Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris runs the ball in for a touchdown that was called back due to a penalty, during the first half of a CFL football game against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday October 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
OTTAWA – It means everything and nothing at the same time. It’s got financial implications for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, it’s about finishing strong and it’s about building some sort of momentum heading into the Canadian Football League playoffs next weekend.
And yet, Friday’s visit by the Bombers to the nation’s capital to face the REDBLACKS has this strange preseason vibe to it, especially with the rosters and regulars who normally top the depth chart looking nothing like the two squads who faced each other last Saturday in Winnipeg.
“It’s a weird week this week because there’s so many changes,” said Bombers running back Andrew Harris upon arrival at TD Place Thursday afternoon. “People are down (out of the lineup), you want to win, you want to be smart.
“It’s an interesting week, definitely a different one, but for us right now it’s about getting wins. That’s the No. 1 goal.”
Before we go any further, let’s look at the implications for the Bombers as the final week of the regular season is about to unfold for a club that could still finish anywhere from second to fourth in the West Division, courtesy the CFL:
- BC Win OR Tie = BC clinches second in the West Division and hosts the Western Semi-Final.
- Winnipeg Loss OR Tie = BC clinches second in the West Division and hosts the Western Semi-Final.
- Winnipeg Win + BC Loss = Winnipeg clinches second (via the tiebreaker they hold over BC) in the West Division and hosts the Western Semi-Final versus BC.
- BC Win AND Winnipeg Win = BC hosts the Western Semi-Final versus Winnipeg.
- Edmonton Loss OR Tie = Edmonton crosses over to play Hamilton in the Eastern Semi-Final.
- Winnipeg loss + Edmonton win = Winnipeg crosses over to play Hamilton in the Eastern Semi-Final and Edmonton plays BC in the Western Semi-Final in BC. (Edmonton would finish 3rd over Winnipeg via the tiebreaker).
So, knowing all that, it would stand to reason the Bombers have more than just momentum at stake here. But as Harris said, this is a time of year when teams need to be smart. A Bomber win – coupled with a Riders victory over B.C. Saturday – would mean a home playoff game for Winnipeg for the first time since 2011. But win or lose, it won’t really have an impact on what happens when the ball is put on the tee wherever the Bombers are next week when the playoffs open: at home, in Vancouver for the West Division Semi-final or Hamilton for the East Semi-Final.
Maybe that explains why players like Sukh Chungh, Travis Bond, Ian Wild, Clarence Denmark and Khalil Bass will all be out of the lineup Friday. After all, it makes more sense to be healthy when it’s sudden death than to lose players in Week 18.
That’s certainly the approach the REDBLACKS are taking, as they rest 12 regulars – including quarterback Henry Burris – after having clinched first place in the East last weekend.
“Our goal is still a home playoff game as long as there’s hope alive for that,” said Bombers QB Matt Nichols, who will start. “We could put the pressure on B.C. with our game and so for us there’s still lots to play for and not just trying to get that home-field advantage, but to go into the playoffs with a win and not on a two-game losing streak, plus to come back and play a much better game than we played last week as a team.”
The Bombers were admittedly flat last week and having a game like this – where the opponent is dressing essentially a preseason roster – could make finding that fire again a difficult challenge.
“We’ve just got to be better all around,” said Bombers offensive tackle Stanley Bryant. “Last week… it was just a weird game. I don’t know what happened, but it just didn’t feel like we had any rhythm.
“It seemed like the fire was there in the warm-up and going into the game. But then it seemed like the fire didn’t carry over into the game. That’s not how we do it, that’s not us. I feel like this next game and going into the playoffs we need to bring it every game. You can’t take a game lightly.”
Another factor at play here: the Bombers haven’t posted an 11-win season since going 11-7 in 2003. And carrying something like that into the playoffs has got to mean something, too.
“You want to have momentum, but the biggest thing is confidence,” said Harris. “Coming off a win there’s a confidence, a certain aura that you have going into that week of practice. The games change so much in the playoffs and having that confidence is key.
“You’re going out there to try and win. You still want to execute at a high level and beat the guy in front of you, regardless of who it is.
“After last week the confidence was not great. Guys were frustrated, guys were not down, but knew that we could perform better. This kind of game is definitely huge for confidence and building off that. You want to go into the playoffs peaking as a team and playing at a high level and last week wasn’t the best style of play for us. It’s about playing with confidence now and peaking at the right time.”
BLUE BOMBERS (10-7) at REDBLACKS (8-8-1)
Kickoff: 6 p.m. (CT) Friday, TD Place, Ottawa.
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1L; Ottawa: 1W.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 3.
Recent history: These two clubs met a week ago in Winnipeg, with Ottawa exiting with a 23-10 victory. The REDBLACKS are on a four-game win streak against the Bombers, dating back to their first-ever game in the rebirth of the CFL in Ottawa – a 36-28 Winnipeg victory at Investors Group Field on July 3, 2014.
