Home field advantage can mean many things to many people.
It’s about a rabid fan base having your back, about a crowd at full throat forcing illegal procedure penalties. It’s about players being able to sleep in their own beds and sticking to their sometimes-ritualistic routines.
And for Jermarcus Hardrick, the mammoth right tackle of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, it’s about turkey bacon and sausage and…
“I like to wake up, eat my wife’s cooking and do my normal routine,” began Hardrick Friday as the Bombers completed final preparations for Saturday’s matinee against the Ottawa REDBLACKS. “In the morning I have turkey bacon, turkey sausage, scrambled eggs with toast – my wife makes all that – and then we take the kids to an indoor kids place to loosen me up a little bit.
“I have no problem with being on the road, it gives me a chance to bond with my roommate. But being at home helps… you don’t have to be at a hotel and you keep your routine.”
Securing a home playoff date for the Bombers is a topic today as the club attempts to land a coveted postseason contest for the first time in five years. Just to put that into perspective, the last playoff game in these parts was held at a stadium that doesn’t exist anymore when the current offensive coordinator, Paul LaPolice, was the head coach and the current quarterbacks coach, Buck Pierce, was actually taking the first snap from centre.
So, yeah, it’s been awhile.
“It would be huge for the fans and for this city because the drought has been so long,” said Bombers defensive end Jamaal Westerman. “I’m not saying it’s ‘Home field or bust’, but it would be big for us. It’s big for the defence because our fans can disrupt what their offence is trying to do and then it’s big for our offence because they know to be quiet when we have the ball.
“We saw it in the Banjo Bowl. I was here for the Heritage Classic and it was packed. I hope it’s standing-room only if we can get a home playoff game and that the crowd goes crazy.”
It’s right here in the conversation, however, where Westerman threw up a stop sign on the home field advantage talk and reversed field. He doesn’t want that to distract from the mission Saturday – beat Ottawa – even though if the stars align right and a Bomber win is followed by a Saskatchewan Roughriders victory over the B.C. Lions later in the day, Winnipeg will finish second in the West Division.
Actually, here’s the best explanation of the playoff scenarios as they pertain to the Bombers, courtesy the CFL communications department:
–Winnipeg Win + BC Loss = Winnipeg clinches second in the West Division and will host the Western Semi-Final.
-Winnipeg Win OR Tie = Edmonton crosses over to the East Division
-If the West Division ends up in three-way tie at 10-8 in common games between Edmonton (3-2), Winnipeg (3-2) and BC (1-3), the next tie-breaker is record among common tied clubs. Edmonton would finish in second place by virtue of their superior record in combination with their tie-breaker advantage over Winnipeg. BC would become the crossover team in this scenario.
Winnipeg can still be the crossover club at 10-8 only if: they lose both of their remaining games, Edmonton wins both of theirs to reach 10-8, and BC wins or ties at least once to nullify the three-way tie above.
The other potential factor in home field advantage, of course, is what Mother Nature might serve up on game day. And the past week – which brought a spectacular autumn day, but also a lot of wet, windy, misery – is classic Winnipeg in late October/early November.
After all, practicing in that (expletive deleted) can only harden a team.
“It’s an advantage any time you can prepare in it,” said Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols. “It helps you understand the things you can do on game day. It was nice a couple of days, but extremely cold and windy at practice one day, too. If you don’t practice in that and then you have to come out and play in it, I think you’re going to have some struggles.
“We feel like it’s an advantage for us. Look, any time you can play in front of your home crowd – regardless of the weather – gives us an advantage. Plus, you want to be able to capture the moment when you make big plays in front of your fans.
“That’s our No. 1 priority right now – getting that first-round home game.”
REDBLACKS (7-8-1) at BLUE BOMBERS (10-6)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. (CT) Saturday, Investors Group Field.
