combined to go 16-3 over that stretch.
Over that same span the Bombers have started 14 different QBs: Drew Willy (4 GP), Joey Elliott (3 GP), Ryan Dinwiddie, Kevin Glenn, Stefan LeFors, Michael Bishop, Steven Jyles, Buck Pierce, Alex Brink, Justin Goltz, Max Hall, Brian Brohm, Robert Marve and Matt Nichols (1 GP).
Bomber defensive ends Jamaal Westerman and Shayon Green/Eric Martin vs. Stamps offensive tackles Derek Dennis and Dan Federeil.
The Bombers don’t just need heat from the edge of the pocket, they need to keep Mitchell contained and collapse the thing on top of him. Otherwise, as CFL fans have seen since he first stepped on the field, he can be surgeon-like in slicing open a defence.
- The Bombers have won five consecutive road games, their longest away from home in a single season since 2001. A sixth-straight win would mark the club’s first six-game road streak since the 1982-83 seasons.
- Winnipeg has had at least a 14-point lead in six of the seven games during this current win streak, out-scoring opponents 128-59 in the first half over that span. Worth noting: the Bombers have shut out their opponent – Saskatchewan in the Banjo Bowl and Toronto last week – in the fourth quarter of both of their last two wins.
- The Stamps are 6-0 at McMahon Stadium, making them the CFL’s lone unbeaten home team. The Bombers are 5-1 away from Investors Group Field, tied with the B.C. Lions for the league’s best road record.
- Calgary’s margin of victory during their streak has been 14.8 points; Winnipeg’s is 13.0 points.
- Dave Dickenson’s record as a first-year coach is 10-1-1 for a .875 winning percentage. The CFL record for highest winning percentage by a first-year coach is .750, and is held by three men: Bud Grant (Winnipeg, 12-4 in 1957), Darrell Royal (Edmonton, 12-4) and Jerry Williams (Calgary, 12-4).
The record for most wins by a first-year coach is 13, set by Adam Rita in 1991 with Toronto and matched by John Hufnagel with the Stamps in 2008 and B.C.’s Mike Benevides in 2012. All three teams went 13-5.
“It’s going to be a great game for us. Things have come together for us like we always thought they would. We started off slow, but now we’re gelling and we just want to keep that going as a team and not get too over-zealous about this.
“But we’re a totally different team right now. Early on we were just trying to find out about each other. Now we have so much confidence, and it’s growing.” – Bombers defensive back Bruce Johnson.