WHO’S ON FIRST, WHAT’S ON SECOND, I DON’T KNOW ON THIRD…
The Bombers will be without a handful of starters that, would this have been a playoff game, would have likely been suiting up Friday. The REDBLACKS, meanwhile, will be without QBs Henry Burris (Trevor Harris will dress, but only hold) along with 1,000-yard receivers Ernest Jackson, Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, Antoine Pruneau and so on, and so on.
Even the guys that do dress Friday might have their playing time limited.
“We came here for one reason, and that’s to win the game and give us a chance at a home playoff game,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “So, as the game dictates we’ll make decisions as to how we change things up.
“Coming off the last game, the focus has to be on us and the way we play, not really on the opponent. Whoever they line up, they still have systems that they run and they’d be very similar to the systems they’ve been running all season long, so they’re not going to change that drastically. Just because you don’t have a scouting report on a certain player doesn’t mean they’re not going to do the same things they did before. Our focus has to be on us.”
FINDING THAT ‘O MOJO’ AGAIN
The Bombers marched down the field on their first possession of last week’s 23-10 loss to Ottawa, moving from their own 21-yard line to the REDBLACKS 22 before Nichols threw the first of three interceptions. It was that kind of day for the Winnipeg offence, which struggled to get into any kind of groove and didn’t score a TD until a meaningless Nichols-to-Darvin Adams major inside the final minute.
And so a Bomber offence that has been so careful protecting the ball and efficient on the attack has got to get some of that back ASAP.
“I just want us to stay on the field,” said Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. “We were stopped on a lot of second and eights with six or seven-yard gains. We need to be better on first down – we had five ‘second-and-extras’ (second and more than 10) – so we’ve got to be in more manageable positions, and that starts on first down.
“And I certainly want us to make good decisions with the ball and protect it better as an offence.”
LIMIT THE ‘EXPLOSION’ PLAYS
A couple of statistics that have to be unnerving to O’Shea, defensive coordinator Richie Hall and anybody on the Bomber defence:
-Opponents have converted 51.5 per cent of their second-down chances against the Bombers, the highest in the CFL.
-The Bomber defence and special teams have yielded the second-most ‘big plays’ – rushes of more than 20 yards; passes of 30 or more yards and kick returns of more than 40 yards – in the CFL this season.
Burris completed 69.7 per cent of his passes for 338 yards in last week’s loss as five Ottawa receivers had receptions of 20 yards or more, while Mossis Madu finished with 125 yards – although two of his carries totaled 69 yards.
- Matt Nichols, named the Bombers Most Outstanding Player this week, makes the 32nd start of his career (16-15) and 13th straight this year. He is 9-3 this season, 11-8 overall as the Bombers starter, and has completed 69.7 per cent of his passes for 3,367 yards with 16 touchdowns against eight interceptions and a QB rating of 96.4. His passing yards and 15 TDs are both career highs.
- Brock Jensen is expected to start for the REDBLACKS in place of both veteran Henry Burris and Trevor Harris with Danny O’Brien also scheduled to take some snaps. It will be Jensen’s first CFL start, although he has taken some snaps this season. Jensen appeared in a July 27th loss in Saskatchewan in relief of Harris, completing 20 of 29 passes for 271 yards with two TD passes. He has a QB rating of 109.8.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#33 Andrew Harris, RB
A compelling case could have been made for Harris as the Bombers Most Outstanding Player this year (he was named top Canadian) and he needs just 86 yards rushing to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the second season in a row and third time in his career. His 64 receptions are also the most by a Bombers tailback since Robert Mimbs had 71 in 1990. All this despite missing three games.
Interestingly, Harris’ average gain per carry has grown since the start of the season – in Games 1-7 his average was 4.1 yards; in games 8-14 it has jumped to 5.8 yards.
“At this point in the season you want to accomplish it (reaching 1,000 yards), but I’m not sure how much I’m going to play (Friday) and you just have to make most of the reps you get,” said Harris. “I don’t think I’ll be playing the whole game, it all depends on how the game goes and how we’re feeling.”
#99 Padric Scott, DT
Will make his CFL debut Friday after patiently waiting his turn all season on the club’s practice roster. He’s a fire hydrant type at 6-0, 287 pounds, and a popular figure in the dressing room who has busted his hump all season long with no reward on game-day. He came to the Bombers from the Philadelphia Soul in the Arena League and with the reputation as a guy with a high motor. Based on last week’s collective effort, the club could use some more high motor.
“I think Padric Scott will be pretty excited,” said O’Shea. “He’s such a great kid. I’m excited to watch him. For some guys it would be (easy to get frustrated waiting to play) but for a guy like Padric Scott, he just comes out to work every single day. I’m sure he’s frustrated, but he channels it into effort on the practice field. He’s a young pro. He needs experience playing, but he’s a pro. I would have no doubt he’s frustrated, but he’s handled himself extremely well.
#7 Weston Dressler, WR
The veteran receiver needs 79 yards to reach the 1K mark for the sixth time in his career and first since 2013. His 75 receptions are already the most he’s posted since pulling in 94 in 2012. There have been 13 receivers in the CFL this year that have reached the 1,000-yard mark with one week to go.