Streaks: Ottawa: 1L; Winnipeg: 2W.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 5.5
Recent history: Winnipeg and Ottawa haven’t met since a back-to-back doubleheader a year ago, both of them won by the REDBLACKS – 27-24 in Ottawa and 27-20 a week later here at Investors Group Field. Ottawa has dropped three of its last four and is 4-8 since a 3-0-1 start. Winnipeg is 9-2 in its last 11 since opening 1-4.
SMILIN’ HANK AND THE OTTAWA ‘O’
The REDBLACKS can roll out more weapons than ‘The Expendables’, even with receiver Chris Williams lost for the season due to injury. Including Williams, Ottawa already has three 1K receivers – also including Greg Ellingson (1,175) and Ernest Jackson (1,126) – while Brad Sinopoli needs just 37 more to crack that barrier as well. It’s the veteran Henry Burris at the controls now with Trevor Harris – who only owns the CFL’s top passer rating at 116.3 – ready in the bullpen.
Ottawa has had four games of 500 yards offence or more – the last team to do that was the Burris-led Calgary Stampeders of 2010 – the REDBLACKS rank third in red zone percentage and third in big-plays (rushes of 20-plus yards, passes of 30-plus yards and kick returns of 40-plus).
“At this time of year, especially when you start talking about playoff football, offences are looking to get that big play and our job is to minimize that,” said Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “They’re going to make them, but it’s a matter of how they make them. Is there something of how we can do better? Is it missed tackles, busted coverages, losing contain… those kinds of things.
“We have to make sure we’re sound in order to give us a chance, whether it’s Ottawa, whether it’s Calgary, whether it’s Saskatchewan, whether it’s B.C… it doesn’t matter. That’s our goal, to minimize those explosion plays.”
AN (ALMOST) HEALTHY, HAPPY ‘O’
It’s been awhile in these parts where all the armchair quarterbacks were not screaming at the offensive coordinator, bemoaning the revolving door at quarterback and cursing the play of the offensive line.
Now, while the Bombers are fifth in scoring (28.4 points per game), sixth in net offence (356.2 yards), sixth in rushing yards (84.6) and seventh in passing (285.5), those numbers all need some context. There’s been a quarterback change this season, the receiving corps was mauled by injury, there have been two different tailbacks and five different offensive line combinations.
There’s also some rather compelling numbers that speak of the work of offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice, running backs coach Avon Cobourne, O-line coaches Bob Wylie and Marty Costello, and QB coach Buck Pierce – the Bombers’ nine interceptions are the second fewest in the CFL (eight by Calgary), the 69.9 completion percentage is third overall, and the 62 two-and-outs by the offence (1 in every 3.6 drives) is the fewest in the CFL.
So, LaPo, you must like where your offence is right now, right?
“Nah, you’re never happy with where you’re at. Ever,” he said. “You can always get better. I mean, look, this is not a great interview (he added with a chuckle) it could always be better.
“But the nice thing about a bye week is it gives you a little extra time to evaluate and say, ‘Hey, where could we be better?’ We had a good week where we had a couple extra days that allowed us to study things and say, ‘Let’s do this better.’ That’s what I like about the bye weeks: you’re prepping and you’ve got more time to work on getting things better.”
Ottawa poses some challenges for the Bombers attack. They are second best in the CFL in stopping the run (73 yards per game) and third best in opponent completion percentage against (67.3).
“They’re a little bit different than a lot of teams in the league this year,” said Bombers QB Matt Nichols. “A lot of teams have been dropping nine in coverage and playing a lot of different zones and giving you a bunch of different pictures. (Ottawa) is a team that believes in their guys, that tries to get you matched up one-on-one up front and play man-on-man quite a bit in the back end. Obviously, they play some zones and try to match things up too, but you can kind of tell their mentality: they’re going to challenge you because they think their guys are better than you.
“If you play a team like that you’ve got to be up to the challenge, or else they’re going to punch you in the mouth. As a quarterback you’ve got to be extremely accurate with the football throwing against man-to-man coverage. It’s a game where we’ve got to be very precise on offence in order to put up points.”
RINSE AND REPEAT: KEEPING THE TURNOVER PARTY GOING
Here we are 16 games into the 2016 season and there are many who still insist this phenomenal turnover ratio thing the Bombers have got going is going to burst. And yet in their sweep over the Lions the Bombers finished +7 (9-to-2) in the takeaway-giveaway department, which led to 26 of their 72 points in the doubleheader.
The Bombers are +31 on the season – by comparison, Ottawa is -12 – and have scored 32 per cent of their 454 points after forcing a turnover. There’s more: the 28 interceptions the Bombers have picked this year is 11 more than any other club and the most by the team since they had 31 in 2009.
And while Burris has thrown for 811 yards and four TDs in the last two games, he was also picked off twice last week.
“We have to contain him and play smart defence,” said Bombers linebacker Maurice Leggett. “We want to win everything and then carry that momentum into the playoffs. We want to create turnovers and stop the offence from scoring. We’re still giving up too many big plays and we want to limit those. These are the games when you try to clean that up.”
- Matt Nichols makes the 31st start of his career (16-14) and 11th straight this year. He is 9-2 this season, 11-7 overall as the Bombers starter and has completed 68.9 per cent of his passes for 3,078 yards with 15 touchdowns against five interceptions and a QB rating of 99.3. His passing yards and 14 TDs are both career highs. He is 2-2 lifetime vs. Ottawa.
- Henry Burris has been around a bit and makes his 229th start Saturday against the Bombers, with a career record of 117-108-3. Burris is 19-10 lifetime vs. Winnipeg. He is 3-3 this season, having completed 68 per cent of his passes for 2,081 yards with 12 TDs against eight picks.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#9 Justin Medlock, K
Maybe it’s time to start referring to Medlock as ‘Money’ because he’s been all that and then some for the Bombers this season. He was seven of seven in the win over B.C. before the bye, pushing his yearly totals to 55 of 63 (87.3 per cent). He is four field goals shy of tying Dave Ridgway’s CFL single-season record of 59, set in 1990. He has made 20 of his last 21 tries, is a perfect 36-for-36 on converts, and he is five points shy of tying Troy Westwood’s club record of 213 points, set in 1994.
#53 Patrick Neufeld, OL
It’s been awhile for Neufeld, who returns to the lineup to replace Sukh Chungh who was placed on the one-game injured list this week after being injured in the win over the Lions in Vancouver. Neufeld opened the season as the starting right tackle for the Bombers, but things have changed dramatically for the club since then: Nichols is now the quarterback, Travis Bond has become a dominant left guard, and Jermarcus Hardrick has moved from that left guard spot to right tackle to form a cohesive and dominant unit.
#25 Bruce Johnson, DB
Sat out the last two games while serving a suspension, but is expected to bump Kevin Fogg from the starting lineup to the extra defensive back spot after getting most of the reps this week with the starting defence. It’s a move that started a lot of chatter among fans, but Fogg admittedly struggled in the win over B.C. before his late interception. Still, Johnson will be under the crosshairs come Saturday afternoon.
#4 Darvin Adams, WR
Returns to the starting lineup after missing 10 games with a shoulder injury. Adams was the Bombers’ leading receiver before he was injured, on pace for close to 100 receptions and 1,500 yards. He was just emerging as a CFL star when he was injured and will be watched closely to see if he can be back at full speed when the ball is put on the tee against Ottawa.
“He’s a big target, he’s fast, he can get in and out of breaks and he’s a talented receiver,” said Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. “This is somebody that’s been with us since the mini-camps, so it’s not like he’s going to have a bunch of mental errors or not know what to do. He’s been in meetings and has six games under his belt in the system. He’s someone we’ve got to get an opportunity to get some touches.”
The Bombers have made three changes to their 46-man roster (including the two-man reserve list), bringing aboard WR Darvin Adams, OL Patrick Neufeld and DB Bruce Johnson while moving LB Ian Wild and OL Sukh Chungh to the one-game injured list and DB Julian Posey to the practice roster.