#81 Tori Gurley, WR
We trotted out Gurley as the ‘X Factor’ just a couple of weeks ago when the Bombers were in Vancouver and, in hindsight, it was premature to expect much out of the club’s new big target after just a few practices.
But Gurley has had more time to dive into the playbook now and steps in Friday in the place of Clarence Denmark. He and Darvin Adams will be on the field together for the first time, offering Nichols a pair of giant targets.
Gurley can be especially effective in the red zone, as evidenced by this juicy number: he has 15 TDs in just 27 CFL games played.
The Bombers have made three changes to their 46-man roster (including the two-man reserve list), bringing aboard OL Manase Foketi, DT Padric Scott and DE Shayon Green with WR Clarence Denmark, OL Travis Bond and LB Khalil Bass all taking a knee.
Sam Hurl will start at middle linebacker, Scott will start for Keith Shologan at tackle (Shologan will still dress) while Foketi will line up at right tackle, as Jermarcus Hardrick moves inside to left guard where Bond would normally be.
Green, meanwhile, will start at end for Justin Cole. Unhappy that he was being taken out of the lineup, Cole used his Instagram account to voice his frustration.
That did not go unnoticed by O’Shea.
“I spoke to him,” said the Bomber boss. “We’re so focused on this game. I think he’s a young frustrated player.
“There are lots of reasons for every move, but I think it serves us well to get guys into a game so that if something happens during the playoffs, they’ve had another game. Shayon has been out for a number of games; Foketi has been sitting for a number of games. This game here helps them, helps the team because they need to get in. You never know… it’s football, right?”
The Bomber D-line vs. Ottawa’s hogs
It’s difficult to find a compelling match-up given the dramatic changes to both rosters for the regular season finale.
But the Bombers do need to generate more push from the defensive line – this week it’s Jamaal Westerman, Padric Scott, Euclid Cummings, Jake Thomas and Shayon Green – in order to force turnovers at a torrid pace.
Winnipeg has just 32 sacks, seventh overall, and will be going against a rookie QB throwing to new faces while working behind a revamped Ottawa O-line. That sounds like a tasty combo for the Bombers to continue to boost their turnover-ratio number. Currently, that stands at a league-best +28 and within sight of the club record of +29, set in 1987.
CLOSING IN ON HISTORY
Bombers K Justin Medlock has 56 field goals this year, just three shy of Dave Ridgway’s all-time record of 59, set in 1990 while ‘Robokicker’ was with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Medlock, who has already broken the Bomber record for field goals (previously 47) and tied two others this season – for longest field goal (58 yards) and most field goals in a game (seven) – is also just two points shy of breaking Troy Westwood’s club record of 213.
Medlock has made his last 14 field-goal attempts and his 56 makes has tied Calgary’s Rene Paredes (2016), San Antonio’s Roman Anderson (1995) and Sandro DeAngelis (Stamps, 2006), for third most all-time in a single season.
Asked about the possibility of breaking Ridgway’s record, Medlock offered up an interesting take.
“That’d be cool,” he said. “I’ve never lost a game when we’ve kicked five or more field goals. People talking about field goals, and kicking too many is a problem. But I’ve only lost games where I had zero field goals or one field goal. It means the offence is doing great.”
There was also some conversation over the past week or so about Medlock being a legit candidate for the Bombers MOP, not just as their top special teams player. That also came up on Wednesday when he was asked about his season, what’s ahead and how long he might keep doing this.
“I feel like I could keep kicking for a while but you never know how the business goes,” said Medlock. “I take one year at a time. Kickers can go to 46, according to B.C. (which brought Paul McCallum out of retirement this season). That’s awesome. I felt like 2011 was one of my best years, from how many kicks I had outside of the 40 and I was above and beyond everybody in yardage per kick. I thought I was going to win Special Teams Player of the Year that year, and the greatest kicker of all time, Paul McCallum, took it. He’s a great kicker.”
JACKED TO BE BACK:
Pat Neufeld drew rave reviews for his work at right guard last week as he shook off the rust from an 11-game stretch on the injured list in his return to the trenches.
Asked about how hard it was to stay in the game during that long a stretch in sick bay, Neufeld confirmed what many of his teammates have said for the past couple of weeks – the guy is not only a true student of the game, but has got future coach written all over him.
“Honestly, I don’t find it hard at all. I love it,” said Neufeld. “This is my passion in life. This is what I love doing. Coming in every day is what I love to do and being able to feel like I’m contributing is important. This group is awesome, it’s a tremendous group. They’ve always been open to hear what I have to say and vice versa. It’s been easy being in there.
“I’m going to play football until the wheels fall off but hopefully when I’m done I can get into coaching. Since my second year or so I’ve really come to appreciate the value in understanding what the defence is doing and being up to date on the technical things of being an offensive lineman. It’s something I take pride in and something I hope to continue doing for a long time.”