Saturday is the club’s annual ‘Pink Game’ and the club has donated 100 tickets to breast cancer survivors and their families through the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and will honour survivors on the field before the game.
Volunteers will be selling Blue Bombers toques featuring a pink accent in the concourse on game day. Proceeds from those sales will go to support the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation in Manitoba.
Many have been, or will be, impacted by cancer. Bombers defensive end Justin Cole lost his mother to breast cancer and his compelling story is worth revisiting.
RING OF HONOUR
Doug Brown, one of the most dominant defensive lineman in Blue Bomber and Canadian Football League history, is this year’s final addition to the new Ring of Honour with his name going up Saturday afternoon alongside Chris Walby, Ken Ploen, Gerry James, Dieter Brock, Leo Lewis, Bud Grant, Milt Stegall and Herb Gray.
Inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame this year, Brown was a seven-time CFL All-Star, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian player in 2001 and a finalists for the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive player in 2008.
Brown’s story can be found here.
ANOTHER LEGEND IN THE HOUSE:
James ‘Wild’ West, one of the most popular and gregarious players in the club’s history – he is also a member of the CFHOF and was officially inducted this year along with Doug Brown – will be at Saturday’s game and signing autographs beforehand, from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. at the Tailgate at the Plaza.
The Bomber game will be followed by the Manitoba Bisons vs Regina Rams university tilt at Investors Group Field, with kickoff for that game scheduled for 8:00 p.m. It is a critical matchup for the Bisons, 3-4, who need a win to secure a playoff spot.
Bomber fans who wish to attend the Bisons game can stick around or keep their ticket stub for re-entry and free admission.
The Bombers are honouring their 25-plus years season ticket members by engraving their last names and their year of commitment to the football club on bricks adjacent to the Hall of Fame Walk at Investors Group Field.
The walk of 945 bricks will be formally unveiled with a brief ceremony Saturday at 1:00 p.m. outside of Gate 1.
The longest standing season ticket member account, FYI, dates back to 1930 and the year the Winnipeg Football Club was formed.
Winnipeg defensive ends Jamaal Westerman, Justin Cole and Trent Corney vs. Ottawa offensive tackles Tommie Draheim and Jason Lauzon-Seguin.
The REDBLACKS are missing SirVincent Rogers, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman last season, and Jake Silas, who has started 11 games this year at right tackle. In their place are Draheim, making his first start, and Lauzon-Seguin, who has 10 starts.
- A win by Ottawa, coupled by a loss by Hamilton, clinches first in the East Division for the REDBLACKS.
- The Bombers averaged just 8.3 victories per season from 2008-2015 and if they can win out, will get to 12 wins for the first time since 2002.
- Ottawa leads the CFL in converting short-yardage tries this year (third and two, or less). Going back to 2015, they have converted their last 16 and haven’t been stopped in 19 straight games.
- Winnipeg is 7-2 over a nine-game stretch in which they have lost the time-of-possession battle eight times (with an average of 28 minutes, four seconds of possession).
- Henry Burris threw for 418 yards last week, the 17th time in his career he has eclipsed the 400-yard mark. That ranks fifth all-time in the CFL behind Anthony Calvillo (29), Doug Flutie (29), Kent Austin (19) and Danny McManus (18).
- With 113 yards receiving in his last two games, Weston Dressler would reach the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth time in his career and the first time since 2013. And with 89 yards receiving, he will move past Paul Masotti for 28th place on the CFL’s all-time list.
“We’ve won in blowout wins, we’ve won where we’ve been down big and came back in the fourth quarter. We’ve had games that were tight the entire way and we went on a game-winning drive that eats up the clock to get a score, or our defence holds them at the end.
“Our last game was an exact representation of what this team is: the offence struggled in the first half but our defence kept us in it… at the end the defence made a play with an interception, the offence got a touchdown and the next play the special teams stripped the ball. That’s a full-team victory. That’s this team.” – Matt Nichols.